Vietnamese food in Singapore is usually confined to the ubiquitous pho and rice paper rolls.
I love the beef noodle soup, but there is really much more to the country's cuisine that we do not see much of, other than at a few eateries in Joo Chiat Road.
Saigon Alley, which opened more than a month ago in Novena Gardens, is another place to get acquainted with Vietnamese street food through its salads, spring rolls, noodles, banh mi and main dishes.
What I like about the place is how authentic it feels. With an almost entirely Vietnamese staff both in the kitchen and in the dining room, I feel like I am eating in Ho Chi Minh City - except that English is much better understood here.
Assistant manager Kim is particularly helpful, explaining the dishes and recommending which of a number of bottled sauces on the table goes with each dish.
273 Thomson Road, Novena Gardens, tel: 6265-7662; open: noon to 2.30pm, 6 to 11pm, daily
Food: 3.5/5 stars
Service: 3.5/5 stars
Ambience: 2/5 stars
Price: Budget from $25 a person
The pho here is not my favourite. The broth is rather light, more like a chicken stock - albeit a tasty one - than a beef one. It doesn't quite go with the toppings of Australian beef slices, beef brisket and beef balls in the Beef Combination Pho ($14).
The beef balls are handmade and taste different the two times I eat them - spongy and flat the first time, and firmer and delicious the second.
The Spicy Australian Beef Noodles ($14) is more consistent. This is a Hue-style noodle dish from central Vietnam and, despite the name, is not very spicy. But the broth has a fuller flavour and the hint of spice makes it very comforting on a rainy day. It comes with generous toppings of sliced beef and brisket, as well as fresh herbs and vegetables such as mint, basil and beansprouts.
The other beef dishes are good too.
I have eaten the Northern Vietnamese Beef Salad ($12) twice and it turns out excellent both times.
There is a good amount of tender grilled beef tossed with salad greens, julienned carrot, crunchy raw onions and local celery in a spicy fish sauce dressing. The flavours of salty, sour and spicy are more subtle than in a Thai salad and yet distinct enough to stand out.
The Vietnamese Luc Lac ($15) is another dish not to be missed. It sounds like an ordinary stir-fry of beef cubes with garlic and pepper when Kim describes it to me, but the flavourful cubes of beef are juicy and the sauce is delicious.
Onion slices in the dish are caramelised in the hot wok and become sweet and crisp, while wedges of tomatoes provide acidity.
Both the spring rolls I have tried - Fresh Vietnamese Tiger Prawn Paper Rolls ($8) and Crab Spring Rolls ($8) - are better than anything I have eaten outside Vietnam.
The paper rolls are the healthier version. But instead of the usual skinny rolls of raw vegetables that are dominated by the bland rice paper used to wrap them, these are plump with large prawns that are clearly visible through the translucent paper. The generous amount of the shellfish means you easily taste their sweetness too.
The deep-fried Crab Spring Rolls are more fragrant and packed with sweet crabmeat in rice paper that is fried to a golden brown. The best way to eat one is to pick it up with your fingers, dip it in the accompanying chilli sauce and bite off a little at a time. The filling is steaming hot inside, so proceed with caution.
The Roasted Chicken With Vietnamese Fish Sauce ($12) is another tasty dish, with the boneless pieces of chicken thigh well-marinated and cooked just right, leaving the meat smooth and juicy.
This, however, cannot be said of the Crispy Pork Belly With Tamarind ($12). Both times I try it, the meat is dry and stringy, which is ironic because belly is among the fattest cuts.
The problem, I suspect, is that the pork has been slow-cooked to get it tender before being grilled and the meat juices are lost during the first stage of cooking.
The desserts are good enough to give the meal a good finish, however. If you are not worried about the caffeine keeping you awake, check out the Vietnamese Coffee Jelly With Ice Cream ($6). The springy jelly is infused with the aroma of the strong coffee that Vietnam is known for and goes well with the scoop of vanilla ice cream.
The other dessert I try, Fried Banana Stuffed With Ice Cream And Topped With Mixed Fruits ($5), is good too. It's rolled in a spring roll wrapper and deep-fried to a crisp, which makes a nice contrast to the soft banana inside. The ice cream is not stuffed, but scooped over the rolls, which remain crispy longer that way.
Saigon Alley is a tiny place which seats only 40 people and is very casual, with colourful murals on the walls to give it a funky feel.
It is ideal for small lunch groups or dinner with a couple of friends. But big groups may find it a bit of a squeeze.
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• The Sunday Times paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.