A tale of two Saigons
The process by which restaurants get selected for this column involves equal parts strategy and serendipity. New restaurants, if they’re any good, are no-brainers for coverage. But sometimes a case can be made for older places, especially if the Alibi has never covered them.
Saigon Restaurant is one such place. In an underserved part of town, and with generous hours, it's come up with a winning formula. You see the proof front-and-center as you enter—a collection of accolades from seemingly every newspaper and magazine in the state, minus the Alibi.
I first noticed Saigon Restaurant while researching another story, after a case was made for its old-favorite strip mall mate I Love Sushi (reviewed Jan. 13-19). Not long after, I learned that one of the chef/owners at the new Pho Saigon on east Central (reviewed Jan. 20-26) used to work at Saigon Restaurant. I wondered what she’d brought with her and what she left behind. In short, I wondered if Saigon Restaurant was any good without her. It is.
The built-in booths along the west wall are turned diagonally so they recall ocean waves. Appropriately enough, the seafood is strong at Saigon. This is hardly a given in American Vietnamese restaurants, where sometimes shrimp or rubbery pieces of squid are the only things from the ocean.
Of three mussel dishes in the appetizer section, those fried with tamarind sauce were my favorite. They had large pieces of sweet, lightly cooked onion in a tangy gravy, filling the mussel shells and bathing the mollusk meat within. A seafood salad was interesting, appearing at first to be little more than a pile of shredded carrots. But a little prodding revealed coils of squid, shell-free mussels and shrimp, as well as onion and lots of fresh ginger. Dressed in a sweet Vietnamese fish sauce, the grated carrot wrapped around the seafood for effortlessly arranged bites.
The biggest fishy treat was a whole bass served with a massive plate of garnish veggies. I do not use the word “massive” lightly here. The mound was the size of half a basketball, full of sprouts, herbs, lettuce, pickled cucumber and carrot, jalapeños, and lime. It came with a stack of dry rice-paper wrappers that we dipped in a bowl of warm water and rolled into spring rolls.
Vegetarians will have plenty to choose from and cheer about. The tofu and noodle soup (No. 22) had an engaging broth and lots of al dente veggies, along with celery in its accompanying salad. A Cantonese-style veggie and tofu dish (No. 92) kept it simple with Chinese broccoli and onion in a soy sauce. And wide noodles with vegetables (No. 39) was filling and satisfying.
Speaking of wide noodles, a combination plate that included meats and veggies (No. 48) showed off a masterful level of pan-crisp on the soft noodles.
This kitchen-sink approach was less successful in a busy pork and shrimp salad (No. 81), which lacked feeling. Lemongrass aromatic chicken (No. 78) was another fail in my book. I was served small bits of chicken in a sauce that had lost its aroma, if it ever had any.
As far as comparisons to Pho Saigon, both restaurants share a love of quail. At Saigon Restaurant, I had a quail appetizer that was rubbed on the inside with herb paste, then fried and served in herb-draped quarters. I was instructed to make my own dipping sauce by squeezing lime juice onto a little pile of salt and pepper. It was fun to eat—and a bit like crab in terms of the extraction work vs. food return. The DIY sauce was perfect.
There was a similarity in service as well: Both are staffed by kids. But Saigon Restaurant’s were over-the-top attentive, and they knew how to hustle. Still, the food is proof enough that attention from the Alibi is long overdue.