A Saigon Café is one of our favorite restaurants, even though it features run-down decor, is difficult to find, and the waiters can’t seem to stop telling cheesy jokes. We ignore the barely acceptable ambience and return our focus to the food, some of the freshest and most delicious on Maui: well-prepared Vietnamese classics, including a superlative pho. There’s a deep commitment to fresh food here.
The owner, Jennifer Nguyen, stocks the kitchen with vegetables and herbs she’s grown herself and makes a sincere effort to buy locally whenever possible. We’ve never seen a wilted lettuce leaf. The mint leaves that top many dishes are fresh-picked and snap crisply between the teeth. The fish is fresh and the shrimp are plump and pink. Some of our favorite dishes include the crispy, spicy Dungeness crab, and the chicken and shrimp braised in a brown sauce in the traditional clay pot. If you like fish, ask the waiter what they have that day for whole-fish preparations. They can wok-fry or steam it — either style is delicious, so follow their guidance on which preparation to use on whichever fish they have that day. The wok-frying leaves a thin crust on the outside, which hides the tender chunks of flesh underneath and protects them from drying out. The black bean sauce is hearty and complexly spicy-sweet.
The steamed version with ginger and garlic shuts our other senses down so that picking the fish off the bones becomes a meditation. We love their “burritos.” A stack of rice paper and a bowl of warm water are served first, followed, in short order, by a platter of raw shrimp, chicken, beef (or some combination), sliced cucumbers, pickled carrots, bean sprouts, fresh mint, and lettuce leaves. A fondue pot containing a light broth, pineapple slices, vegetables, and herbs bubbling over a carton of sterno appears next. The waiter will show you how to assemble your burrito, but essentially you drop your protein into the fondue to cook it while you dip your rice paper into the warm water to soften it. Then you pile vegetables, sprouts, mint, rice noodles, and hoisin sauce onto the sticky paper, and once your meat or fish is cooked to your liking, you place it on the bed of fresh food and carefully wrap the thin, stretchy rice paper around the whole thing. We like to place our burrito in a lettuce leaf to make it easy to bite. Delicious and fun, we leave it to the authorities to decide if the sterno presents a fire hazard.
There’s finally a sign on the outside of this restaurant, but the inside could still use fresh paint, new tiles in the bathroom, new booths … well, a big renovation. Some find the brusque, jokester waiters rude, but fans like us think of them as the “show” and laugh along with them. If your cell phone disappears during dinner, don’t worry. It will reappear with the bill. All jokes aside, the servers provide brisk, efficient service and are knowledgeable about the food they serve. The wine list is nothing special, but they have the usual Asian beers that complement the cuisine. We like their lemonade, which is sweet and made with both limes and lemons.
We recommend skipping the Thai dishes and the desserts, (a five minute drive gets you to Thailand Cuisine for the first and Ululani’s Shave Ice for the second). Reviewing restaurants can be grueling work. After days of eating soso meals that have lightened our wallets, added paunch to our waistlines, and flattened our taste buds, we make a trip to A Saigon Café to soothe our palates and remind us of how wonderful food can be.
Address: 1792 Main St., Wailuku, Central Maui Location: This is “under” the highway overpass in Wailuku. As you drive into Wailuku on Kaahumanu Ave., look for the neon shooting stars and the pink building to the right of the highway overpass as you drive over it. Turn right on Central Avenue at the KAOI Radio Station intersection. Take your first right onto Nani St. Drive to the first stop sign. Turn right onto Kaniela St, and the restaurant is on the left.
Meals: Lunch, Dinner
Hours: M-Sa 10am-9:30pm and Su 10am-8:30pm
Parking: Lot, Street