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Monday, November 15, 2010

Saigon Sisters: Making its mark with delicious modern Vietnamese cuisine in Chicago

Saigon Sisters
567 W. Lake St., Chicago                                                                                          
(312) 496-0090;
Hours: Lunch/late lunch, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Mon.-Fri.; Dinner/after hours: 5-10 p.m., Mon.-Thurs., 5 p.m.-1 a.m., Fri.-Sat.
Chicago French Market location (lunch only): 10 a.m.- 7:30 p.m.; Mon.-Fri.; 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sat.
Prices: lunch sandwiches, $7-8; dinner entrees: $12-$19

You should get to know Mary Nguyen Aregoni and Theresa Nguyen. They’re so not clichés. They are, in fact, Vietnamese sisters who own Saigon Sisters, the Vietnamese restaurants. The first location is a very popular kiosk at the Chicago French Market. The new, second location is a sit-down restaurant a couple of blocks north, at Lake and Clinton.

Why do we say these delightful ladies are not clichés? After all, there are many, many immigrant families who start their lives in America by opening a neighborhood ethnic restaurant. What makes the Nguyen sisters unique is that they came to Chicago as kids and became quite assimilated into the American lifestyle. Then they did what most American kids do—they pursued “normal” careers. After college, Mary wound up in marketing at Procter & Gamble, while Theresa went to New York to pursue her career in fashion design.

Only then did they go back to their roots by opening a neighborhood ethnic restaurant. In 2009, after, months and months of planning, they formulated their Saigon Sisters concept. They started in the new Chicago French Market, serving lunch only. They chose traditional ingredients, but they use ingredients the way so many of Chicago’s best chefs use them—creatively, with a modern twist. It works. Saigon Sisters has become one of the most successful vendors at the Market.

But the story doesn’t end there. Phase two of their nontraditional American dream kicked in when they began planning a second location, independent of the French Market. Their goal was to offer the same delicious food during lunchtime but take it up a notch or two for dinner. This is where the story gets interesting. They began a search for the right chef and they found it in the young, very personable Matt Everson, who has paid his culinary dues at Charlie Trotter’s and May Street Market, among others. He’s ambitious, he knows a thing or two about excellent cooking, and he loves Asian cuisine.

Working as a team, the sisters and the staff (along with their mother, Mama Nguyen, herself an entrepreneurial success who had a large, thriving marketplace in Saigon), have designed a dinner menu that takes Vietnamese cooking to a beautiful and delicious level. They’ve also kept to their dream of having a casual, come-as-you-are place. The food is great and the atmosphere is hip, unpretentious and totally casual.

The space is small (only 32 seats) but the 20-foot ceilings give diners an amazing feeling of space and the floor-to-ceiling windows provide a surreal (i.e. great) view of Chicago’s “L” tracks and surrounding buildings, especially at night. The seating is contemporary, woodsy and comfortable. The place and the people exude warmth, making it a fun gathering place.

The food?  At lunchtime Saigon Sisters gets busy, as people enjoy the variety of foods that are arguably better than they have had at other Vietnamese restaurants. The lunchtime draws are Bánh Bao (steamed rice buns), Phở (noodle and broth dishes), Bánh Mi (sandwiches), and Gòi Cuón (spring rolls; choose shrimp or tofu).

The Bánh Bao are served open faced (taco style). If you get a full order of three, you get a complete meal with ample vegetables and protein; quite filling, perfect for lunchtime. Choose from Caramelized Chicken, Hoisin glazed pork belly or Wagyu beef in coconut milk.

The Phở (pronounced “fuh”, in case you haven’t been told) portions are large. Pho choices include Beef Phở (sliced beef flank, beef meatball), Vegetarian Phở (sliced tofu & veggies), and Chicken Phở (poached chicken & garlic chips).

We love, love, love the Banh Mi sandwiches, which are large, filled with tempting flavor combinations. Typically we will buy two, cut them in half and share. Among our favorites are the Classic (American ham, French country pate, mayo), The Porky Glazed Pork Belly (braised pork belly, pho flavors, hoisin glaze, mayo), The Frenchman (duck confit, pickled mustard seeds, candied kumquat, rouille), the Vegetarian (lemongrass, teriyaki tofu, red peppers), and the Sun Tanned Cow (coconut milk, braised Wagyu beef, kaffir lime leaf).

Once evening arrives, the bustling sandwich-shop atmosphere is transformed into a dinnertime foodie’s delight. Candlelight bathes the tables and the mood is sensual and relaxed. It’s also time for executive chef Matt Everson and his culinary team to delight your taste buds as well as your eyes.

The dinner menu allows guests to sample some traditional Vietnamese dishes or take a more adventurous journey through the contemporary interpretations. For starters you can enjoy house-made charcuterie, easily shareable, featuring selections chosen by the chef. Another popular beginning is the Caramel Chicken Wings, crispy drummettes and wings in caramel sauce, with lemongrass, ginger and red chiles. These are not your typical chicken wings! We also love the Green Papaya Salad, with cherry tomatoes, red chiles, Thai basil in nuoc cham dressing. It’s a large portion, making it work as a shared appetizer or a vegetarian entrée. 

Meat dishes include a delicious Lab Luc Lac, lamb tenderloin seared in XO sauce, with watercress, red onions and broken rice. The watercress is the perfect tangy accompaniment to the sweet lamb. Another delight is the Braised Short Ribs, in tomato sauce, lemongrass, star anise, pickled okra, carrots and pearl onions.

Fish and seafood lovers can indulge in the Lobster Fritter on Sugar Cane, which includes lobster, shrimp mousse, fennel, chayote, with kohlrabi salad and lime ginger dressing. Another dish that can serve as a shared app or a full entrée is the Tuna Tartar, made with grapefruit confit, pickled ginger, scallion oil and a crisp lotus chip. If you’re an octopus fan, you won’t want to miss the Baby Octopus, perfectly grilled confit octopus, togarashi, and black cuttlefish ink rice. A Saigon Sisters specialty is the Sesame Sardines, grilled whole sardines with peppery greens in a sesame lime dressing.

There are a number of vegetarian selections such as Black Pepper Tofu and Rice, with shallot butter sauce, garlic, ginger, black pepper, soy sauce and broken rice.

The dessert of note is Che, a smooth butternut squash, coconut milk custard, with sticky rice, vanilla beans and a taro chip. It is unique and delicious; highly recommended. 
Saigon Sisters offers an atypical (i.e. good) beverage menu, which includes G.U.S. Sodas (wonderful, low sugar, all natural); Nirvana Coconut Water, Orange Aranciata and Vietnamese Coffee. For now it’s B.Y.O.B. until the liquor license comes through. 

Cindy Kurman Barrie and Lee Barrie are the principals of Kurman Communications, Inc., a Chicago-based marketing and public relations agency. Please visit their blog at and check out all DineWise articles at

Photos by Cindy Kurman

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