Flavors rich, endless at Saigon!
BY KEVIN HOPPER
There’s nothing worse than food envy; that disquieting feeling one gets when he or she discovers that what sounded good on the menu didn’t quite add up to the finished product, while that of their dining companions looks as succulent as a giant candy cane does to a 2-year-old on Christmas morning.
This all-too-familiar situation is thwarted, in most cases, by playing it safe and orderering a dish that is tried and true. And though I am usually an adventurous diner, there are a handful of restaurants where I can’t bring myself to order anything other than what I know will not result in a case of food envy.
One of those places is Saigon Restaurant.
My safe dish is Rare Beef with Rice Noodle Pho ($7.25). Served exactly as promised, this marvel of a soup dish features ultra-thin slices of uncooked beef that are placed by the diner into a bowl of hot broth. Other ingredients include vermicelli-sized rice noodles, cilantro, jalapeño slices, thai-basil and bean sprouts. After the do-it-yourself assembly is completed, the result is about as perfect a soup as one can find in our fair city. Subjective? Yes. Accurate? Yes.
But one dish does not a restaurant review make. So on a recent visit, I forced myself — with my dear readers in mind and food envy be damned — to order a brand new dish. I also made my three dining companions, one of whom hasn’t eaten a dish at Saigon other than the Vegetarian Tofu and Lemongrass Dry Noodles ($7.25) going on three years now, to make ordering their lunch an adventure rather than a foregone conclusion.
After perusing all 145 dishes on the Saigon menu, my table decided on the not-so-adventurous appetizers of Shredded Pork Spring Rolls ($2.95) and Egg Rolls ($6.95), as well as the more intriguing Fried Mussels with Tamarind ($8.50). Unfortunately, the order of mussels somehow got lost in the shuffle and the order was never placed. No matter, because before we were able to inform our friendly server (who doubles as Saigon’s owner, Vicky Troung), our entrées arrived and those mussels (or lack thereof) were a distant memory. It also helped that our colorful drinks, including a Young Coconut Shake ($2.95), Thai Iced Tea ($2.50) and the Avocado Shake ($3.25), held our attention. I also suggest the Durian Shake ($2.75).
Despite the enormity of selections on the Saigon menu, they are neatly divided into categories such as Dry Noodle with Fish Sauce, Broken Rice Plate, Rice Plate and Salads (the Jelly Fish Shrimp and Pork Salad, $8.95, was particularly intriguing). My dining companions thankfully ordered with my review in mind and we were soon passing so many samples of food among the four of us that it was hard to keep track of exactly which entrées were which. Among them were two dry noodle dishes including the Combination Fried Noodle ($8.50) served with a bright, semi-sweet fish sauce, the flavors of which were delicately balanced and the Vegetarian Tofu and Lemon Lemon Grass ($7.25).
Another delectable dish being passed around was the Rice with Grilled Onion Beef: thin slices of grilled beef rolled around caramelized onions bursting with a distinct smoky sweetness.
I of course had to order a dish far out of the ordinary in order to keep my mind from my beloved soup. The seven menu selections in the Fire Pot category seemed the best choice. I picked the Thai-style Shrimp Fire Pot ($15.95 small/$18.95 large), which is assembled in the kitchen and cooked at the table on a portable gas grill.
All it took was one taste of this spicy, intensely-flavored dish to discover one of Saigon’s secrets: the broth. Though completely different in flavor, the Fire Pot’s broth was swimming in a dozen subtle but distinct flavors all of which seem to be begging for the attention of my taste buds. Delicious despite the fact that the shrimp was doomed to be overcooked in the hot broth.
Do I have a new favorite? Not necessarily, but I am certain that upon my next visit to Saigon, I will probably order anything but my favorite dish (don’t worry Rare Beef Pho, I’ll never forget you).
Dining at it’s Finest
Vicky Troung has open this restaurant for almost 7years now. Delivering crisp, fresh, subtle, amazingly delicious food from the first time she opened the restaurant 5 years ago.
When the restaurant opened, it automatically caught the attention of Albuquerque journal with their article quote:
( “Saigon Restaurant an Authentic Treasure of Taste Saigon” Restaurant is a celebration of food that is fresh, crisp, subtle and lovely. Take for example, a dinner entree simply called “steamed or broil catfish.”(Number 121 on the Saigon menu.)
At $16.95, it was the costliest dish on the long menu, but it featured a whole catfish, broiled until the skin was crispy and the meat was white as snow. The fish was brought to the table with a garden of fresh lettuce, an assortment of fresh, aromatic herbs, slivered carrots and cucumbers, warm vermicelli noodles, crispy fried shallots and a stack of rice papers.
The server, who also is the owner, Vickie Truong, showed us how to dip the rice paper in warm water until it was soft, then roll it burrito-style around pieces of delicious fish, herbs, lettuce, noodles and lettuce. The pungent herbs created perfume with each torn leaf. We created our own glorious, almost translucent rolls of salty, mild and savory flavors and crisp and delicate textures. Each bite was shot with lovely electric volts of fresh basil, cilantro and holy basil, a type of Asian basil. Superb to eat, fun to roll. Ideal for people who like to get personal with their food. I was led to Saigon Restaurant by a Vietnamese friend, Hong Hai DuBroff, who assured me that Saigon is the most authentic Vietnamese restaurant in town. I’ve eaten there three times and I believe it’s also the best Vietnamese restaurant in town. It certainly attracts plenty of Asian customers. At Saigon, the food is simple, yet wonderfully complex and fresh — ideal for healthful, warm-weather dining.
The owners and servers are friendly and knowledgeable and speak English easily. They offer menu suggestions and if a dish isn’t top-notch, they steer customers in another direction. For example, DuBroff and I originally ordered broiled bass, but Truong suggested the catfish instead, saying it was fresher. DuBroff also showed me how to wrap the cha gio, or small fried egg rolls, in leaves of fresh lettuce with fragrant herbs. (Number 2.) We simultaneously savored the ying of hot crispy rice paper and salty pork filling with the yang of cool, fresh lettuce. It cost $4.75 for six rolls. She also showed me how to make itsy-bitsy “tacos” by filling shrimp chips with a fabulous, $8.95 lotus root salad. (Number 81.) Lotus root is an underwater tuber with a cool, delicate flavor reminiscent of cucumber or jicama. It was cut into matchstick strips and tossed with shrimp, thinly sliced pork and slivered purple onions, and dressed with a simple sweet-tart dressing of rice vinegar. The top was adorned with a colorful, flavorful mixture of chopped herbs, crispy shallots and carrot threads. We piled the salad into the shrimp chips, which have the texture of puffy potato chips, and marveled how the textures and flavors complemented each other.
Another fabulous dish is an $8.95 lemon beef salad, combined in haphazard beauty with thin slices of beef, shredded carrots, onions and crispy shallots in a refreshing lime juice dressing. (Number 82.) By all means, try a traditional Vietnamese “shake,” especially one made with a tropical fruit called soursop that is blended into creamy fruity froth. (Number 137.) The drink is big enough to share and costs $2.25. Even the simplest noodle dishes, the Vietnamese equivalent of “fast food,” are works of natural art. The bun dishes are like warm salads layered with rice vermicelli, herbs, vegetables and peanuts with a dressing of fish sauce lightly spiked with chile. The noodle dishes come with a variety of toppings, but one outstanding choice is grilled prawn and beef. (Number 31.) The shrimp were crisp and smoky from the grill but moist and tender inside. The beef was sliced into tissue-thin pieces, then wrapped around a wedge of white onion and grilled. The flavors were unadorned and beautiful — a bargain at $5.75. Saigon’s soups, such as pho, and firepots are glories of ingredients and large enough to serve a small family. For example, a $7.50 mixed vegetable soup arrived with a cauldron of broth thick with vegetables and served with a side of rice noodles. DuBroff described such nourishing soups as “winter food,” saying the Vietnamese people eat such body warmers during the colder months. I’ve eaten at dozens of Vietnamese restaurants through the years, but for me it was a special treat to dine with someone who knows the menu and the traditions. It made an outstanding meal even more memorable. Two can feast at Saigon for about $20″
— Charlotte Balcomb Lane Journal Staff Writer
All Photos taken by Wes Naman