Breaking up the long menu at Saigon Far East are bold descriptions of the food that lack neither color nor modesty. Consider the bun bo hue: “We are proud to introduce this famous spicy bowl of soup which was located in Central Vietnam,” the menu crows. “A combination of sliced and well cooked beef shank and slowly cooked pork hock sliced. This bowl will spark your imagination and take you far away.”
An apt description. Along with the usual accoutrements you’d expect with pho (bean sprouts, cilantro, lime), the red-brothed soup delivered round noodles, strong flavors of lemongrass and other herbs, bony pig parts, and spicy heat. It was an exotic flavor trip, and hardly the only one to be found here.
There is a wooden pagoda in the middle of the restaurant that makes you feel like you’re in a backyard. Some attractive fake floral arrangements are scattered about, along with the occasional work of art. But for the most part, the authenticity at Saigon Far East is completely uncontrived. Even finding the place is an adventure, tucked as it in a Southeast Heights strip mall on San Pedro and Kathryn. On your way to the bathroom you pass through a huge back room where children watch TV and men chatter in Vietnamese as they play pool. At each dining table, underneath the glass table cover, is a copy of a letter from APD Lt. Harold Medina addressed to “local business establishments” warning that sales of alcohol to minors is illegal.
Even though I had my I.D., I decided to drink a ginger limeade, which was big and delicious. The ginger clawed, the lime taunted, and the sugar kissed and made it better.
All of the salads I tried came beautifully plated, and they all contained shredded pork along with other meaty constituents. Vegetarians will have their work cut out for them at Saigon Far East, but luckily the waitress who always seems to be on duty is smart, well-spoken and brutally honest. After a lengthy conversation, you should be able to get your dishes made vegetarian (although without fish sauce I can’t imagine how most dishes would taste).
The ginger clawed, the lime taunted, and the sugar kissed and made it better.
The shrimp and crab pomelo salad was a symphony of contrasts, in both texture and flavor, with bright slivers of scallion and carrot, diced red bell pepper, slices of onion, big shards of herbs, chunks of sweet and juicy pomelo flesh (similar to grapefruit), and the occasional crunch of crispy pork.
The other salads I tried were good as well. There’s a tangerine and shrimp number that follows a similar format as the pomelo salad. A green mango salad was like a Thai-style papaya salad, with fried onions instead of peanuts. A chicken banana blossom salad had plenty of finely shredded blossom, which is a little fragrant, a little watery and a little chewy.
A stir-fry of pickled mustard greens with squid was amazing and unique. It was full of veggies, came alongside a pile of sticky and mildly fragrant rice, and was drenched with a wonderful sauce that, to my mind, tasted mildly of oyster sauce. The waitress disagreed, but wasn’t more specific. “The guy in the back makes it,” she said, referring to the cook. “He puts garlic and some other things.” The mustard greens, she explained, are pickled in-house, but sometimes they run out and have to buy them that way.
I felt compelled to try the pho, but it seemed so pedestrian compared to the many other soup choices, like the hu tieu my tho, a rice noodle soup with all kinds of proteins in an allegedly “awesome broth.”
Awesome it was. Lots of herbs and scallions were floating in the pork-based broth, along with quail egg, barbecue pork, shrimp and Peking duck. Underneath the noodles, a stash of bean sprouts lurked at the bottom of the bowl. The waitress scolded me for not squeezing my lime on the soup. But the flavor was so complete, I felt no need to change it.