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The first time I visited this Saigon, I ordered the lamb chops with five spices ($10.95). In return, I got six fairly thick chops that had been broiled with their marinade of white wine, curry (the five-spice mix of cloves, fennel, star anise, cinnamon and pepper), garlic, ginger, lemongrass and chiles until each chop was like a lollipop of plush lamb meat covered with a thick, rich goo of flavor. It was so good, the dish earned a 1998 Best of Denver award.
But last month, soon after that issue came out, people started complaining that the Saigon's lamb with five spices had dwindled into four skinny little chops (to add insult to injury, employees were telling customers that the Best of Denver had described the dish incorrectly). So I returned and ordered it again. This time I got five chops, more in the medium-to-skinny range of thickness, but still with that same finger-licking-good sauce. The award stands.
The rest of the fare I've sampled at Saigon is also worthy of attention--even if the portions are so small that the entrees often seem more like appetizers. The appetizers themselves, at least, are an appropriate size. The two soft-shell crabs ($8.95), for example, were a delicious deal for the price. The crab had been marinated, then fried in a thin coating of batter; the marinade brought out the crab flavor, and this batter didn't try to hide it. The Vietnamese egg rolls ($4.75 for two) were outstanding, with several layers of thin rice paper wrapped around seasoned pork and vegetables, then deep-fried until the shell was crisp and the filling inside moist and hot. The rolls came with a nuoc cham that was an ideal blend of tart, fishy and sweet. The sauce also went well with the stuffed grape leaves ($9.50), broiled bundles of garlic-infused shrimp and beef packed inside grape leaves that had crisped and taken on a faint, delicious charred taste.
5960 S. Holly St.
Englewood, CO 80111
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
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If good things come in small packages, then truly great taste came in the criminally tiny order of hot and spicy clams ($9.95). The eight (count 'em, eight!) teeny clams had been stir-fried in a butter sauce that was punched into five-alarm territory by chiles and garlic. The dish also contained a few strips of green peppers, a couple of carrot discs and four broccoli flowerets, but those were hardly consolation for the minute portion.
I thought perhaps the price of lamb and clams was responsible for the small servings, so on a subsequent stop, I tried the beef in wine sauce ($7.95). But this dish, too, was skimpy, with barely enough thinly sliced, tender sirloin to make half a sandwich, let alone a meal. Still, the sauce was incredible, peppery and vinegary with a slightly sweet undercurrent. An order of stuffed tofu ($7.95) brought more big flavor in a meager ration: thick-sliced tofu stuffed with imitation crab, ground pork, onions and rice noodles, and sitting in a thin, garlic-pungent fresh tomato sauce.
Although this Saigon clearly knows how Vietnamese food should taste, the portions should be just as bountiful as the flavors.
What's in a name? Not enough. A restaurant can't settle for letting its name evoke the country of a cuisine's origin. You need to taste the place, too.
House of Saigon, 5960 South Holly Street, Greenwood Village, 713-1021. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday; noon-10 p.m. Saturday; 4-9 p.m. Sunday.
Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant, 5115 Federal Boulevard, 455-8239. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.