Friday, July 19, 2024

A banh mi at Saigon Tiger in Somerville’s Davis Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Vietnamese victuals are all the rage. Pho Pasteur has been holding court in Chinatown for decades, Bon Me trucks have gone storefront (another just opened in North Point) and Cicada, the Vietnamese coffee bar and snack shop, morphed into a hip nighttime dining spot, followed by the folks behind it launching haute destinations The Eaves in Bow Market and, more recently, the roof deck refuge Saigon Babylon in the Sonder 907 Hotel in Central Square. Early this year An Nam opened in Assembly Row, and in Davis Square there’s Saigon Tiger, which has been serving up some of the best banh mi sandwiches in town since it opened last year. (Coming soon to Porter Square will be Phinista Cafe, blending French-Vietnamese culinary traditions to serve banh mi and crepes.)

Saigon Tiger hides in plain sight, right across from the Somerville Theatre on Holland Street. From the outside you might think it a dental office. Once you step inside, it has that total cafe vibe: spare and clean, with a short bar and several small tables served by friendly staff. Unless you order pickup, it’s all table service – which threw me at first – for lunch and dinner with a focused menu of that banh mi, rice and noodle bowls (cold Vietnamese vermicelli with peanut sauce is a yummy heat-beater), bao buns (they call them “baozi”) and street food offerings. The latter features a pretty decent fresh spring roll with some of those cool vermicelli noodles that comes with some marinated, lightly friend tofu, pickled carrots and radish wrapped in a super thin, translucent bánh tráng (rice paper); fried okra; lemongrass chicken wings; and coconut shrimp. As far as side sauces are concerned for noodles, rice bowls and beyond, there’s that classic peanut sauce, a fish sauce that comes in a vegan variation, a chili sauce, soy and Sriracha.

A sunny-side up egg can go on pretty much anything on the menu at Saigon Tiger, which also has breakfast banh mi. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The banh mi list offers up traditional pork and chicken (grilled or crispy) with pork pate, picked veggies, jalapeños and super fresh cilantro sprigs. You can get a breakfast variation that comes with perfectly sunny-side up fried eggs or even one with eggs and spam (let the Monty Python joke fly!). You can add a sunny-side up egg to pretty much anything on the menu.

The thing to have, though, is the grilled chicken banh mi. The French baguette is crunchy and moist in the right places (too fresh and chewy or too flaky are banh mi misses), and the chicken comes right off the grill hot and juicy and melds well with the rich pate and accoutrement of pickled veggies. It’s simple and sinful, a comfort food that always feels like a discovery.

Saigon Tiger also offers a host of Vietnamese-styled coffees, smoothies and a full bar where you can get such libations as a lychee martini or the Vietnamese spin on an old-fashioned – basil and bitters are involved.

Saigon Tiger, 7 Holland St., Davis Square, Somerville


Love crab? The good folk at North Cambridge’s Urban Hearth are hosting a Chesapeake Bay-themed Crabfest on June 29 at the Notch Brewery, at the awesomely redone Speedway in Brighton.

Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.