Sizzling platters, mountains of noodles and all packed with flavour at London Road cafe
Jiansheng Lin is a busy man.
He runs a busy Vietnamese restaurant in a busy part of the city and he and his wife Xiaosang have four children at home. That’s busy.
And when you walk into Saigon 68 on London Road you can feel the busy-ness all around - in a bright and lively rather than a ‘get-me-out-of-here’ kind of way. Voices call orders from the kitchen, waiters dart around bringing out sizzling platters, spectacular salads, huge tureens of soup and stacks of steaming noodles of every persuasion.
The place is packed but we were greeted instantly with a broad smile and shown to our seats.
The prawn crackers were delivered to our table before we’d had time to take our coats off. Impressive.
The menu is hugely busy too - 357 dishes to choose from, all numbered - plus desserts. More on that later.
We wanted to try traditional Vietnamese dishes rather than the Chinese items on the mixed menu.
So what is Pho as in the dish and in the former name of the restaurant, Pho 68, up until a couple of years ago?
Our waiter didn’t know, but another waiter took our order and told us Pho is a traditional Vietnamese flat rice noodle.
We ordered Vietnamese roast duck stir-fry with flat rice noodles, plus char grilled chicken with rice, for our main courses.
For starters we had a Vietnamese salad and Vietnamese spring rolls between us.
I had a Saigon lager that Jiansheng gets from a supplier in London, which, after months of winter real ale was lovely.
Jiansheng - he calls himself Jason and spells his name that way when dealing with English people - says it saves him having to spell his real name.
Just then a steaming and crackling plate of sizzling beef is carried shoulder high through the room.
We have to come here again and order the more spectacular stuff.
In the meantime our starters arrive.
The salad looks stunning. Finely shredded cabbage, carrot, cucumber, bean sprouts and onions are piled high on the plate and swimming in a sweet dressing.
In there, golden and slightly crisp is the fried bean curd I wanted to try.
It doesn’t taste of a lot but it picks up from the rest of the flavours. Next time I’d like to try it hot but the salad is delicious.
The Vietnamese style spring rolls come with a bowl of fish sauce for dipping
“Vietnamese food is more spicy than Chinese,” said 37-year-old owner Jiansheng who lives in Bents Green.
“We use lemon grass, coriander and fresh chillies. It’s more like Thai than Chinese – or some of each.
“We used to be called Pho 68 after the noodle dish but people weren’t sure what it meant then we had a call from a Pho 68 in London saying they already had that name so we changed it.”
Jiansheng is actually Chinese, originally from the Fujian province in the south of the country. One of the cafe’s pre-Saigon 68 incarnations was a Chinese Dim Sum cafe called Mao. Statuettes of the former Chinese leader are still to be found on the building’s stairposts.
Jiansheng came to Sheffield 10 years ago after seven years working in a takeaway in Spalding, Lincolnshire.
Then he worked in a Chinese buffet near Meadowhall then at Pho 68 where he eventually bought the business from the Vietnamese owner nearly two years ago.
“Most of the kitchen staff are Vietnamese – some of them have been here 10 years,” he adds.
“They are fast and it’s a small place so we can serve people quickly.
“Some people think it’s a bit too quick – no time for romance…”
Never mind the romance, with a menu that size how does he keep everything fresh?
“We go to the Chinese supermarket Kong Hing up the road and one near Parkway markets three times a week.
“Duck is a great favourite. We roast eight ducks every day. That and the char grilled dishes are the most popular, along with noodle soup.”
Our Vietnamese roast duck stir-fry with flat rice noodles was a mountain of deliciousness in a portion size only usually seen in Flintstones cartoons.
Tender, tasty slices of duck meat, Pho noodles, which, to be fair are just noodles, onions, green peppers and some fiery red chillies.
We had our fill, took the rest home and had enough for dinner the next night.
Our other main course was char grilled chicken with rice.
The chicken is marinated and cooked with lemon grass, spring onions, coriander, chillies, fish sauce and sugar and it was rich and sticky – top stuff.
The desserts are bought-in ice cream sweets straight from the freezer – all fine in their own way. I had ‘funky pie’ a pastry case with ice cream and hundreds and thousands on top in a sticky jelly. My wife had a lemon swirl with white chocolate and ice cream with a nice tang of lemon.
So is Jiansheng thinking of buying another place?
“This one is going very well but at the moment I’m not thinking of anywhere else. I have this place and four children. The youngest is three months old. I don’t have time for anything else right now.
“I think I’m busy enough”
For three courses each and one beer we paid £33.40.
Star rating out of five:
* Saigon 68 Vietnamese Café, 175 London Road, Sheffield, S2 4LH, Tel: 0114 258 7255,
Open seven days a week, noon to 11pm. Email: info@Saigon68.co.uk