What's your favorite shrimp dish?" my friend asked our waiter.
He'd been standing beside our cramped booth, shoulders slumped, holding a small notepad in one hand and studiously avoiding our eyes while we studied the huge menu and sucked down the sugary, freshly made lemonades he'd slid across the table. Now, as he opened his mouth to answer, he looked away completely, as though he were about to leak a secret onto our table."7SH," he said quickly, making a mark on his pad.
"7SH?" my friend repeated, searching for it on the menu.
630 South Federal Boulevard
www.newsaigon.com Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
Sai Gon Dac Biet $39.95
Tom kho tieu broccoli $12.95
Bun cha gio thit nuong $7.95
Ech rang muoi $15.95
Spring roll $1.50
"7SH," he said, scribbling more notes.
"Okay, I guess I'll have that," she said, and he gave a sharp nod, eyes finally darting in our direction.
"And you?" he asked me.
"3FL," I said hurriedly. "And 5N."
He nodded again, jotted down another note, then turned sharply on his heels. He hadn't gotten more than three steps when my friend called after him, "And could we get some spring rolls, too?"
Another quick nod, and he was off.
For me, a Vietnamese meal invariably starts with an order of spring rolls. The ones at New Saigon are fat and fresh, with thinly sliced pork, whole shrimp, thin rice noodles, lettuce and julienned carrots stuffed inside rice wrappers. They're perfect for waking up the palate — and also as an excuse to slurp up excessive amounts of the sweet peanut sauce that comes as a side and is even better than eating spoonfuls of peanut butter straight from a jar.
Before we'd finished the rolls, our waiter returned with a tray full of dishes. Seeing that our table was littered with straw wrappers, as well as the remains of our starter, he freed one hand to make a sweeping motion — indicating that we had to clear away our mess before he'd hand over the food. Laughing nervously, we obliged and shoved the dishes to the side — at which point he plunked down the plates, then turned on his heel and took off again.
The waiter's behavior might have been odd, but his recommendation was solid: 7SH turned out to be tom kho tieu broccoli, a pile of onion-flecked shrimp crisped with garlic in a sauté pan, then mixed with stalks of steamed broccoli and tossed in a buttery, peppery sauce that packed a subtle, dry heat. Vietnamese food is a smart marriage of French and Chinese influences, and that balance was on beautiful display here: French cooking technique (and, um, butter) applied to ingredients common to Chinese cooking.
More photos: In the kitchen at New Saigon
Those influences also flavored 3FL, ech rang muoi. After the French extended their reach into Indochina, frog's legs became prominent in Vietnamese cooking. I love frog's legs, which are dainty and delicate, the meat like a cross between white fish and chicken wings. New Saigon offers them done six different ways; in this preparation, they'd been sautéed with garlic, butter and black pepper, which augmented — but did not overpower — the slightly sweet meat. I used my hands to get every bit of flesh, smearing butter across my face in the process. And then I used rice to sop up what was left of that delicious, simple sauce.
After that, I finally turned my attention to 5N, the bun cha gio thit nuong. My love of Vietnamese food really began with bun, a happy combination of spindly vermicelli noodles, grilled meats or egg rolls, fresh lettuce, slices of cucumber, shreds of cilantro, peanuts and nuoc cham, a thin sauce of lime juice, fish sauce and sugar studded with bits of serrano chile. Although some of Denver's many pho shops also make bun, the bun at New Saigon could be my favorite in the city. This time, I'd opted for a version that topped the noodles with grilled pork sweet from a marinade of garlic, sugar and pepper, as well as pork-stuffed egg rolls. I dumped in the sauce, squirted on ribbons of sriracha and mixed everything together into an addictive mix of savory and sweet, spicy enough to make my nose drip.
Midway through that bowl, though, I ran out of water to put out the fire — and I began searching for our server, who was nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, he burst into our corner of the dining room as if rounding a baseball diamond at top speed, then disappeared just as quickly, with tables still calling out their needs and one woman even chasing him into the kitchen. Still, somehow he managed to get the message, because not even a minute later, a busboy had filled my water glass.
The next time we saw our waiter, he abruptly delivered our check, then headed off on another quick lap of the dining room. Although all that was left of our feast was shrimp tails and frog bones, we were in no hurry to go and leaned back in our booth, chatting. But as he finished that lap, he circled back to our table, picked up the plastic tray holding our tab and tapped it on the table a couple of times. "Okay, thank you!" he said. "Have a good night! Time to pay!"
I quickly dug out my credit card: No way did I want to hurt my chances of returning to New Saigon. This restaurant may have one of the strangest servers in the world, but I don't go to New Saigon for the service. I go for the incredible food.
Thai Nguyen and his wife, Ha Pham, who does the cooking, bought this restaurant in 1987 from the owners who'd opened New Saigon two years earlier. It's not the oldest Vietnamese spot in Denver — that designation belongs to T-Wa Inn, which beat New Saigon by just a year and is only a block away on Federal Boulevard — but it's aged well, as long as you're not judging things by appearances. The space is wide, dark and slightly cramped, divided at the entry into two distinct parts, the result of an early expansion. It's filled with furniture that's seen better days, and there's not so much a decor scheme as a random collection of stuff that looks like it was stuck on the walls over the years. I loved New Saigon from the first time I ate there, nearly a decade ago. But after visiting Vietnam, I gained a new appreciation for it. While Denver has dozens of ridiculously good pho shops, here you can taste the full spectrum of that country's culinary canon. And I mean full: It might take a lifetime to eat your way through New Saigon's massive menu — and no matter what you order, it's likely to be on par with what you'll find on the streets and in the restaurants of Vietnam, one of the best countries in the entire world for eating. But there's a critical difference: While many of the eateries in that country focus on just one or two specialties, New Saigon features dozens.
On a recent visit, I discovered a convenient way to sample much of what the kitchen has to offer: the rice paper wraps. This dish was suggested by my server, who was helpful in all of the ways that our earlier server was not. He listened carefully as my friend and I ordered, then asked if we'd rather try rice paper wraps instead, noting we'd get the noodles, spring rolls, grilled pork and soft-shell crabs we craved — plus much more — for about the same price we were about to drop on the collection of dishes we'd put together. We agreed to go for 1RW, the Sai Gon Dac Biet, and he began readying our table: dropping off a giant plate of lettuce leaves, basil, cilantro and pickled cucumbers and carrots, as well as a bowl of hot water and a dish stacked with rounds of brittle, translucent rice paper. "Keep this plate on top of the stack," he advised. "Otherwise, the papers will break."
Seconds later, he was back with a platter nearly the size of our table. Battered and fried soft-shell crabs glistened greasily in one section; I couldn't resist grabbing a bite, letting the savory crunch give way to the sweet meat inside. Strips of sweet, garlicky grilled pork filled another wedge. There were also piles of grilled shrimp and long, thin, crispy pork egg rolls; a mound of shrimp paste, a sort of grilled patty made from ground prawns and pepper; a bed of vermicelli noodles. The idea, our server explained, was to dip a rice paper in the hot water until it softened, then load it with whatever we wanted, rolling it like a burrito and dunking it in the scallion-spiked, sweet, vinegary sauce served on the side. We were creating our own spring rolls — but these were much better than the spring rolls I've ordered at the start of every Vietnamese meal for as long as I can remember. Even the regular spring rolls at New Saigon.
It also made for an extremely social way to eat lunch. We spent about an hour and a half rolling up bundles of odds and ends and eating roll after roll until we could no longer form intelligent sentences because all the blood from our brains had gone to our stomachs.
When our server dropped off the check, we assured him he'd made an excellent recommendation. "No rush," he told us.
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Because after 25 years in very good hands, New Saigon isn't going anywhere.
More photos: In the kitchen at New Saigon