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It was the third time the woman had asked the server to give her a few more minutes. "I just can't decide," said the thirty-something gal, who was obviously getting no help from her equally perplexed date. "Could you just come back one more time?"
The server graciously agreed, returning ten minutes later. By now, the woman looked positively anguished. "I still don't know," she said. "Maybe the shrimp with bell pepper? Maybe the lamb curry? I love the lamb with grape leaves."
Finally, she gave up. "Surprise me," she told the server. "Whatever it is, it'll be great."
630 S. Federal Blvd.
Denver, CO 80219
Region: Southwest Denver
And so yet another diner successfully avoided the dilemma of deciding which dish to order from the list of 243 available at New Saigon. But no matter what you choose here, you really can't lose -- as the dawdling woman correctly pointed out, anything at this Vietnamese eatery is bound to be great.
The restaurant itself is getting better all the time. Over the past decade, New Saigon has earned accolades not only locally, but in Gourmet and the Zagat guides as well. And while less-than-enthusiastic service banished it from my Best of Denver list last summer, the staff has become much more attentive in recent months.
Even owner Thai Nguyen is a little less harried these days. "Oh, it has gotten much easier to run this restaurant in the past couple of years," he says. "And it's only going to keep getting better, I think." One of the primary reasons for Nguyen's lighter load is the ease with which he can procure proper ingredients, such as his favorite nuoc mam and oyster sauce, since trade restrictions with Vietnam were loosened four years ago. "When I first took this over, we still were not trading with Vietnam," he explains. "Even mentioning it was still not a good idea then."
That was back in 1987, when Nguyen assumed the then-two-year-old New Saigon from its former owners. At the time, Nguyen was only five years out of Vietnam himself. "I escaped in 1982," he says. "I was just a teenager, and when I got here to Denver, I worked in a furniture store to save money to buy a restaurant because I missed the food from home so much."
It didn't take long for Denver diners to learn what they'd been missing, too. Nguyen soon had to knock out a wall in the South Federal storefront to create more space -- decorating it with gray-upholstered chairs and green booths and curtains for a comfortable, tasteful setting -- to accommodate all the regulars who found themselves hooked on New Saigon's authentic and incredibly tasty fare.
It's cooked by Nguyen's wife, Ha Pham, who knows her thit --not to mention her pho and her cua lot($12.95). The latter is soft-shell crab, and it's one of the most popular items on New Saigon's enormous roster. The crabs themselves are enormous, the size of Frisbees, and arrive three to an order. Pham had coated each one in a medium-thick batter more reminiscent of fish-and-chips than anything Asian, but the resulting crust gave us something to hold onto without ruining the sweet, juicy flesh inside. The crabs came with a tart, extra-spicy nuoc cham that was ideal for dipping, and not enough napkins.
Of New Saigon's many offerings, only about two dozen -- including the soft-shell crab -- technically qualify as starters. I've eaten my way through about a quarter of them: salty fried wontons ($5.95) filled with shrimp paste; crispy pork-filled egg rolls ($4.95) with all the trimmings; the town's most expertly assembled spring rolls ($1.25 each), with an intensely sweet-and-spicy peanut sauce to match; and goi tom thit ($8.95), a vibrantly lemony salad-like mix of shrimp, pork, cabbage and carrots. Even the jellyfish ($8.95) was wonderful, with that same lemony fish sauce coating the crunchy shreds. The crunch doesn't come from cooking, though. To prepare jellyfish, the kitchen soaks it to remove the salty brine in which the sun-dried sea creature is preserved; the result is a texture that most people compare to rubber bands but which has an appealing bite if you don't think about it too much.
The entrees that follow these exquisite starters offer variations on a theme with interchangeable meats (and those meats include frog's legs, lamb and duck); many of the same basic preparations are available vegetarian-style, too. What makes so many of these dishes truly stand out, though, are the unique sauces that Pham makes up fresh for each specific combination. So while her sauce for the bo xao sa ot ($8.95) included bell pepper to sweeten the lemongrass-infused beef, the sauce for the heo xao sa ot ($8.95) contained no bell pepper and more lemongrass, which worked perfectly with the already-sweet pork. Both xao sa ot dishes had been highlighted in red on the menu, which denotes "spicy," but neither were sense-singeing. Nor was the tau hu xao cari($6.95), described simply as tofu stir-fried in a curry sauce but in reality a lovely, gently spicy mixture of golden-fried bean curd strips and cabbage. But the jalapeño-laced dipping sauce that came with the ca chien mam gung ($8.95), a pile of deep-fried catfish nuggets liberally sprinkled with ginger, wound up frying the tastebuds off our tongues. The pain was a pleasure, though, because the flavor of that fresh, moist fish cut right through the heat.