The proliferation of diverse ethnic restaurants in this country over the past few decades is nothing short of amazing. In the Capital Region, but also in our hometowns, we’ve noticed a drastic change in the dining landscape since we were young. When we first moved to Albany, in fact, it was hard to find anything but Italian food if we wanted to go out for supper. Now, choices include Thai, Indian, Greek, Mexican, Lebanese, Afghan…you name it. In recent months I’ve enjoyed delicious meals at two nearby establishments, interestingly both run by female chefs.
The first, Saigon Spring, is related to one of our longtime loves: Van’s Vietnamese Restaurant on Central Avenue in Albany. Apparently, Cathy Tran, Van’s mother, decided to set up her own place in the unassuming strip mall of St. John’s Plaza in Halfmoon, just across the Mohawk River near Clifton Park. Considered one of the ten healthiest ethnic cuisines, Vietnamese food seemingly stems from Chinese and colonial French sources; it is generally high in vegetables and herbs and low in fat. The offerings at Saigon Spring are extensive without being overwhelming. On our recent visit we started out with delicious, crunchy pork summer rolls that come with fish sauce. As for a main dish, it’s always hard for me to resist the traditional, delicious soup called Pho, pronounced fuh which probably derives from France’s pot-au-feu. I agree with an article by Andrea Nguyen that Pho is “heaven in a bowl." If you’re unfamiliar with it, the fragrant broth contains slices of beef [Pho Bo] (meatballs, chicken, or seafood) with rice noodles, and scallions, to which you add bean sprouts, sliced fresh jalapeños, lime juice, and Thai basil or cilantro to taste. It is also served with small bowls of hoisin and chile sauce (often Sriracha) on the side. The bun selections at Saigon Spring are also fantastic. Here grilled pork, chicken, beef, or shrimp is served over rice noodles. Simply writing about these dishes makes my mouth water! Prices are quite reasonable and they also have interesting sounding milkshakes (like avocado or mango), beer, cocktails, and wine.
Just this week at noon, some friends and I went to a reincarnation of a former Albany favorite of ours, Avenue A. Back in its last location on Delaware Avenue, the restaurant is now called Mingle. Chef Un-Hui Filomeno has indeed “mingled” a variety of cuisines in an unusual, wonderful way. The dinner menu contains classic Caesar salad, Cioppino, and Mediterranean Paella, as well as diverse items like Portuguese clams, and Jambalaya. The chef also includes several tasty dishes from her homeland: Korean Bulgokee, Chap Chae, Bibimbap, and, my luncheon choice, Kimchi Jigae. Let me start out by saying that I’m not in love with tofu; in fact, I tend to shun it as a rule. But I was curious to see what the cook could do by combining it with kimchi. I really loved the spicy cabbage mixed with the piquant chile paste gochujang. It’s one of the few ways to serve tofu as far as I’m concerned.
Even if you don't live in our area, I'll bet if you looked around you'd find a Vietnamese or Korean restaurant not too far away. Give it a try!