What's Old Is New Again
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."
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.
We cooled down with a couple of beef dishes. Bo cuon banh trang ($8.95) featured meat sliced so thin we could almost see through it; each sheet was wet with a slightly sweet, tangy marinade that had soaked in during the very brief grilling process (so brief that I'd say the cook just thought about grilling the meat, and his brainwaves were enough to sear the edges). The beef arrived on a bed of vermicelli stained brown with the juices; on the side sat a pile of lettuce and a few coin-sized slips of pickled carrot and daikon. The dish was simple yet stunningly addictive -- the true hallmark of Vietnamese food done right. Another fine example was the bo tai chanh ($8.95), more papery shards of beef, this time even rarer, tossed with bits of onion and tomatoes and slick with a vaguely salty, citrus-tart sauce. It was like Asian carpaccio, only better. (A Vietnamese friend tells me this dish is usually made with raw beef, but since Americans aren't as keen on the idea of eating that in Vietnamese restaurants as they are in Italian, most Vietnamese places cook the beef slightly.)
Uncomplicated as these dishes were, New Saigon's noodle bowls are even less complex -- and even more essential to an authentic Vietnamese eatery. We tried the shrimp ($6.95), pork ($5.75) and beef ($5.75) bowls, and each brought nearly two meals' worth of perfectly grilled meats, sprinkled with peanuts and sitting atop rice noodles, cucumbers, lettuce and bean sprouts; diners doctor the bowls to their taste with a dousing from one of the variously spicy and sweet condiments already sitting on the tables.
From the plain bowls, we turned to a few of the fancy dishes listed under "Chef Specialties." Mi xao don do bien ($10.95) lived up to its billing. The mishmash of shrimp, scallops, squid, mussels and a teeny-but-tasty lobster tail suffered from a rare stinginess (only two bay scallops, one mussel) but otherwise was a heady combination of seafood stir-fried in oyster sauce atop a bed of crispy egg noodles that somehow managed to stay crisp. Another specialty, the bo quan tom ($8.95), was the one the server had chosen for the dawdling woman. One bite, and I knew why she'd picked it: No one would find fault with these shrimp wrapped in marinated beef slices, then grilled until the sugary meat caramelized and soaked the shrimp with its juices.
New Saigon's true specialty, though, is the frog leg. This is one of the few restaurants in town that offers the delicacy, and while it isn't the wild frog of Nguyen's youth, the farm-raised bullfrogs have a soft texture and a mild kick. We tried the legs sautéed in curry sauce with coconut milk ($9.95), a preparation that almost overwhelmed the meat's delicate flavor. The butter, garlic and black pepper ($9.95) was a better option, with a rich, peppery sauce that was almost French in style.
The real dilemma at New Saigon isn't choosing what you want to eat. It's finding enough room to stuff everything you've ordered. Fortunately, Nguyen's restaurant has shown that it has staying power -- and will no doubt be around long after I've made my way through all 243 dishes.
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