Saigon Noodle and Nifty ’50s

My parents were visiting last weekend, and my mom, somewhat taken aback by what passes for the approach of spring in Madison, wanted a nice hot bowl of pho. I’d been meaning to try a real meal at Saigon Noodle after a solid take-out banh mi experience, so off we went to the Far West.

And “solid” is again what I’d say. Mrs. Q raved about her vegetarian noodle soup, which she said was delicately flavored and correctly cooked. I shared some pho with CJ, who liked slurping up the broth and showed astonishing ability to pick up noodles with chopsticks, but was unwilling to try even a single meatball. So I ate those, together with a nicely done but unexceptional bowl of grilled beef on rice with spring roll. Saigon Noodle doesn’t match my favorite Vietnamese restaurants (like Vietnam in Philadelphia, if that helps you get where I’m coming from) but it’s cheap and well-prepared, and the next time I feel like Vietnamese food I’ll go there again. Like I said — solid.

The portions at Saigon Noodle aren’t gigantic, and my dad and I both felt like a milkshake after dinner. Conveniently, next door is Nifty ’50s, which is just what it sounds like — a ’50s theme restaurant — but carried out with an admirable attention to detail. They sell regular milkshakes, but also malteds and root beer floats; and even phosphates, which I had to look up. The main food offering was another mystery to me, “Hasty Tasty” — the proprietor explained to me that this is something like a hamburger, but with the meat crumbled instead of pressed into a patty. (I think this is the same sandwich that in Iowa is called “loose meat” or “Maid-Rite.”) I wasn’t hungry enough for another meal, but Madison blog Happy Stuff makes the hasty tasty sound worth a try.

The jukebox is stocked with 7″ singles from the 50s and 60s, both famous and obscure, and it’s free! When we came in, the jukebox was silent (the Brett Favre retirement press conference on some kind of infinite repeat on the TV) so I cued up a previously unknown to me Turtles single (“You Baby,” 1966) and ordered the milkshakes. Which I thought were excellent, though Mrs. Q said “Too sweet.” They were pretty sweet, it’s true. But from my milkshakes I don’t demand subtlety.

By the way, we were the only people in the restaurant at 7:30, though it had looked pretty crowded at 6 when we showed up at Saigon Noodle. The owner complained that the strip mall didn’t have enough parking spaces to support him, Saigon Noodle, and the popular Japanese restaurant Ginza of Tokyo. And he’s right — we had to park semi-legally against the side of the building, along with dozens of other cars.

Now let me speculate. It looked to me like this was a family business, and that the two people running the place were the owner and his wife. And I also got the impression that the ’50s memorabilia weren’t bought for the restaurant, but were the husband’s personal collection. And so I started to feel like this restaurant was a dream the man had held onto for a long time; maybe a business he’d waited until retirement to get into. That because it was a dream it was something he intended to do right — he was going to sell phosphates, whether or not people ever bought them, and he wasn’t going to make hamburgers, he was going to make his favorite sandwich from childhood, the hasty tasty.

I liked being inside this guy’s dream.

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3 thoughts on “Saigon Noodle and Nifty ’50s

  1. Nadine says:

    The Badger Candy Kitchen on the Square served the best phosphates in town. My favorite flavor was vanilla – in fact, somewhere in my files is a long ode I wrote to these sweet, swirling sodas when I was in high school.

    Close behind were the phosphates served at the Rennebohm’s soda fountains. The syrups used to create phosphates were the same syrups used to flavor Cokes. Cherry cokes were probably the most popular, but I preferred vanilla or lime.

    Both the Badger Candy Kitchen and the Rennebohm’s soda fountains are long gone, but fondly remembered by those of us who spent many hours hanging out there.

    For those to young to remember, the Badger Candy Kitchen was on West Main Street. The space is now occupied by Brocach Irish Pub. When He and I ate dinner there recently, I noticed a framed copy of a Badger Candy Kitchen menu on the wall. Even though I’d vowed not to photograph our meal for a change, I did snap a photo of that menu. Alas, there was really too much glare from my flash, so I guess we’ll have to go back some one day for lunch, so I can count on some natural light. But I digress…

    The Rennebohm’s soda fountains were all over Downtown Madison, but the two on State Street were among the most popular. One was near the Orpheum Theatre, about where Espresso Royale now resides. The other was in what is now the Walgreen’s store at the intersection of State and Lake.

    The closest thing I’ve been able to find to a phosphate these days has been the Italian sodas at Espresso Royale – made with Torani syrups in exotic flavors undreamed of back in the Rennebohm’s era when no one had even heard of kiwi fruit. That’s why your report about the phosphates at Nifty 50s was good news. We’ll definitely make a trip to try one – even though we may have to cope with a crowded parking lot.

    Postscript: I was going to put in a link to a good photograph of one of the old Rennebohm’s soda fountains, but wasn’t certain if they were allowed in your comments space and didn’t want to end up with a lot of gobbledygook interrupting my narrative if they weren’t.

  2. Quomodocumque's mom says:

    My pho (with round and flank) was quite good–although it could have used a bit more meat. And Quomodocumque’s dad had a dish of grilled meat and rice noodles that was also very tasty. I would definitely go back, but next time would order an appetizer in addition to a main dish–the bill will still be low.

  3. niksoap says:

    Nifty 50’s was a Maid-Rite up until a few years ago, though the same couple (and I believe the man’s mother) still run the place. You really should try a Hasty Tasty. They’re pretty yummy, and the onion straws are to die for!

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