The story of the Ly family’s rise to success in America is a testament to the American Dream with a happy ending—they have opened an upscale Vietnamese restaurant, The Signature, in the Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle.
The Signature’s full wine,
beer & cocktail bar.
Tony Ly says that when they were looking for the right location, they “wanted (to be in) a neighborhood that offers healthy dining and Queen Anne did that, and with people willing to try something a little bit different.”
In a setting of low, light jazz, intimate lighting reflects a fireplace, brick wall and décor of warm golds and burgundies, accented by a long, maple banquette. On the wall above the banquette is a series of sepia-toned photos taken by the bartender on a trip to Viet Nam.
The family designed their menu around traditional recipes handed down from generation to generation. Tony Ly says Vietnamese cuisine is not normally hot and spicy (could it be the French influence?), and it’s all about freshness.
“Everything must be fresh,” he says. “I go every day to the International district for raw peanuts.”
A maple banquette
spans one wall.
They roast their own peanuts, a process that takes about forty-five minutes, and make their own peanut sauce.
There is also what is called on the menu “a special Signature Sauce.” Tony was gracious enough to share the ingredients: garlic, “a touch of” fish sauce, water, lime juice, sugar & hot chili sauce. It’s a sauce that can accompany just about any dish, and is delicious with salads.
We ordered the Vietnamese Tiger Beer, and then began an exploration of the menu’s “Light Dishes”:
The Spring Rolls (one of my all-time favorite dishes), a mix of vermicelli, lettuce, cucumbers, shrimp and fresh herbs rolled in rice paper, came with hoisin peanut sauce.
Spring Rolls with shrimp.
The calamari was prepared with potato flour (healthier than wheat flour), deep-fried and tossed with garlic and green onion. The Signature Prawns were rolled with onion and fried and served with sweet chili sauce. The Sautéed Green Beans were sautéed with sesame oil, coconut syrup, a seasoning sauce, and a touch of salt and ground pepper. Signature sauce was served on the side.
From there we progressed to the Green Papaya salad, a combination of shredded green papayas, carrots, and fresh herbs, hand-tossed with grilled prawns and topped with fried shallots and roasted peanuts. We also tried the Mango salad, prepared in a similar fashion. Please don’t ask which we liked best; both were equally tasty!
Calamari, tossed with garlic & green onion.
“There’s more than just phô in Vietnamese cuisine,” says Tony. He explains that the difference between Vietnamese food and Thai food are that in Vietnamese cuisine the meat and seafood is more likely to be baked, boiled or broiled rather than fried.
Portions are ample, enough for two to share. “My mom says ‘make sure every customer walks out full, not hungry,’” he says.
The Ly family consists of Tony’s mother and his five brothers and three sisters. All — except for the brother who lives in Wisconsin — work in some aspect of managing and executing the dining experience that is The Signature.
Sautéed Green Beans.
In Viet Nam, the family was “really poor,” says Tony, who at age nine escaped the country in 1981 with his father.
“We were boat people, 136 people. My father was sick and we were alone on the ocean for three days before a ship rescued us and brought us to Singapore. There we could wait for paperwork to be legal. We could choose to go to Australia, America or Europe.” He adds that his father (now deceased) chose America because he felt it was the country with the most freedom and best opportunities.
A church in Fargo, North Dakota sponsored Tony and his father. “I went into ESL classes in the third grade, because we didn’t speak any English.”
In 1982 his mother and siblings escaped to Malasia. When it was discovered they already had family in America, the Fargo church was contacted, and the church ended up sponsoring the entire family so that they could reunited.
A Vietnamese Crepe.
Tony grins. “If you told me today we were going to get in a boat, leave everything behind and just sail away, I’d say you’re crazy, no way. But at nine, I thought it was an adventure.”
Tiny drop lights above the tables now illuminate our main course choices:
Spicy Beef Rice Noodle Soup, with a thin beef that is a kind of sliced meatball. Add a squeeze of lime wedge, and you have a dish much more interesting than regular Phô.
The Grilled Entrée of Short Ribs caught our attention. Short ribs may sound heavy, but these are marinated with lemongrass, soy seasoning, honey and sesame oil, then presented in a salad-like dish, on which you pour Signature sauce and mix it all up.
Signature Short Ribs.
You can order a Stir-Fried Entrée and choose mixed vegetables in Signature sauce with either beef, shrimp, chicken, tofu, or a seafood combination.
No Asian menu would be complete without fried rice, and we discovered that Vietnamese fried rice is crispy.
Other Special dishes include Salt and Peppered Tofu, Curry Chicken, Lemongrass Chicken or Tofu, Stir-Fried Noodles, and a Vietnamese Crepe (that French influence!) made from rice flour, coconut milk, turmeric, pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts.
Crunchy Wrapped Banana Dessert.
Our dessert choice was the Crunchy Wrapped Banana, served with vanilla ice cream, coconut milk, strawberry, and roasted peanuts. Other desserts available include Mango with sticky rice, coconut milk, and roasted peanuts, and a Tropical Fruit Delight, mixed in milk.
We had our dessert with Vietnamese coffee, which is strong and served with milk and sugar.
With its emphasis on fresh
ingredients (no msg here), The Signature’s food is healthy and affordable. Vietnamese cuisine is widely regarded as the “light cuisine” of Asia. Since all the noodles are rice noodles, it looks like the perfect cuisine to explore if you’re on a gluten-free diet.
Here’s a Signature recipe
from chef Andy Ly:
SIGNATURE SHORT RIBS
Marinate beef short ribs overnight in honey, peanut butter, oyster sauce, garlic, shallots, black pepper and soy sauce.
Pickle some thinly-sliced carrots & daikon for two days in water, sugar, salt, garlic and rice wine vinegar.
Cook the short ribs on a grill.
Boil the rice noodles. Drain and add lettuce, cucumber, the pickled carrots & daikon, bean sprouts and chopped peanuts.
Chop some basil, mint & cilantro and sprinkle on top.
Serve with Signature sauce on the side, to be added according to taste.
The Signature has a full wine, beer & cocktail bar and service until two a.m. With its close proximity to the Seattle Center theater venues, the Ly family decided to offer late night dining until 3:30 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.
The interior is intimate, with seating for just 60 people. An outside terrace seats another 30 in nice weather.
The late night menu includes many of the Light items plus sandwiches from the lunch menu like the Pork sandwich with Signature Sauce—pork marinated with lemon grass, carrots, jalapenos. The bread tastes like a fabulous French bread you’d expect to find only in Paris. At just $4, this sandwich is quite a substantial and affordable lunch or late night snack.
Beyond Phô, I’m sure the French would call this, haute cuisine Vietnamienne.
— Feature by Carolyn Hamilton Proctor, Jetsetters Magazine Seattle Correspondent; photos by Carolyn Proctor and Richmond Public Relations.