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Saigon Cafe: Melting pot pho 

Nerves and tendons and tripe, oh my! I remember taking a friend, whose idea of a culinary experience included Cracker Barrel, to one of my favorite Vietnamese restaurants on Buford Highway. Just looking at the pho ingredients, which included strange body parts, made him turn green, despite my reassurances that pho is just an Eastern version of comforting noodle soup. Unfortunately, he missed the true essence of the healthy, clean cuisine of Vietnam. Saigon Café, a small chain with a hot spot in Emory Village, does well to make Vietnamese food from southern, central and northern regions of the country palatable to even the most squeamish of Americans while holding the integrity of the cuisine.

East meets West: The waiters are mostly Asian, and all highly hip, dressed in fashionable layers of black. They move quickly and nonchalantly through the dinner crowd. Large, laminated pictures of pho and other typical Vietnamese dishes line the walls, and a bamboo balcony with fake chickens perching creates height and successfully covers up the air vent.

During a recent visit we tried the Banh Tom Co Ngu ($5.95). The appetizer of fried sweet potatoes with shrimp sounded a bit more interesting than it was. Though the batter was light and crispy, the still-shelled shrimp and shredded potatoes formed a rather bland conglomeration. The papaya salad was much better. So, too, was a wonton soup with plump dumplings fat with shrimp and pork.

The Com Bo Luc Lac ($8.50) was incredibly tasty, pairing a light fried rice with marinated, diced filet mignon and a delicate ginger soy sauce on top of fresh salad and crunchy sauteed bell peppers and onions.

Go for pho: Pho fans will be happy with the authentic broth, rich with star anise and cloves, served in huge, steaming bowls. The Pho Tai is a safe bet for first-timers to the rice noodle soup full of sprouts, cilantro, basil and, in this dish, thin slices of rare steak. For the more adventurous there is Chin Nam Gau Gan Sach, with rare steak, well-done flank, fat brisket, tendon and tripe.

There are stir-fries where you can select chicken, shrimp, beef or vegetables, and your choice of cooking style. The tamarind is a Thai sweet and sour with peppers, pineapple and cucumber. The rama is a rich coconut curry sauce with a dash of crushed peanut. Spicy basil eggplant and tofu is just that.

Another specialty of the house is the wide array of teas and smoothies that are great as desserts. The blueberry black and green tea is just sweet enough without being cloying and mixes well with the spicy peppers and clean cilantro taste of Vietnamese. A coconut smoothie tasted a bit too much like suntan lotion. The mango and honeydew versions were excellent and refreshing.

More refreshing still are the prices. With entrees ranging from $5.95 to $9.95 and bountiful portions, Saigon Café is affordable enough for Emory students and those of us far poorer.

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