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Missed Saigon

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Communists officially renamed Vietnam's largest city Ho Chi Minh City--but that didn't prevent millions of Vietnamese people from continuing to call it Saigon. The natives were so persistent, in fact, that officials finally compromised and decided to allow the center of Ho Chi Minh City to be called Saigon.

When emigrants open Vietnamese restaurants in this country, it seems they almost invariably include the word "Saigon" in their eateries' names--either to pay homage to their lost home, or to flip off their former oppressors, or both. And so here in Denver we have New Saigon, Old Saigon, Saigon Palace, Saigon Bowl and Saigon Terrace.

And the list keeps growing. Just over a year ago, House of Saigon opened in Greenwood Village, bringing a much-needed ethnic option to this rather soulless section of suburbia. Like the owners, House of Saigon's employees are Vietnamese, as welcoming and efficient as the dining room (with attached patio) is elegant and inviting. But sadly, as is often the case when an ethnic eatery serves a more mainstream population, House of Saigon offers only toned-down versions of popular Vietnamese dishes, and it charges at least a dollar more per dish than do its counterparts on Federal Boulevard. The prices no doubt reflect the higher rent charged for space in this pink, tree-lined plaza (it's something of a suburban oasis of good taste, since it also houses the home-cooking-themed Uncle Sam's and the upscale Italian Ristorante Catalano), but that doesn't make the big bill at the end of a meal any easier to swallow.

Especially since the dishes are not only dull, they're on the stingy side. While a lunch noodle bowl of grilled shrimp with lemongrass ($5.50) contained a fair amount of dry rice noodles, they were topped by just five small (36-45 per pound count, officially) shrimp and three shreds of lemongrass, as well as a sprinkle of peanuts and a few strands of carrots and daikon. The shrimp had a sweet grilled flavor, but there weren't enough of them to make eating through the rest of the bland bowl worthwhile. And although our waiter had indicated the nuoc cham sauce was just the thing to spice up the dish, we'd already been disappointed by the lackluster mix that tasted of nothing but nuoc mam (fish sauce) and sugar--where were the chiles, the garlic and the lime juice?--when we'd tried it with our Vietnamese egg rolls ($1.50 each). Fortunately, the egg rolls tasted just fine on their own, even if they were filled mostly with rice noodles.

Another lunch entree, a skimpy serving of tofu in curry sauce ($5.75), was all coconut milk with minimal chile heat; the tofu looked lonely in its little clay pot, kept company by only a few bits of broccoli and carrot. Another blah dipping sauce--a too-sweet peanut concoction--came with the side of crystal rolls ($1.50 each). Despite the fancy title, these were standard spring rolls, rice-paper-wrapped logs sporting exactly one shrimp each and lots of rice noodles; the sauce was too thick to provide much-needed moisture.

At dinner the portions are both slightly larger and slightly more flavorful. Still, the soft-shell crab ($8.25 for one) was a dud. The batter had been cooked to such a deep brown that the crustacean inside had melted into oblivion. I like deep-fried foods as much as anyone, but this was like eating a big wad of crust. The marinated beef with lemongrass ($8.95), one of the "grilled appetizers" that come with lettuce leaves for wrapping and more boring nuoc cham for dipping, was better, but there weren't enough of the succulent beef strips to warrant the price. The grilled-mussel appetizer ($8.95) was the best of the three: Rich, fresh bivalves had been proficiently grilled, then sided with a superb lemon sauce choking with black pepper.

That was about the extent of House of Saigon's liquid assets. While the pho bo ($5.50) was typically huge and contained sirloin beef that was of a higher quality than the usual flank, the broth had none of pho's characteristic concentration of star anise, ginger and onion. The vegetarian special ($8.25) should have been billed as plain steamed veggies, since there was certainly nothing special about the broccoli, carrots, black mushrooms, baby corn, tofu and pineapple sitting in a dull, watery bean sauce that displayed none of the promised chile heat.

More flavorful was the chef's clay pot ($14.95), which featured a spicy, creamy ginger base enhanced by black mushrooms. While the liquid wasn't exactly swimming with lobster, shrimp, scallops and squid, what seafood there was had been expertly cooked. The kitchen also displayed some skill with the grilled quail lemongrass ($10.25), a small bird with a crisp, lemony skin that arrived awash in chile-flecked coconut milk.

But if House of Saigon is hoping to introduce suburbanites to the delights of Vietnamese food, it should serve authentic Vietnamese food seasoned the way it's supposed to be. As it is, this kitchen displays nothing more than bland ambition.

Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant sets its sights considerably higher--and often beyond the kitchen's reach. This tiny (just twelve tables), sparsely decorated spot opened two years ago in a Kmart-dominated strip mall, but its sophisticated, shrewdly spiced fare is something you'd expect to find in a much larger, more popular restaurant. Except that there, you'd expect to get more of it on your plate.

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