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Hidden gem: Saigon Restaurant

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Rustic pork, cozy in a clay pot and cooked with garlic ($9.95/$12). Photo by Mark Lee
  • Rustic pork, cozy in a clay pot and cooked with garlic ($9.95/$12). Photo by Mark Lee

For quick, cheap and delicious dining, there's no better part of town to visit than the slightly less-than-glamorous area around the intersection of 38th Street and Lafayette Road. Here you'll find excellent Mexican and Asian markets and restaurants, and have a fine old time perusing all kinds of gorgeous produce and nifty ingredients that would have your average supermarket manager groaning with envy.

Formerly a Vietnamese market, Saigon became a restaurant over a decade ago, and has just opened a smart new location just a hop and a skip away from its original location. Clean, well-lit and welcoming, the simple interior promises a no-frills approach to dining, delivering an early promise that your modest check will go in large part to what arrives on your plate and delights your senses. And delight it does, because at Saigon you'll find some of the freshest and most vibrant food in town. This is Vietnamese food that quite happily rivals the country's more celebrated Vietnamese establishments.

If you can take some time off for lunch, this is a good time to go, because Saigon can get busy, and the service can get a bit backed up. But bear in mind, in spite of the menu's astonishing 162 or so dishes (they're numbered) everything that is supposed to be fresh is fresh within the bounds of what is practical. And don't be put off by the massive menu. In many restaurants this would signal massive indecision on the part of the chef and cue a visit from a flaming mad Gordon Ramsay, hell-bent on sorting things out. Not here, though, as many of the main dishes share common ingredients, but prepare them in a staggeringly inventive variety of ways.

For anyone who hasn't eaten much Vietnamese food, this spot is a must-try, whether it be for the rustic pork or catfish cooked in a clay pot with garlic ($9.95 small, $12 large), or the classic soup, known as Pho, replete with tripe and crunchy vegetables ($8.50/ $12), or just a couple of delightfully crunchy shrimp and lettuce spring rolls ($3.50 for 2). Many of my favorite dishes are suffused with a complex spicy character and often a pungent mouthwatering note that derives from the ubiquitous fermented fish sauce, nuocnamnhi. This sauce is also a fantastic addition to many Western dishes, as it lends a profound and complex umami or savory quality to a variety of recipes. You can buy it at local markets for around $10 per quart.

To drink, try one of the now very fashionable bubble teas, complete with oversized tapioca. Although more like fresh fruit Slurpees than tea, these are really quite refreshing and nicely complement the savory nature of the food.

Obviously it takes many visits to fully appreciate the charms and glorious taste sensations that Saigon has to offer. Fortunately, with a good lunch or dinner running just above $30 for two, this should be a viable proposition for those prepared to make the pilgrimage.

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