Why you should go: For the fragrant, steaming bowls of pho and crunchy-fresh spring rolls the Trans serve up at their pleasant strip-mall spot.
What's the Saigon Noodles story? My parents owned a restaurant in Vietnam. We came here in '91. My mom still loved to cook, so every Sunday we'd have a big family get-together with lots of food. I went to high school and college here - I graduated from UW-Madison in '99 with a BA in finance. I worked at a bank for a few years, and my brother was a mechanic for Sears. We decided to do something new, start our own business. In the Pacific Northwest there's a pho shop on every corner, but we thought Madison needed one. We wanted to share our favorite dishes with everybody in the community we call home. We knew it was risky to open a restaurant but we said, okay, let's get the recipes from the parents and do it.
When we got the idea, our friends said, are you sure? It's a hard job! We said well, we'll try it and see. We opened in 2004. The first year was really hard - we were working very long hours, seven days a week. We thought we were going to die from overload, so we decided to close on Mondays. Now we're more organized, but we still put in 12 hours a day, between preparing the food before we open to cleaning up after we close. But I love it. I'm proud of my restaurant and its very international clientele.
How traditional is your food? In Vietnam, our parents did pretty much what we do here. Our specialty is the pho. We make it just like mom's - we have a really good broth that we make from scratch. You have to cook it about 10 hours - that's what it takes to do beef tendon to perfection. You can order your broth and noodles with steak and tendon, steak and tripe, meatballs, or deluxe, with everything. On the side there's a plate of basil, sprouts, lime and chile. The bottled condiments on the table are to make your dish as salty or spicy as you like.
We also make bún. It's got the same rice noodles, without the broth. You get sprouts, basil, cucumber and lettuce, with meat on top. Our traditional com dia - jasmine rice dishes, with lemongrass-marinated chicken, pork, beef or shrimp - come with cucumber, tomato, pickled carrot, scallion and house sauce on the side. I love our melt-in-your-mouth fresh spring rolls. One American customer who lives out of town says she dreams about them - she drives in just to get some.
What do you like best?
The pho. I usually want to have it every day. It's a very flexible soup. In Vietnam, we eat it for any meal. I have it for breakfast a lot. But on our day off we like to eat out. I especially love American breakfasts. One of my favorites is the spinach omelet at the Original Pancake House. It's healthy and fresh.
Is your cooking as good as your parents'?
Yes! And that's the real test. My mom doesn't cook much any more. She's retired. She asks us to bring home meals to go, or they come here to eat.