Squeezing through narrow spaces between tables like fat mice through underground pipes. Making small gestures instead of large ones for fear of knocking into my neighbor half an inch away. Downing multiple gulps of water in hopes of relieving a brewing sense of impatience in a dining room where servers are scarce. These were some of the ordeals my dining companions and I endured at newly-opened Saigon Kitchen before our apologetic server finally came to take our order.
Then the appetizers arrived, in such dainty portions that I couldn’t decide whether two thin Imperial meat rolls looked stylistically gourmet or aesthetically paltry. The crispy rolls looked like cigarettes that had accidentally fallen into a deep fryer, charred beyond recognition. The skin was chewy with hints of uncooked flour and a filling that was so muddled that one could hardly differentiate the flavors of the “glass noodles, minced pork, onions, carrots [and] jicama” that the menu boasted. While the Wok Village egg rolls were merely plumper versions of the Imperial egg rolls stuffed with under-seasoned napa cabbage and celery, the summer rolls of raw vegetables wrapped in rice paper lacked the zip of acid or mint to rev up their bland flavor.
Another eternity passed as we waited for our entrées. The dining space, which is as skeletal as Madonna and as unsophisticated as Paris Hilton, offered little excitement except for a couple of lifelike portraits of everyday Vietnamese folks. There was no ambient music to distract from the wait, and instead, the high-decibel bustle of the Thursday evening crowd filled our ears.
Then, the aroma of beef broth wafted to my nose. There was something simply magical and magically simple about what came next — a eureka moment that sent our impressions of the restaurant swinging from one extreme to the other. A giant, steaming bowl of glass noodles, called pho, was set in front of each of us, practically begging to be slurped. The heady beef broth was rich without being fatty, a testament to the amount of time and effort that had gone into creating its deep flavor. Bean sprouts and basil in their most unadulterated raw form were dropped table-side, with a splash of lime and Sriracha. The melange of thinly sliced beef steak, brisket and tendon were lightly kissed by the heat of the broth, producing tender beef that was juicy enough to hold its own — no General Tso or orange sauce needed to mask any culinary insecurity. Any more authentic and I would have been squatting by a roadside stall in Hanoi sipping from a ceramic bowl.
I had this exact same moment of bliss when I enjoyed Saigon Kitchen’s vermicelli noodles on a separate occasion. Steamed vermicelli noodles were set on a pillow of raw julienned carrots and daikon radishes, as well as shredded lettuce and cucumbers, and tossed in a piquant, housemade fish sauce dressing. Slices of outrageously flavorful grilled lemongrass chicken adorned the dish simply and elegantly. This dish was proof that you don’t need slabs of butter, jugs of cream and tons of sugar in a kitchen to make food taste good. Honest, clean flavors can taste equally if not more scrumptious.
Never mind that our server constantly sent our dishes to the wrong seats. Never mind that Saigon Kitchen mangled my favorite bubble tea by over-boiling the tapioca pearls at the bottom of the drink. There is something unpretentious about this hole-in-the-wall that makes you want to return. Because even though so much went wrong, it just felt so damn right.