When it closed on Broadway in 2001, the three-time Tony Award-winning musical Miss Saigon had been seen by some six million people during a running of 4,092 performances, making it the sixth longest running show in Broadway history. Outside of Broadway, Miss Saigon was opened by 26 theater companies worldwide, translated into eleven different languages and played in 23 countries throughout the world. The epic musical even had an eight performance run in Albuquerque’s Popejoy Hall in 2003.
During of our inaugural visit to Miss Saigon Bar & Grill in July, 2012, the restaurant was celebrating an eight month run of its own. Though it may not be playing to turn-away crowds…yet, there are some indications this is a restaurant with staying power. It may not be entirely accurate, however, to call it a restaurant and even the “bar & grill” portion of its name doesn’t do it justice. Along with Central Cabana with whom it shares a commodious edifice, Miss Saigon is part of a large, multifarious entertainment complex.
That complex includes a nightclub which showcases live Mexican bands on Fridays and Saturday nights. There isn’t a seat in the house which doesn’t have a view of a large flat screen television (16 of them) on which pay-per-view boxing matches and other sporting events are telecast. A large, full-service bar proffers adult libations of all types. Catering is available for parties, birthdays, weddings and quincinieras. The dining area, easily and by far the largest of any Vietnamese restaurant in the Duke City, can accommodate as many as 400 people and has a professional stage and dance floor.
Seating is more functional than it is comfortable, but from the minute you’re greeted at the front desk, you’re literally enveloped in hospitality. The two pulchritudinous servers are normally attired in traditional “Ao Dai,” an ensemble of trousers and a gown that accentuates the beauty and grace of the wearers. The servers are as friendly and attentive as you’ll find in New Mexico. They’ll happily answer any of your questions and provide recommendations when necessary.
Miss Saigon’s menu belies the capaciousness of the complex. That’s not to say it’s a small menu. It’s just not as compendium-like as the menu at smaller Vietnamese restaurants throughout the Duke City, some of which have more than 120 items. If it’s true that you eat with your eyes first, the dining experience at Miss Saigon truly begins when you peruse the menu which includes beautiful color photographs of the appetizers and entrees. That’s not something you see at every Vietnamese restaurant in the Duke City.
The appetizer menu lists eight items including a “Vietnamese sub sandwich” (banh mi to those of us who frequent Vietnamese restaurants). Appetizers include vegetable rolls which resemble maki (sushi) rolls and a couple of other items heretofore not seen at other local Vietnamese restaurants. Courtesy of the color photographs, you can almost imbibe the fragrance of the steamy pho on the pho menu. Other pages on the menu are dedicated to “Rice Vermicelli,” “Rice Dishes,” “Stir Fried Dishes” and “Vegetarian Dishes,” categories which, were it not for the color photographs, do very little to express the breadth, complexity and deliciousness of the entrees.
In addition to beers, wines and cocktails, the beverage menu features Pepsi products, but that’s what the unacculturated order. Adventurous diners will opt for Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk or perhaps fresh juice (orange, lemon or pennywort (a member of the carrot and dill family)). You can also have a Vietnamese version of a shake which tends to be much thicker and colder than its American counterpart. Miss Saigon offers strawberry, strawberry with banana, avocado, coconut, sour sop, mango, mango with pineapple and though it’s not on the menu, they’ll occasionally offer durian shakes. Durian is not the most popular fruit, even among Vietnamese, because of its reputation for being the most malodorous fruit in the world. It’s my very favorite of all the Vietnamese shakes. Miss Saigon’s version is terrific with a unique bouquet preceding each taste.
Among the appetizers, the grilled pork sausage spring rolls are especially intriguing because they’re not commonly offered at many Vietnamese restaurants, the preferred filler being shrimp in one form or another. Similar to shrimp stuffed spring rolls, these include thin noodles and mint wrapped in an almost translucent rice wrapper, but it’s the thinly sliced Chinese sausage that imparts the biggest impression on your taste buds. It’s a slightly sweet sausage with a coarse texture and is as addictive as any sausage known to man. The spring rolls are served with a very light fish sauce which just doesn’t have the personality we’ve experienced in other fish sauce. Its most discernible flavor is sweetness, but it’s not overly sweet. It could use some piquancy.
The shrimp sausage in bean curd wrap is an interesting starter, first because shrimp sausage almost seems like a contradiction in terms and secondly because shrimp sausage is much more common in Chinese and Filipino cuisine. At first glance, it appears this starter is wrapped in layers of delicate phyllo dough. The fact that anyone can give bean curds the texture and feel of phyllo dough is also intriguing. Insofar as flavor and texture, this, too, is interesting. There is a nuanced flavor of shrimp, but it’s subtle. The texture is chewy yet soft.
Interesting and unique doesn’t stop with the appetizers. The steamed rice vermicelli platter with grilled beef wrapped in wild betel leaves was something new to us. At least the betel leaves part of the dish was. We’ve had the steamed rice vermicelli noodles (called patter noodles at May Hong and Cafe Dalat) before. The noodles hardly seem to be noodles at all. They appear to be more like a one large rice noodle sheet in a cheesecloth pattern. It’s traditional to wrap the grilled pork (which is already wrapped in wild betel leaves) first in patter noodles then in lettuce leafs with mint, julienned carrots, crushed peanuts and fresh mint leaves inside. These lettuce wraps are then dipped in fish sauce. It’s an amazing entree!
There are a number of dishes available only after 4PM including a couple made for two. The most enthusiastically recommended dish (and not because it’s the most expensive on the lunch menu) is the Miss Sai Gon Special Rice Dish with grilled pork chop, shredded pork, meat loaf, egg, pork sausage and shrimp sausage in bean curd wrap. This entree is made even more special because it’s prefaced by a small bowl of simple, but absolutely exquisite pho, the type of pho in which the flavor of the beef stock is enhanced by unctuous marrow and bones. The only additions are dried shrimp, scallions and parsley. It’s such a terrific pho that I know what I’ll be ordering next visit.
The Sai Gon Special Rice dish is indeed special. It’s also large enough for two. From among the beautifully decorated platter, the most surprising dish is the grilled pork, a bone-in pork chop grilled to perfection. The grilling influence is apparent in the light smokiness, but the savory, smoky flavor profile also includes a hint of sweetness I suspect comes from just a bit of brown sugar and fish sauce. In any event, it’s one of my favorite “pork chops” in Albuquerque. The shredded pork is also unique in that the pork resembles noodles in texture and appearance, but has the flavor of dry pork. The “meat loaf” resembles a cupcake. It has an interesting texture–soft and chewy–and unique flavor. The broken rice is intended to be eaten with the fried egg served over sunny side up so the yolk runs down onto the rice. With a little of the diluted fish sauce, it’s a delightful treat.
The highly esteemed Jim Millington, a long-time friend of this blog, contends “there must be a bad Vietnamese restaurant somewhere on this wide earth but I have never found it.” He won’t find it on the intersection of Central and Rhode Island. Instead he’ll find another very good Vietnamese eatery that beckons for return visits.
7915 Central Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 07 July 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Miss Sai Gon Special Rice Dish, Steamed Rice Vermicelli Platter with Grilled Beef wrapped in Wild Betel Leaves, Grilled Pork Sausage Spring Rolls, Shrimp Sausage in bean curd wrap