I've always been a huge fan of Vietnamese cuisine, and growing up in central Winnipeg had related perks. Ever since junior high, I was always within a two block radius of a Vietnamese restaurant or two.
From one eatery to the other, most adhere to a similar format. They're largely family-run sit-down restaurants, featuring a menu with at least 30 different options to choose from. They're always a little overwhelming at first. Of course, you soon figure out your favourites and number 53 soon becomes synonymous with the deluxe vermicelli bowl.
After becoming so accustomed to the culture of Vietnamese dining in our city, I was delightfully surprised by newcomer Saigon Jon's Vietnamese Kitchen. Unlike any I've ever gone to, this restaurant has taken the traditional model and turned it into something refreshing and modern.
The familiar Pembina location turned out to be an old Blockbuster we used to frequent. They completely gutted it from the inside out (you can see progress of the renovations on their Facebook page).
The two-step ordering process is simple. You first choose your main dish: banh mi (Vietnamese sub), rice bowl, noodle bowl (vermicelli noodles) or salad. In the second step, you choose what type of protein you'd like. They have a wide range to choose from, including lemongrass steak, hot honey hoisin chicken and tofu. They pride themselves in serving seven ounces of protein with every meal, a generous portion for dishes all under $10. All of their meat is also fresh, never frozen and marinated for 12 hours before being cooked on the grill.
Saigon Jon's also offers a unique selection of sauces, including Thai basil aioli, siracha mayo, roasted shallot aioli and cilantro lime mayo. They grow their herbs in-house using a Commercial Urban Cultivator, a product previously featured on Dragon's Den. That's pretty rad.
Asides from their four main dishes, you can also order the Vietnamese staple - sirloin beef pho. Their pho comes in two sizes: regular and make you strong.
My company and I ordered a sub with hoisin garlic steak, a rice bowl with lemongrass steak and peanut sauce, and a vermicelli bowl with tofu and peanut sauce.
The general composition of their dishes stayed true to their traditional formats, with a modern take on some of the marinade and dressings. The meats were fragrant, and all pieces of the dishes were fresh, warm and crispy. They held true to their seven ounce statement, and there was plenty of food on all of our plates. Some of us even ended up having to doggy bag the rest to take home.
The open atmosphere of the restaurant is truly inviting, and the staff are friendly and accommodating. The format is a little strange for those who are used to traditional sit-down Vietnamese restaurants, but after a few visits, you will easily become accustomed to the streamlined ordering process.
This Winnipeg restaurant has a franchise-like feel, and I won't be surprised to see it expand across the city and beyond in the years to come. We had a wonderful and satisfying dining experience at Saigon Jon's, and I would not hesitate to visit the restaurant again to try out their other dishes. For those of you who love traditional Vietnamese cuisine, you may want to switch it up because Saigon Jon's is definitely worth the taste!