The interior dÃ©cor is about as exciting as dropping a wet sandbag from a height of two metres. The drink selection is only marginally better than your grandparent’s pantry. And the bathrooms, to be frank, look like they’ve been lifted from the set of Lost.
But none of that matters.
Of all the great Vietnamese restaurants in Saskatoon, none come close to matching the intriguing mix of dependability, value and local folklore that the Nutana CafÃ© has boasted since its founding. It is a local institution more integral to the functioning of the city than the mayor, more revered than the Synchrotron.
And three-quarters of that success is single-handedly attributable to “The Special,” a simple recipe for success that has proved immensely effective: a massive bowl of noodles, chicken, deep fried spring rolls, and fresh sprouts, served with fish sauce and as much hot sauce as you can handle.
I recently sat down to a bowl of the famous noodles with my girlfriend. Like virtually every other experience I have had there, the visit followed the same familiar sequence: following the lead of the owner’s out-stretched finger, we sat down at a table in the corner, were given two glasses of lukewarm water and were asked if we would like spring-rolls with our Special. Being vegetarian, we declined both the spring rolls and meat portion of The Special, a request which seemed to both stun and amuse the owner.
In a sense, The Special only lives up to one of the two words in its name. While it isn’t all that special, it is The item (the existence of a physical menu is something I’ve long considered a myth, though purists insist upon its veracity and that The Special appears as No. 6). But at $6.95, it’s one of the cheapest, not to mention tastiest, executions of standard Vietnamese fare you’ll find in the city.
The other reason for the Nutana CafÃ©’s success lies in the eccentric personality of Norm, the founder, owner, and lone employee of the restaurant (minus the chef, his wife, a mysterious blur whose passionate hatred of noodles and rolls I cannot possibly imagine). Some days, Norm is in a good mood. He might add some ice to your water or throw in an extra spring roll for free. He might even crack a joke (at your expense), and point out that your fly is undone, when in fact, it is not.
But other days, Norm’s barrel of caustic laughs runs dry by 11 a.m. To a first time patron unlucky enough to hit one such streak, eating at the Nutana CafÃ© can seem like the culinary equivalent of a gang initiation. Norm’s stern, cold eyes say it all: You have no choice in the matter, shouting will only make it worse, and there will be no pleasantries exchanged afterward.
And yet, in the dozen or so times I have eaten at the Nutana CafÃ©, I have come to understand that Norm’s irreverence, impatience and frightfully dry humour don’t detract from the restaurant’s charm and intrigue, they add to it. Chances are, if you’re walking into a Vietnamese restaurant, you likely already have a fairly good idea of what you’re after — a bowl of noodles with accompanying vegetables and meat items.
Norm is a man who has mastered a near flawless system of production, and to provide patrons with a menu would be a laborious and redundant task which would interrupt this well-worn, sesame oil-greased machinery of efficiency. More than likely, you’d end up ordering something very similar to The Special anyway.
So don’t be put off by Norm’s stoic demeanour and curt tone. Like all persons of genius, he has his idiosyncrasies, and like all successful business people, he doesn’t have time to hold your hand. Go there, sit down, shut up, and enjoy this sometimes painful, but ultimately rewarding rite of passage.