When best friends Mia Lunt and Sa Nguyen decided last summer to open Soall Bistro, a cozy Vietnamese spot in a strip mall in Marblehead, they were motivated by the idea of re-creating the dishes of their childhood. The timing was right. Lunt and another business partner had recently closed a tapas-style restaurant in the same spot. (Lunt grew up in nearby Salem and always thought Marblehead would be a great place to open a restaurant.)
Nguyen, with business development experience from stints at her cousins’ restaurants in Atlanta, was also ready for a new challenge. The restaurant’s name, pronounced “soul,” combines Lunt’s mother’s name, Soa, with the initials of Lunt’s sons Logan and Liem. Nguyen, who does the cooking, wants every dish to honor both their moms. “Our mothers are the essence of what Soall Bistro is,” she says, explaining how her own mom prepared multiple dishes for every family meal. It is Nguyen’s first time as cook in a restaurant kitchen, but each dish tastes like she’s been at this longer than a year.
The 24-seat bistro, with its friendly, relaxed charm, is welcoming. A local artist’s work hangs on the taupe-colored walls. An eclectic collection of tables and chairs, along with a window bench populated with pillows, embodies casual chic. On a Saturday evening, from behind a counter where takeout orders are being assembled, a server invites us to sit where we’d like. Three friends and a young couple share the dining area with us.
We tuck into two kinds of spring rolls (fresh, not fried) — shrimp ($2.50) and eggplant ($2) — served with dainty ramekins of hoisin-peanut dipping sauce and a swirl of sriracha. The unique eggplant spring roll is fashioned from a slender violet-skinned aubergine, cut thinly on the bias, grilled until tender, then placed so whole slices of eggplant can be seen down the length of the roll through the translucent rice wrapper. The presentation is so artful we have to admire it before taking a bite. The eggplant is appetizingly warm next to cool julienned cucumber and vermicelli noodles. We’ve never seen a fresh roll like this.
Shrimp cabbage salad ($8.95) features chilled halved crustaceans (chicken is another option) set on top of finely shredded green cabbage, cilantro, and slivers of white onion that have been mellowed and crisped in an ice bath. Tossed with a sweet oil-less vinaigrette, it is delectably summery. A shallow bowl of nuoc mam cham (seasoned fish sauce) comes with it. We spoon the clear amber liquid onto the salad and taste (but don’t see) a whisper of garlic, lime, and chilies.
Caramelized braised pork ribs ($8.95) arrive in a clay pot, mahogany brown and meltingly tender meat. The secret is a long braise in coconut juice and sweetened fish sauce. With it comes a plate of rice, lettuce, carrot, cucumbers, and grape tomatoes. Vermicelli bowl with crispy egg rolls ($8.95) is a fresh presentation of the noodle dish known as bun. Nestled next to the thin rice noodles are the same vegetables that accompany the ribs, plus a bowl of that beautiful fish sauce. Egg rolls are fried and flavorful, stuffed with clear noodles and pork.
Beef pho ($9.95) is a straightforward presentation of noodles in soup (chicken and vegetarian versions also available) with the traditional accompaniments of bean sprouts, basil, jalapeno, and lime. The well-seasoned broth is splendidly fragrant with star anise. We’ll ask next time for the beef on the side — the rosy slices cooked too quickly in the hot soup, and we prefer our meat rare, the way it’s done in fancier versions.
Banh mi, the popular baguette sandwiches, are available with fillings like lemongrass chicken, tofu, or flank steak ($6.95-$8.95),priced a few dollars more than the high-volume places but made with more clever fillings.
On the restaurant’s website, the cuisine is described as “simplified,” but nothing is missing in this food. It’s not diluted fare, explains Nguyen, but a compact menu of essentials: rice and noodle dishes, baguette sandwiches, some specials; fewer offerings than customers might see at city Vietnamese restaurants.
The restaurateur is thrilled that customers, mostly from the neighborhood, have embraced her cooking. “Marblehead is a special place,” she says. “Everyone is rooting for us to do well. When a customer says, ‘That was one of the best meals!’ I am so giddy. I can’t believe I made such an impact.”