Review: Saigon Taste

This review was originally published in the Tiempo Dining Out section of the El Paso Times on November 8, 2013 as part of a series of monthly reviews that feature vegetarian friendly restaurants in the El Paso region.

With only a handful of Vietnamese restaurants sprinkled throughout El Paso, Saigon Taste has been a godsend for the past six years in West El Paso. The restaurant is deceptively larger than the front would indicate. A fish tank, simple décor, ample seating, and two televisions at each end of the long restaurant welcome you in.

The menu is so overwhelmingly extensive, you may want to order from the vegetarian menu just to help narrow down choices. Even so, it’s difficult to choose from more than 10 options. It’s best to start off with an appetizer, No. 69 goi cuon chay, to buy time to peruse the menu. Two spring rolls wrapped in rice paper are stuffed with fresh lettuce, bean sprouts, cucumber, rice vermicelli noodles and a large slice of fried tofu. Expertly rolled, the contents don’t spill out everywhere. The rolls come with a thick, house-made peanut sauce that adds much flavor to the fresh rolls.

spring rolls saigon taste

Like most Vietnamese restaurants, pho (usually pronounced fu, like fun) is their signature and most popular dish. With so many pho options, it’s almost a blessing for vegetarians to be restricted to No. 60 pho chay, the veggie pho. Your server will ask if you want steamed or fried tofu and beef or veggie broth. The large bowl of steaming, fragrant soup is both daunting and comforting. Generous portions of rice noodles, blocks of tofu and fresh vegetables swim in the flavorful broth that has hints of star anise and chile heat. In the soup are carrot, broccoli, Napa cabbage, red bell pepper and scallions. The fun thing about pho is that you get to dress it with various fresh garnishes, chile paste, Sriracha or hoisin sauce. Garnishes consist of bean sprouts, cilantro, fresh jalapeño slices and onions. Sadly, Thai basil and other fresh herbs typically served at pho restaurants in other cities are missing here.

Saigon Taste Veggie Pho

#60. Pho Chay (veggie Pho) This is a cell phone pic because I of course forgot to check the battery on my camera.

Many of the vegetarian dishes have similar ingredients but different sauces, which aren’t described on the menu. Two clay pot dishes differ in name and price, but not in size. The waitress convinced me that No. 66 was much more flavorful, with its spicy, teriyaki-like sauce. Steamed rice accompanied by lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, cilantro and, I think, shredded daikon arrived first. Shortly, a small pot arrived with sizzling cubes of tofu and caramelized white onions topped with green onions and fresh jalapeño slices. The dark, garlicky sweet soy sauce created a caramelized coating on the tofu that was really flavorful and not cloying. My only nitpick was that I thought I detected a slight taste of fish sauce or shrimp paste, but the waitress assured me there was none in the dish.

clay pot tofu saigon taste

clay pot tofu saigon taste 2

#66

 

Other notable, recommended dishes: No. 61 stir fried rice vermicelli with tofu and vegetables, No. 65 coconut curry, and No. 68 Vietnamese crepe filled with tofu and vegetables, with house soy sauce. No. 67 is an especially intriguing dish with lemon grass vegetarian “chicken,” which is actually dried bean curd sheets, often referred to as tofu skin, rehydrated, cut up and stir-fried.

Vietnamese dessert options and boba teas are available, but I skipped them since service, while courteous, was somewhat slow and absent at times. Beer and wine are also available.

While pho in El Paso isn’t as cheap as other cities, Saigon Taste is a great getaway from the food norm and busyness of life. Don’t be surprised if you’re craving it on a daily or weekly basis.

Saigon Taste on Urbanspoon

Sunday Bloody Sunday

One of the best places to get a Bloody Mary in El Paso on a Sunday afternoon is Hope and Anchor. They also have one of the best patios. On Sunday Bloody Sundays, you get to create your perfect bloody by filling out a card with your specifications and indicating if you would like a complimentary grilled cheese sandwich. Yup. $5 gets you a bloody and a grilled cheese. It’s real cheese, too. None of that processed cheese—not that there’s anything wrong with that (there’s a time and a place for everything).

 

I like that you can choose tomato juice, because most places in El Paso use Clamato by default, which apparently is actually called a Bloody Caesar. A recent visit to H&A left me empty handed. Well, not too empty handed—I ordered Uinta’s Wyld Pale Ale, which is excellent, by the way. Do you know how annoying it is to make one Bloody Mary, much less twenty? There’s like a million ingredients in there. So, H&A has cleverly pre-made their own Bloody Mary/Caesar mixes. The only problem is that it now has Worcestershire sauce already in it, which means it’s now unsuitable for vegetarians due to the anchovies. Don’t go boycotting them or anything, I think it was an off day and they just ran out of extra tomato juice to make a separate drink.

 

FYI, you can get a Bloody Mary at Eloise with vegan Worcestershire sauce! If they’re out, just order it sans the Worcestershire. Naima, who commented below, reminded me about Bloody Marias, where use tequila instead of vodka. This in turn reminded me that Eloise has some great vodka and tequila infusions like tomato basil, peppers, pineapple serrano, and more.

 

…and if you’re still searching for that perfect Bloody or are too hungover to leave the house, try this recipe! It is the holy grail of Bloodies and you can go to town with the garnishes. Sprouts carries two brands of vegan Worcestershire sauce that are less than $4: Wan Ja Shan and Annie’s.
bloody mary top
It’s a lot of ingredients, but once you get them all set up, you dump them in the shaker and it’s done and totally worth it. Smoky, sweet, and perfectly balanced. I think you can get away with leaving out the horseradish and chipotle, but to me, the barbecue sauce and lemon juice are essential.
It takes a village to make a great Bloody Mary.

It takes a village to make a great Bloody Mary. I couldn’t find my cool glass olive picks, so I used a child’s chopstick.

Smoky BBQ Bloody Mary

This recipe was perfect, I didn’t alter anything. The first time I made it, I was out of horseradish, so I used horseradish mustard, and it came out great! I found the recipe here at CHOW.
2 ounces vodka
4 ounces tomato juice (I used 2 tablespoons tomato paste mixed with 4 oz. water)
1/2 teaspoon finely grated fresh or prepared horseradish
3 dashes Worcestershire sauce
3 dashes or more hot sauce, such as Tabasco
Pinch of kosher salt
Pinch of freshly ground black pepper or a ton
1 teaspoon barbecue sauce
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped chipotles in adobo sauce
Generous squeeze of lemon juice
Pinch of celery seeds
Ice

 

Combine all of the ingredients except garnishes in a cocktail shaker with ice.
Shake to combine, and then strain over fresh ice into a highball glass.
Garnish options: celery stalks, cucumber and carrot spears, olives, pickles, cilantro, pepperoncini, cheese cubes, bacon, and my favorite, Primal vegan jerky strips. Pictured is the hickory smoke flavor.
bloody mary tall
bloody mary celery

Tofu Scramble Hits EPTX

It’s here you guys! The tofu scramble is starting to trend in El Paso! Let me know if I missed any places and if you know of any Las Cruces spots.

As of March 2014, you can find tofu scramble (or something similar) at the following El Paso establishments:

Opus World Bistro
Tofu scramble is available by request during their Sunday Brunch Buffet from 10:30 am-2 pm.

It’s pricey, but worth it. Visit their site for a 10% off coupon. Endless mimosas or sangria (they have vegan wines), cold dishes including salads, hot sides, a pasta station, cheese and fruit table, and a ridiculous amount of desserts were the veg offerings when I went for my birthday. I asked about other vegan options and they told me that they have a tofu scramble with onions, peppers, and mushrooms. It was really simple and good! Later on during my visit, I overheard them telling a customer they had other vegan options in the back like squash blossom something and a chocolate cake. Either I asked the wrong waiter or I’m just not in the cool kids club!  *sigh*

Eloise
Puebla Poblano available every day during food service hours.

I thought I disliked poblanos until I had this fantastic brunch dish at Eloise. It’s not really a scramble, but more of a tofu and mushroom saute, stuffed inside a roasted poblano with avocado. It’s now on the breakfast menu which is available all day and comes with white beans (used to be on the weekend brunch menu).

The Green Ingredient
Tofu scramble is served Monday-Friday from 7-10:30 am.

I haven’t tried it yet, but I’m sure it’s as delicious as all their other menu items. You get organic tofu, asparagus, carrots, green onions, tomatoes, and their house-blend of spices. FYI: I was shocked when I was charged $3.50 for a coffee to go. I understand that it’s from Picacho Roasters, French press, and very good, but you can get Picacho coffee from Hello Day, Kinley’s, and Eloise for almost half that price!

The Hoppy Monk
Veggie Monk Hash served during brunch on Saturdays from 11 am-3 pm and Sundays from 11 am-4 pm.

Pumpkin, black beans, corn, and spices make up one of the best house-made veggie burgers in town. Now serving brunch on Sundays, The Hoppy Monk has incorporated their Veggie Monk veggie patty into a delicious hash. The patty is broken up and mixed with potatoes atop their River Ale Apricot Habanero wing sauce. It’s a little spicy and sweet, hitting all the right flavor notes. Tofu scramble is served alongside the hash with your choice of a side. They just might get my vote for best vegan brunch this year.

Tacoholics
Okay, this isn’t necessarily tofu scramble and it doesn’t really count as breakfast or brunch, but they do open at 11 am, Tuesday-Saturday.

I always have to plug Tacoholics, because their tofu tacos are amazing! They’re the closest thing we’ve got to a vegetarian breakfast taco sans the egg, besides Taco Cabana. I just need them to get on the vegetarian bean wagon- refried or whole, I ain’t picky.

Top left: Tacoholics. Middle: Brunch Buffet @ Opus. Top right: Breakfast taco @ home. Lower lieft: Veggie Monk Hash @ Hoppy Monk. Loer right: Puebla Poblano @ Eloise.

Top left: Tacoholics. Middle: Brunch Buffet @ Opus. Top right: Breakfast taco @ home. Lower left: Veggie Monk Hash @ Hoppy Monk. Lower right: Puebla Poblano @ Eloise.

The 5 Stages of CSA Boxes, or Chinese No-Chicken Noodle Soup

Whenever I order a harvest box from Skarsgard Farms, I go through this process:

Stage 1: Receiving the email announcement for the week’s selections. Me: Oooh I’m definitely ordering this week!
Stage 2: I place my order. Me: I can’t wait until Tuesday! I have so many ideas, I know exactly what I’m going to make!
Stage 3: I pick up my order. Me: I don’t even remember what I ordered. This is awesome! I’ll make a quick salad or stir fry tonight with some of the produce and maybe wash and prep the rest later.
Stage 4: The next few days. Me: Ugh, I’m so tired and lazy. I’ll prep/cook something tomorrow.
Stage 5: Still the next few days. Me: Crap! I need to make something before it all goes bad! What do I make?!?!?

For more info on Skarsgard Farms and CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture) in El Paso, visit this post.>>

So, what do I end up making when I’m freaking out at Stage 5? It’s usually soup.

Below is my latest test kitchen success with some CSA produce I needed to use up. I basically wanted to make a unique cabbage soup. I found a Chinese Chicken Noodle Soup with Green Onions on the Epicurious app. I was intrigued by the use of tahini. It would be great to sub tofu or faux chicken for the chicken in the recipe, but I didn’t have any on hand; I tweaked the recipe to fit my pantry needs.

 chinese chicken soup top

Chinese No-Chicken Noodle Soup

This would make a great vegan chicken noodle soup for when you’re feeling sick. This might even be my new pho. You can use any cabbage you like, except maybe red cabbage for aesthetic reasons. If you hate cabbage, omit it. I used carrots, zucchini and yellow bell pepper, but use any veggies you need to get rid of. This broth is delicious!

Reviewers successfully subbed peanut butter for tahini. Use any or no noodles. The recipe calls for yakisoba, but I used maifun brown rice noodles I found at Sprouts.

The original recipe asks for 1 tablespoon of sugar, but I would decrease it to half. It was initially very sweet, but evened out a little the next day and after adding noodles.

3 garlic cloves,  minced or grated
2 tablespoons tahini (sesame  seed paste)* or peanut butter
2 tablespoons minced or grated, peeled  fresh ginger
1/2 tablespoon  sugar
1 tablespoon seasoned rice  vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons chili-garlic  sauce (I used sambal oelek chili paste) **
4-6 cups chopped Napa or green cabbage (I shredded it in the food processor)
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 small or 1 large zucchini, diced
5-6 cups low sodium vegetable or no-chicken broth
1/2 cup chopped fresh  cilantro

  1. Whisk garlic, tahini, ginger, sugar, vinegar,  and chili sauce in small bowl.
  2. Heat 1 tablespoon of sesame oil or coconut oil (I used half of each) in a heavy large pot over medium-high heat. Add carrots and zucchini and sauté for a few minutes.
  3. Add cabbage and sauté  until cabbage is tender, about 5 minutes.
  4. Add broth and bring to boil. Add tahini-garlic mixture. Reduce heat to low and simmer  for about 5 minutes. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cool  slightly; cover and refrigerate. Bring to simmer before continuing.)
  5. Stir in cilantro. Season soup with pepper and salt or soy sauce.
  6. If using noodles, cook them according to package directions. Drain. Place in individual bowls and ladle soup over them. 
  7. Garnish with more cilantro and chili paste or sriracha. 

For leftovers, store cooked noodles separately from soup.

chinese chicken soup side

* Sold at Middle Eastern markets, natural  foods stores and some supermarkets.

** Available at Asian markets, specialty  foods stores and some supermarkets.

Find the original recipe at: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Chinese-Chicken-Noodle-Soup-with-Sesame-and-Green-Onions-106192#ixzz2vtC1ol9l

Year in Review: 2013

2013yearinreview.jpg

El Paso’s food scene has been picking up momentum for the last few years, and 2013 showed no sign of slowing down. El Pasoans witnessed downtown’s restaurant scene balloon; more chains dotted the landscape, while local and sustainable food came to the fore. El Paso’s biggest trends weren’t foods, but rather expansion and downtown. Sadly, we also said goodbye to landmark establishments like Smitty’s BBQ and some newcomers that didn’t even last the year.

Downtown booms

2013’s biggest buzzword was downtown revitalization, so it’s no surprise that many businesses opened new or second locations in Central El Paso. Hello Day Café, Sparrow’s, Café Italia, Valentine’s Kitchen, Grocery Gallery, Anson 11, Starbucks, La Feria, Hong Kong Express and Pint & Peanut Public House were newcomers to the downtown scene. Last Thursdays Downtown was so successful that the Last Saturdays Downtown Melt event was created during the summer. A coalition of local establishments and restaurants, partner for a monthly walk featuring specials, live music and after-parties. It’s going to be exciting to see what new businesses and events 2014 will bring with the baseball stadium opening soon.

Hummus takeover

This humble Mediterranean staple is now practically a requirement in American restaurants and households. While most El Paso restaurants serve the traditional chickpea-based dip as an appetizer, some took creative liberties. Eloise used roasted red beets, Basico Bistro added artichokes and sundried tomato pesto, Tom’s subbed lima beans for southern flair, and Block Table & Tap threw in spiced eggplant, creating a baba ganoush-hummus hybrid.

Burgers go gourmet

Burgers are always in style, but 2013 saw the opening of two new burger joints and a slew of creative toppings. Crave and Hoppy Monk continued to wow diners with their weekly burger features and specials. Palomino Tavern began serving burgers and celebrated December with the 12 days of $2 decadent burgers. Crave Kitchen & Bar’s ownership trio opened Independent Burger at the Montecillo development. Their burgers are made with grass-fed beef, local produce and buns from a Belle Sucre. Create Food Truck, known for its gourmet burgers, set roots with their first brick-and-mortar restaurant, Steveo’s Eat & Drink, located on N. Lee Trevino. In 2012, the trendiest burger topper was a fried egg. This year, chorizo was prevalent.

Pizza spreads

Pizza is yet another staple that’s always in style, but 2013 seemed to be the year of pizza in El Paso. Cafe Italia and Sparrow’s Spirits and Pies opened second locations downtown. The former specializes in Italian pizzas cooked in a wood-fired oven, while the latter is the only place in town serving up Chicago deep-dish pies. Little Luna joined the fleet of local food trucks. Chef Ruli opened his second restaurant called Unruli’s Pizza and Pints. Regional craft beers from Texas and New Mexico accompany quirky items like beer can chicken and the Asian-inspired green curry pizza. The Geske group took over Rita’s Bar and Grill to create Nona’s Pizza Bar, where you can buy the whole pie or just the slice. Cicala Italian Pizza opened up at the end of the year at Fort Boulevard.

Tacos get funky

In the sea of Mexican restaurants, tacos aren’t as big in El Paso as they are in Austin, land of the breakfast taco. But this year, more funky taco creations popped up. Tacoholics continued to revel in success and popularity, scoring three “best of” awards from What’s Up, The City and the Vegetarian Society of El Paso. Takorexico broke into the food truck scene with its blend of Korean and Mexican tacos, burritos and bowls. The most unique project had to be the Kosher Tacos Food Truck. Funded by an MCAD grant, the Jewish Federation of El Paso and the B’nai Zion Congregation, the truck combined art, history and food. Diners were able to learn about Crypto-Judaism while enjoying a delicious fusion of Jewish and Mexican cuisines. El Luchador Taqueria & Bar joined the Eastside dining scene, serving up more than 10 varieties of tacos, from classics to duck and rattlesnake. Luchador also has plans of opening a second location downtown.

Honorable mentions: pork belly, kale, quinoa, falafel and craft beer (see: beer dinners at restaurants and “keep the glass” nights)

Cocktail Ingredient of the Year: Cucumber Everything

Cucumber shots, martinis and margaritas were ubiquitous at both restaurants and bars. Some incorporated fresh cucumbers while others used infused liquors. You could find vodka or tequila spiced up with a chile rim, lime and sometimes jalapeños.

2014 Forecast

  • An even bigger emphasis on local, including hyper-local. Two places are already demonstrating what hyper-local is all about. New nonprofit The Mustard Seed Cafe grows its own vegetables, and Hope and Anchor makes some of its cocktails with herbs from the bar’s garden.
  • A focus on creating healthy menu options for kids. The City’s Health Department launched the Eat Healthy El Paso campaign and has already worked with several local restaurants to revamp their children’s menus.
  • Sandwich upgrades. Maybe 2014 will focus less on over-the-top burgers and place some creative twists on classic sandwiches. Eloise breaks all rules with their vegan Reuben sandwich, ditching the corned beef and Swiss for avocado.
  • Dessert hybrids. Cronuts, NYC’s donut-croissant hybrid that became the nation’s biggest 2013 trend, came to El Paso in the form of the Cronot courtesy of Belle Sucre Bakery. Will 2014 bring more decadent hybrids guaranteed to wreck your resolutions?

This article originally appeared in the January 8, 2014 issue of What’s Up Weekly.

Blairless Split Pea Soup

I’ve never tried split pea soup. It looks nasty and um the whole Exorcist thing? That said, I’m not sure why I became intent on making this classic. I blame it on our wacky weather and a recent cold. My first attempt was blah blah boring, but my second attempt was successful. Not the prettiest, but the taste makes up for it. I’ve already made it twice. The second time I made it, I used a small, diced shallot in lieu of the onion and garlic. It came out great and eliminated a step! I also roasted sweet potatoes and threw them in at the end, which made it much heartier.

Split Pea Soup

Vegan Split Pea Soup

It’s cheap, quick, and easy. If you’re looking for the traditional bacon or ham taste, try adding smoked paprika or liquid smoke if you don’t have the fake stuff. FYI, topping it with a dollop of vegenaise makes it even tastier and creamy.

Split Pea Soup

4-6 servings

1 cup diced carrots
½ cup diced yellow onion, or any onion
1-2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon Earth Balance butter or oil
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 small bay leaf
2 cups water
1 cup broth (I used Rapunzel no salt added vegetable bouillon)
1 cup dried split peas, sorted & rinsed
salt and pepper

Saute onion for about 5 minutes. Add carrots; saute for a few minutes. Add garlic; saute for a couple of minutes. Add thyme, broth, water, and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer, then add peas. Cook for about 30-60 minutes or until the peas are cooked through. Season with salt and pepper. Remove bay leaf. Puree part or all of the soup.

Thanksgiving Repackaged

Thanksgiving came late this year, yet it still seems to have snuck up on us. In an effort to keep Christmas at bay and tackle the leftovers, let’s look to the handheld Thanksgiving feast for strength. We’re talking about sandwiches that are inspired by Thanksgiving leftovers, loaded with all the fixins. In some cases, the portable feast’s vessel is a tortilla, hot dog, egg roll, or pizza. Some restaurants serve them year-round, while others only offer them seasonally…

…continue reading on the Urbanspoon Blog.

No leftover turk'y? No problem! Make sides into #tacos! Mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, & French onions. Squash casserole. Side of lentils. No frijoles  #mexicanproblems #vegetarian

No leftover turk’y? No problem! Make sides into tacos! Left: mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, & French onions. Right: Squash casserole. No frijoles, so I had to settle for lentils. #mexicanproblems

As usual, I’m jealous of Austin because their co-op has a vegan Thanksgiving hot bar and Counter Culture has a Thanksgiving sandwich. And now my envy turns to Columbus, OH. Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace offers Tofurky hot dogs as an option in any hot dog!

While there weren’t any vegetarian options in El Paso, I was happy to see that a couple of local restaurants got in the spirit and made some fun repackaged creations. The Hoppy Monk featured a Turducken Burger with brie cheese and cranberry aioli. The burger had ground turkey stuffed with seared chicken breast and topped with duck bacon. The Pizza Joint featured The Feast, which had turkey, mashed potatoes with gravy, green beans, fried onions, and cranberries.

While El Paso waits for vegetarian Thanksgiving menu items, you can draw inspiration from the nationwide restaurants mentioned in my post for the Urbanspoon blog. I plan on creating some awesome tacos soon with leftover Gardein Turk’y cutlets (El Pasoans, you can find them at Target) I have in the freezer. In the meantime, I threw some of my side dish leftovers into a corn tortilla last week. They were delicious.