Cottonwood Heights • At SAOLA New Asian, it’s nearly impossible to miss the contrast between East and West, and past and present — from the brassy Vietnamese rickshaw and 1960s album cover with the image of the owner’s mother to the sleek gray sectionals and neon pink lights.
Yet overall, there’s harmony inside this Cottonwood Heights restaurant.
Owners Diem Nguyen and Tuan Vu translate that vision just as flawlessly into the menu — a love letter to their Vietnamese heritage and the restaurant business they’ve built here.
The pho, for example, is one version of a recipe crafted more than 40 years ago by Vu’s uncle, who became world-famous for his Pho Thin restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam. It’s currently served at the couple’s Pho Thin Famous Noodle House in Sugar House. And the Saigon’s sizzling crepe first debuted at Indochine Vietnamese Bistro in Sugar House before they sold the restaurant in 2018.
With SAOLA — which means “rare star” — Nguyen said they wanted to do what they liked most before retiring.
“SAOLA will be our last glorious adventure in the restaurant world,” said Nguyen, who first worked with Vu at Cafe Trang, which Nguyen’s father opened in Salt Lake City in 1987.
While some of SAOLA’s dishes will be familiar to Indochine and Pho Thin patrons, chef Vu proves he has much more to offer Salt Lake Valley diners.
The bites menu includes everything from the snackable taro crisps and edamame ($5 each) to prawn and pagoda salad rolls wrapped in rice paper ($8 each). Ask for the pork fried spring rolls ($6) with bean thread noodles, carrot, jicama, wood ear mushrooms and a lime-chili sauce. The earthiness of the mushrooms and sweet — yet citrusy — sauce are a contrast of textures and flavors.
The pork and shrimp Sichuan dumplings ($7) aren’t for lightweights. Although the kitchen graciously separated the chili oil from the sauce for us, we still found the dish quite spicy. That aside, the dumplings were delicate and multidimensional. It’s probably our fault SAOLA’s menu now reads “Modifications and substitutions politely declined.”
The lightly battered shrimp tempura ($8), of course, tasted amazing, but the accompanying tempura enoki mushrooms and dashi dipping sauce stole the show.
SAOLA’s street food menu, which started as a take-out service called Pho Pho Pho, offers banh mi, salads, pho and skewers. Nguyen said the menu eventually will be available only during lunch, although select dishes will be refined for dinner.
We tried the bulgogi cheese steak banh mi ($15) months ago, before it had a bit of a makeover. We liked the flavors of soy-sesame cheese steak but felt there wasn’t enough meat to hold up against the bolder flavors of the kimchi and peppers. The original citrus slaw ($14) with the lime-chili sauce — which has been replaced with a soy-garlic dressing — also was enjoyable.
On their own, honey and lemongrass pork skewers ($16) tasted cloying, but the sticky-sweet meat blended well with the pickled vegetables, lime-chili sauce and noodles (I opted for the shirataki yam noodles, $3.50 extra).
The brisket pho ($15) is exceptional — the best I’ve ever had. We don’t know if Vu has altered his uncle’s recipe, but the menu says the ginger beef bone broth simmers for 24 hours with the family’s special spice blend. The result is light and aromatic, yet packed with umami and heat — a perfect vehicle for the tender brisket and rice noodles.
The expansive sushi menu, which debuted in mid-August and is available all day, includes a raw bar, nigiri, sashimi and sushi rolls — regular, inside out, deep fried, wrapped in rice paper and hand rolled. Prices range from $4 to $27, with most items landing somewhere in the middle.
A friend enjoyed the Vegas ($11) and Imperial ($10) rolls, although the presentation felt a bit haphazard. While the mango in the Imperial roll didn’t sit quite right with the spicy tuna, jalapeno and avocado, the smoked salmon and eel sauce in the tempura-battered Vegas roll were wonderful.
The dinner menu — a fine dining experience in traditional and modern Vietnamese cuisines — is where Vu shines.
We swooned over the garlic noodles with steak bites ($28). The Shanghai noodles were perfectly al dente and the cubes of steak remained tender despite their size. It was garlicky and sticky — and perfect in every way.
Saigon’s sizzling crepe ($25) is now an obsession. The fragrant coconut-turmeric rice flour crepe lured me in, and the flavors of pork belly, prawns, bean sprouts and scallions — tucked inside the delicate shell — kept me coming back. To eat it properly, as I learned later from Nguyen, wrap the crepe, herbs and pickled vegetables in lettuce.
Order a drink — alcoholic or otherwise — and dessert. My friends praised the Vietnamese French drip iced coffee ($5.50), and I adored a mocktail version of the lemongrass mojito ($9), which was refreshing on a warm summer day. Salt Lake City-based Normal Ice Cream supplies SAOLA’s ice creams, sorbets and bars ($5-$9). And Nguyen said they recently added a few originals, like affogato vietnamita and banane flambee au rhum.
Like the food, service surpassed expectations. My favorite interactions stemmed from discussions with our wait staff about how to pronounce various words and the tidbits about Vietnam and its cuisines featured on the menu.
Nguyen said she hopes that people will feel transported to another time or place when they visit SOALA. And that’s a destination I’d buy a ticket to any day.
Note: This review first published at sltrib.com.
SAOLA New Asian • ★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★)
SAOLA, which means “rare star” and shares a name with the endangered Asian unicorn, offers traditional and modern Vietnamese cuisine, from street food to fine dining. Standout dishes include the pho and garlic noodles. The menu also includes bun cha, made famous during an episode of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” featuring former President Barack Obama.
Food • ★★★1/2
Mood • ★★★
Service • ★★★1/2
Noise • 1 bell (out of 4)
Location • 7307 Canyon Centre Parkway, Cottonwood Heights; 801-944-2949
Online • saola-slc.com
Hours • Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Children’s menu • No
Prices • $-$$$$
Liquor • Yes
Reservations • Large groups only
Takeout • Yes
Wheelchair access • Yes
Outdoor dining • No
On-site parking • Yes
Credit cards • Yes