According to some stereotypes, when you eat Chinese food, you’ll be hungry an hour later. The “Chinese food paradox” is that you can consume a nauseatingly large meal and be hungry a short time later. Rice, a very starchy food which metabolizes quickly is one culprit credited for this phenomenon while some blame monosodium glutamate (MSG) when hunger creeps in shortly after finishing a meal. The trouble with eating Italian food, according to British writer George Miller, is that five or six days later you’ll be hungry again. With Italian food–at least Americanized Italian food served in some of the ubiquitous abhorrent chains–portions are enough to feed a village in a developing country. A plethora of pasta, tons of tomato sauce, miles of meatballs–is it any wonder Alka Seltzer’s most famous commercial depicted a poor sap bemoaning the consumption of dozens of Mamma Mia’s spicy meatballs?
These stereotypes may have been fashioned in humor, but there may be some elements of truth behind them. Unfortunately many of the stereotypes about Vietnamese food are based on inaccurate and xenophobic untruths perpetuated by people who haven’t tried Vietnamese food. The stereotype which should persist about Vietnamese food is that it leaves an indelible impression on your taste buds that leaves you craving it again and again. Of course, being wholly accurate, you couldn’t call it a stereotype.
If taste buds and olfactory senses have a memory, there’s nothing more memorable than Vietnamese food; hours after each Vietnamese dining experience, our taste buds beckon for a return…and soon. Fortunately Albuquerque is blessed with several outstanding Vietnamese restaurants, making our challenge determining which one will quell our nearly wanton longing for divinely inspired cuisine whose genesis includes the creative influences of the French, Chinese, Indian and more.
SaiGon (along with May Hong) is somewhat of an anomaly in that it’s not located anywhere near Albuquerque’s tightly-knit Vietnamese neighborhoods, most of which seem to be concentrated on the southeast quadrant of the city. That didn’t stop chef and proprietor Vickie Truong from cultivating a loyal and diverse patron base who visit her restaurant to partake of a 145-item menu which features the distinct flavors and unique preparation of the most authentic Vietnamese cuisine in town. It also hasn’t stopped the Vietnamese community from frequenting SaiGon perhaps moreso than any other Vietnamese restaurant in town.
Chef Truong learned her trade in San Jose before plying it in the Duke City where (as of September, 2008) she had operated her SaiGon restaurant for eight years without a day off (although the restaurant is closed on Tuesdays). The affable chef flits between the kitchen and the dining room, addressing her guests as “honey” or “sweetie” and ensuring their comfort. She has a trusty and reliable staff, which for years consisted solely her sister, the genial and peripatetic Mai Tran, but until she cultivated a kitchen staff who met her high standards, she did all the cooking. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
Pop Muzak reverberates throughout the large, well-lit dining room where diners sink into oversized maroon vinyl booths and study a menu replete with tempting options. While some items are pretty standard fare, fix your eyes and take a chance on some of the entrees and appetizers not served anywhere else. Your adventurous spirit will be result in a unique and flavorful meal you’ll want to duplicate soon.
Start your meal with an appetizer of fried mussels with tamarind. The sea-sealed brininess of the mussels contrasts beautifully with the sweet, sour and slightly acidic taste of the tamarind-based sauce in which the mussels swim together with grilled white onions. It’s a delicious feast of complementary yet contrasting tastes. The mussels are large New Zealand green-lip mussels, one of the larger varieties of the bivalve mollusk. As with many dishes at Saigon, it is presented magnificently with sprigs of cilantro, Thai basil, mint atop leafy lettuce.
Another artful appetizer unique to SaiGon is the shrimp cup with fish sauce and salad. Shrimp cups are similar to puff pastries, but have a unique flavor resultant from the marriage of tiny shrimp, shrimp powder and a moist pastry wrapper. The pastry wrapper seems very definitely influenced by French culinary practices which is no surprise considering France occupied Vietnam for decades. Still another French influenced appetizer is the roasted quail–two perfectly roasted and impeccably seasoned quail. This is the epitome of finger-licking good. That’s due, in part, to the delicately small quail itself, which by virtue of its size has to be held by both hands even as you nibble tiny bites of the sinewy flesh. A slice of lime is squeezed onto small plate of spices (salt, pepper, garlic and more) to provide a unique dipping sauce which impacts a wonderful flavor to the quail.
Unlike some American restaurants, it’s not only the meat entrees that warrant their own special sections on the menu. SaiGon’s menu pays tribute to rice and noodles, two Southeast Asia staples. Rice plates and noodle plates can be ordered with various meats, fish shrimp or egg rolls (one appetizer order just isn’t enough), all of which are wonderful. One of our favorite combinations includes shredded pork and pork chops, both incomparably grilled and seasoned with anise and other spices.
Many rice entrees begin with “dry rice stick noodles” which despite an unappetizing name, really means long-grain rice vermicelli noodles prepared with no sauce. There’s nothing dry about them despite the name–and after these noodles absorb the flavors of all with which they’re prepared, you’ll have a fun feast slurping up these waifishly thin noodles. In the photo above, dry rice stick noodles are practically covered with halved egg rolls and grilled onion beef. Julienned carrots and white onions along with crushed peanuts add to the menagerie of flavors which you can then douse liberally with fish sauce if you’d like.
Every time we think Vicki has outdone herself with an entree that surprises us, we uncover another dish we swear might be better than anything else on the menu. That makes it difficult to pinpoint one favorite. Instead, you’re bound to find one new favorite every visit. During an August, 2009 visit, we discovered the special clay pot rice with grilled chicken (#70 on the menu). Clay pot cooking is popular throughout Asia where the clay pot is used as both pot and serving dish. As you eat, the clay pot remains piping hot throughout your meal which allows the slightly smoky sauce of chicken simmered and slightly caramelized on the pot to waft invitingly for the duration of your meal.
Grilled chicken is but one of the centerpieces of this entree which also includes mushrooms, ginger and Chinese sausage (an unbelievably delicious sausage). The flavors coalesce with the fine-grain rice to form a delicious composite, a soul-warming Vietnamese comfort food that might make you long for a cold winter day.
Sai Gon may have been the first restaurant in town to offer durian shakes and I may be the only non-Asian in town who orders them. Considered the world’s stinkiest fruit, durian exudes a light aroma reminiscent of tropical fruit and garlic, but my stand-up comic friend Bill Resnik insists it is closer to the malodorous emanation of “feet and perspiration.”
If you’re not into adventurous beverages (at least those without alcohol), a lesser risky beverage you might enjoy is a Jackfruit shake (although when ripe and unopen, it may have a malodorous fragrance, too) with tapioca (boba). Jackfruit tastes a bit like pineapple only not quite as sweet or juicy. Another option is an avocado shake which might remind you a bit of sweet guacamole which you drink. The menu also ofers a Guyabano shake which sounds almost too good to be true. Guyabano is a heart-shaped fruit with a dark green, leathery and spike-like skin. Its flesh is creamy and delicious as well as being high in carbohydrates and vitamins while being low in cholesterol, saturated fat and sodium.
Sai Gon is one of the very best Vietnamese restaurants in a city replete with outstanding Vietnamese restaurants. It’s where we go to get our exotic fix as its menu offers options heretofore not found at other restaurants in town. More than the rest of them, Sai Gon has that memorability that makes us long for return visits.
6001 D4 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 30 August 2009
# OF VISITS: 23
BEST BET: Grilled Onion Beef, Egg Rolls, Tamarined Mussels, Thai Sour Soup