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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.

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.

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.

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