Little Saigon is so replete with restaurants that its not uncommon to find three, four or even five eateries in a single strip mall, with each having a specific appeal and distinctive style.
Two of the best Vietnamese restaurants in this officially designated business-and-cultural district along Stockton Boulevard are Quan Nem Ninh Hoa and Pho Saigon Bay, which happen to be nearly side by side along Stockton Boulevard near 47th Avenue.
While their menus have some overlap, Quan Nem Ninh Hoa, which I reviewed enthusiastically last year, serves food thats popular along coastal Vietnam, including the excellent do-it-yourself spring rolls that arrive with piles of fresh greenery. Saigon Bay, the focus of this review, has a menu that showcases the food of Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City, the largest metropolitan area in Vietnam), including a variety of pho (beef noodle soup) and a hodgepodge of other offerings from northern, central and southern Vietnam.
Saigon Bay is the more stylish restaurant when compared to the simple, open and bare-bones vibe of Quan Nem Ninh Hoa. Plenty of effort has been put into Saigon Bays building and its décor, which sports a large, hand-painted mural of pandas in a bamboo forest, a fish tank, a relatively grand entryway and an overall upscale appearance.
The food at Saigon Bay has no shortage of personality, including intensely flavored chicken, fish and beef broths that serve as the base for several pho noodle dishes. In addition, plenty of fresh herbs and greens can be mixed into soups to adjust or enhance the taste, or used as wraps and filler (romaine lettuce, mint, cilantro and sliced carrot) for spring or pork rolls eaten like a burrito.
Some of the dishes are more than a little exotic for those new to this cuisine. In fact, two Vietnamese friends, on separate occasions, responded with You actually ate that? when I told them I ordered the bun bo hue (spicy beef noodle soup), a specialty that originated in central Vietnam.
What was the big deal, I wondered? Sure, the overall flavor was a tad earthy and had that offal or tripe flavor, but it was certainly tasty in its own way. But no, I wasnt exactly sure what everything in the large bowl was. Turns out those deep-red cubes I thought might have been a marinated tofu were actually coagulated pigs blood, which explains that deep ironlike aroma and finish on the palate. The two friends who joined me that night and who had commented on the soups peculiar flavors were not nearly as amused when I broke that little bit of news to them.
By contrast to that gum-smacking earthiness, theres the classic beef pho featuring its distinctive clove-and-anise flavor that rakes across the tongue. For some in the West who are used to balance and restraint, the standard pho may come across as harsh, with a blast of spices that may overwhelm the beef broth. It can be an acquired taste. Saigon Bay does several very good pho dishes with beef broth and noodles, including tai (a standard offering with medium rare steak); tai, chin nam, gau (pho with medium-rare steak, beef brisket and flank steak); and the more adventurous chin, nam, gan, sach (flank, brisket, tendon and tripe).
If your palate needs to ease into the cuisine of Saigon, a much more accessible entry point is the fried chicken, which is among the tastiest in town. The house special wings are coated in a batter of sugar, garlic, pepper and fish sauce. Theres a tangy quality to the overall flavor, and the crisp coating is outstanding. How the exterior maintains its crunchiness even when the wings start to cool is a bit of a mystery. This is a tasty starter dish available in other versions including one with tamarind, which makes it a tad sweeter, and another with lemon salted pepper, which is bright and zesty.
To get an eclectic food experience, youll want to order several dishes to share. If there are two of you, two to four dishes should suffice. If your party has more people, scale up accordingly. The noodle dishes, for instance, will seem deceptive when listed on the menu. For $6.95 or so, you will get a massive bowl of food. The crisp egg rolls, another appetizer, might surprise when they get to the table, as theyre actually deep-fried pork rolls. To eat them as they do in Vietnam, tear off a large piece of lettuce, grab a roll and wrap it up with mint, cilantro and maybe a spoonful of nuoc cham, which is a fish sauce with vinegar, garlic and sugar.
The service, as we have come to expect, is not what you would call thorough or engaging. To be charitable, well round it up as minimalist, meaning its unlikely there will be actual banter between you and your server. You wont hear detailed descriptions of specific dishes, nor will your questions be answered in an illuminating or satisfying way.
If your primary tongue is English, there could be a language barrier. For instance, on one visit, I ordered the tamarind chicken wings and the house special wings (which I had loved on a previous occasion) so I could compare them side by side. When the two plates arrived, they looked and tasted identical. When I asked the server about this, I got shrugs and nods but never really found out what the deal was. Turns out, when two people dont understand each other, talking slower doesnt help.
At least two other non-noodle dishes are also noteworthy. The banh xeo looks like a cross between a pancake and perhaps a quesadilla. Its a very popular dish, and its easy to enjoy for mainstream eater. The pancake, which is made with rice flour and cooked so it is crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, is folded in half and is filled with bean sprouts, shrimp or pork and green onions. You can break off a piece and dip it in the same nuoc cham sauce you get with the egg rolls.
While that spicy beef noodle dish with red tofu is delicious in its own way, especially for those looking for authentic flavors, there are three noodle dishes at Saigon Bay that Id recommend as delicious and accessible to mainstream eaters.
The chicken cellophane noodle soup (No. 29C on the menu) may sound odd, but its a robust and tantalizing bowl of soup featuring glassy, tender and slurp-worthy noodles in an intense chicken broth thats made by boiling chicken bones in a pot for an extended period of time. Thats when you get the depth and complexity. There is an elegance to the mouth-feel, a richness that coats your palate as you eat it, spoon in one hand and chopsticks in the other.
Mimic the regulars by tossing in some mint, cilantro, bean sprouts, jalapeño, basil, lemon and maybe a shot or two of Sriracha or hot chili oil to make the soup your own. Its often best to do this gradually until you get a feel for how the additions alter the flavor.
The beef meatball rice noodle and egg dish (No. 31C) is another winner, with more standard rice noodles, tender and mild, in a effervescent, slightly spicy broth with small but substantial meatballs.
But perhaps the best overall dish I had at Saigon Bay is the sour soup (No. 61) served with your choice of shrimp or fish. We had the fish, and if I had to guess, Id say it was catfish. Its a rustic dish with ample amounts of protein (and by rustic, I mean you will find some skin and small bones, so be careful) in a broth thats slightly sweet at the front end and then finishes with a lingering sour note.
The sweet comes from the pineapple, and you can taste that fruitiness on the tip of the tongue; and the sour note is from the tamarind, which hits the back of the palate in an inviting way. This year-round soup is tremendously rich, balanced and soothing. If I were feeling under the weather, this is what I would select as a pick-me-up.
The sour soup is visually dynamic, too, loaded with chunks of tomato and pineapple as well as long, tender pieces of okra, basil and bean sprouts. When you add garnishes to this broth, do so with restraint. The two slices of jalapeño I added, for example, turbo-charged the flavor and the spicy heat, and we wound up pulling them out before we lost control of this memorable broth.
This is the way to eat and enjoy the food at Saigon Bay. Immerse yourself in a variety of dishes, share them with your friends and tweak the flavors along the way to your liking. This is real eating, and even though I love Quan Nem Ninh Hoa next door for the freshness and vitality of its dishes, we admire Pho Saigon Bay for its distinctive cuisine and its own way with flavors.
It doesnt matter which place is better. Whats important is that they are both there, side by side, ready to cater to the experience youre after. They are among the many great eateries that make Little Saigon an exciting culinary destination that enriches our city.
Call The Bees Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.