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I love Vietnamese food, and wish there was more of it closer to home. Pleasanton has a branch of the chain Pho Hoa on Main Street, and I eat there often, but it has a menu limited to pho, bun, rice plates, and two kinds of appetizer rolls. The staff is pleasant and the food is served quickly, but it’s not really a full-service restaurant. Livermore, however, has three Vietnamese restaurants, and I’ve been to two of them. (The third is more of a pho and sandwich place.)
The more highly-recommended of the full-service places was Sai’s 3, which is in a small strip mall in Springtown, north of I-580 (961 Bluebell Dr.). In addition to pho, bun, appetizers, salads, and rice plates, there’s a good selection of meat and seafood dishes, and a few specialties. On my visits I managed to sample a good variety. The imperial rolls were among the best I’ve had, and were properly made with rice paper wrapping and were delicate and light, and not over-fried. The shrimp and jellyfish salad was crisp with a pleasant vinaigrette. The shrimp toast, however, was not as successful, and was overcooked and might have worked better on toasted sliced bread instead of a section of baguette.
Among main courses, the prawn and pork clay pot was very nice, as were the fried shrimp and orange flavored-chicken. But the best dishes of all were two of the specialties (listed as “Classics” on the menu) — banh xeo (Vietnamese crepe) and cary de (curry lamb stew). I’ve written before about my love for banh xeo, and the version here is not fancy, but it’s pretty solid. The curry lamb stew, though, was something else — it’s spicy, greasy, brightly-colored, full of bones and odd bits… and I loved every bit of it. (Unfortunately I can’t find the online review which first mentioned it, but to paraphrase, the author said it reminded him of something he might expect to find in a pot over a fire in a hut on a mountain in Laos on a freezing night.)
By contrast, Saigon Cafe, which is downtown (2011 Second St.), is a bit less exciting. The menu is somewhat smaller, with nothing comparable to the banh xeo or curry lamb stew, but it features pho, bun, appetizers, salads, and rice plates, as well as chow mein. In addition to pho, they also offer hu tieu (seafood noodle soup) with rice or egg noodles, and won ton soup.
I tried the imperial rolls, which unlike Sai’s were made with wheat won ton-style wrappers and tasted like standard Chinese egg rolls, and had been fried in slightly stale oil. The goi cuon (shrimp summer rolls) were on the dry side. The won ton soup, though, was very good, with an aromatic broth and plenty of won tons. House special chow mein was comparable to what would be found at a Hong Kong-style restaurant, with crispy egg noodles softened by seafood and vegetables in a light sauce. A rice plate, lok luk beef (beef cubes in garlic sauce with black pepper) was tasty as well. Overall, Saigon Cafe seemed to turn out the standards in a reasonably competent manner, though the menu runs more toward Chinese-style dishes than Sai’s does. (I didn’t try the pho or bun.)
Saigon Cafe is a reasonable choice if you’re downtown, but even though Sai’s 3 is farther from Pleasanton, I’d head there if given the choice, and order the banh xeo and curry lamb stew.