In Chinese and Vietnamese cultures, numerology is very important. If you’ve traveled extensively, you may have wondered why the term “Pho” followed by a number is so commonplace. Often these numbers are considered lucky–and not necessarily across an entire culture. A number may be lucky on a personal level, perhaps marking a date that’s special to the restaurant owner. Espy a restaurant named Pho 66and the number 66 may well represent the year the owner fled Vietnam during the war. Restaurants named Pho 75 may well be honoring 1975, the year Saigon fell. Numerical repetition is also considered fortuitous. The City of Vision certainly counts the number eleven as a lucky number.
November 11th, 2011 at precisely 11 o’clock AM (11/11/11 at 11AM) saw the launch of Rio Rancho’s third Vietnamese restaurant when Saigon 2 Restaurant opened its doors on Southern Boulevard. The restaurant is situated in an 1,800 square foot space that’s about a thousand feet smaller than Saigon Restaurant, its elder sibling on San Mateo. Because the Rio Rancho restaurant is smaller, the menu is somewhat abbreviated–115 items instead of 145 items. Fish dishes are not be served in Saigon 2, but for the most part, the dishes prepared incomparably well at the original Saigon are also available in its sibling.
Owner Vicki Truong could well have named her first restaurant Pho 88 in honor of 1988, the year she left Vietnam or she could have named it Pho 2000 in honor of the year she arrived in Albuquerque and launched her first restaurant. She chose instead to honor the former capital of South Vietnam, now more often called Ho Chi Minh City. Since launching her first restaurant, she’s garnered a tremendous following among devotees of Vietnamese cuisine. She still spends most of her time at her original restaurant, entrusting her capable staff in Rio Rancho to uphold the high standards for which her restaurants are known.
Vicki does try to spend Sundays in her Rio Rancho restaurant, flitting between the kitchen and the dining room, addressing her guests as “honey” or “sweetie” and ensuring their comfort. She is one of the most personable restaurateurs in the metropolitan area and one of the very best Vietnamese chefs in New Mexico. The latter is especially surprising considering that when she first arrived in the States, she couldn’t cook. She learned how to cook at the Vietnamese restaurant in which she worked in San Jose, California. That makes her mastery of Vietnamese cooking a marvel.
SaiGon is the only restaurant for which I’d list egg rolls as an absolute “must have” (typically, especially at Chinese restaurants, egg rolls should be categorized as “must avoid.”) These cigar shaped treasures, served with a tangy fish sauce, are among the very best I’ve had anywhere. They explode with the flavor of perfectly seasoned ground pork and vegetables encased in a crispy, deep-fried yellow wrapper. Served six to an order, it might be advisable to request two orders to keep peace in the family. As with other appetizers, the greenery (cilantro, mint and Thai basil) isn’t there solely as plate decoration. Vicki expects that her guests will wrap just about their egg rolls on a lettuce leaf and add cilantro and Thai basil to taste–and if you don’t, she’ll certainly talk you into it.
If you ever espy a diner at one of the Duke City’s Vietnamese restaurants wrapping something that’s already wrapped (egg rolls) in lettuce, chances they picked up that habit at SaiGon under Vickie’s tutelage. It’s the way we now like them, but only at SaiGon where generous amounts of Thai basil and cilantro along with some of the very best fish sauce in town enliven the best egg rolls in town. The only drawback is dipping them into the fish sauce which can be a pretty messy proposition.
Very much a “beefaholic,” my very favorite entree, found in the “salted dishes” portion of the menu, is grilled onion beef, an order of which features ten cigar-shaped “beef rolls” encasing slightly caramelized grilled white onions then topped with ground peanuts and diced green onion. Every bite is like an adventure in culinary flawlessness with tastes that awaken and tantalize your taste buds. The beef rolls are thin (but not carpaccio thin) and have a more than subtle smoky sweet fragrance. You can eat these sans fish sauce or with fish sauce. They’re terrific either way.
Another way to have the grilled onion beef is with steamed vermicelli fashioned into one large rice noodle sheet in a cheesecloth pattern. At May Hong, these noodles are called patter noodles. The noodles are cut into squares about four-inches in diameter. This entree (#46 on the menu) is served with a bowl of lettuce, carrots, daikon, cucumbers, bean sprouts, basil and cilantro. Obviously, the intent is to use the lettuce as the outer wrap in which you layer the vermicelli noodles, grilled onion beef and vegetables into a lettuce roll to be dipped in fish sauce. It’s a messy option, but unbelievably good.
If you suffer from triskaidekaphobia (fear or avoidance of the number 13), you might not order the #13 beef noodle soup at Saigon 2. You’d be depriving yourself of one of the best pho dishes in the metropolitan area, a brimming, swimming-pool sized bowl of luxurious beef pho with rare beef, buttery rice noodles, scallions, cilantro and sundry herbs. Perhaps the only aspect of this soup more pleasurable than how it tastes is the aroma which precedes its arrival at your table. Steam wafts toward your eagerly awaiting nostrils, a precursor to a soup that known to make grown men (at least this one) swoon.
There are Vietnamese cuisine aficionados who will tell you the only restaurant equal to or better than Saigon 2 is the original Saigon. Both have made visitors believe in luck and it’s all good.
Saigon 2 Restaurant
2003 Southern Blvd Suite, S.E., 105-106
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 12 November 2016
1st VISIT: 18 November 2011
# OF VISITS: 5
BEST BET: Grilled Onion Beef, Egg Rolls, Rare Beef With Rice Noodle Soup, Special Clay Pot with Grilled Chicken