With an abundance of excellent Vietnamese food available on Stockton Boulevard, it's easy to forget the cuisine — a highlight of Sacramento's culinary landscape — also can be found on Broadway.
Fans long had journeyed to a funky, half-dilapidated building just off 19th Street that was an outpost of the small local chain Pho Bac Hoa Viet. Venerable yet controversial, Pho Bac had its partisans and haters. It provided me with dozens of bowls of pho over the years, but there was no denying that it had fallen on hard times and was perpetually deserted by the time it closed last spring.
Saigon Street Eat, opened last fall in the same space by new owner Huan Pham, seeks to upgrade the old Pho Bac experience. The concept has been freshened up with the addition of a fashionable street-food theme that includes both familiar menu items like pho and vermicelli noodle salads and less-often-seen banana-leaf clear dumplings and an unusual Vietnamese taco.
The new establishment also has given the space a partial, if superficial, makeover: A ceiling of brightly hued parasols adds a cheery air; the rickshaw in the foyer is impressive; TVs (playing a show about street food in Vietnam on our visit) liven things up; and a big menu chalkboard gives the look of a hipper, pricier restaurant. Breathy bubblegum versions of radio pop (Coldplay, Ed Sheeran) accompanied all of our meals there — whether that’s an upgrade depends on your musical tastes.
Such touches don’t, however, entirely camouflage a remaining jankiness about the old, sprawling building, which, decades ago, was the home of Sam's Original Ranch Wagon. An old couch with a giant stuffed frog lurks in one corner, and welcome mats from Pho Bac still adorn the entrance. Signage for a long-ago tenant, the On Broadway Lounge, remains affixed on the exterior.
Above all, the whole eastern half of the building is shuttered — complete with a stop-work order from the city for renovations undertaken without permits — despite hopeful signage for a new poke restaurant. (The new owners plan to develop additional restaurant concepts, but those plans appear to be in embryonic stages.)
Further construction may be in the building’s future. Local lawyer and developer Andrew Skanchy, with his development group Trondheim Properties, owns the building and has plans to construct a 41-unit food-themed apartment complex, to be called ONYX, at 1818 X Street (currently the overflow parking lot for Saigon Street Eat). Skanchy said they hope to break ground on the complex — in the planning stages since 2016 — this fall and that his ownership group is committed to working with the current restaurateurs as the development takes shape.
For now, however, Saigon Street Eat stands alone in its big, rambling building, offering up ultra-cheap eats that have the same win-some-lose-some feel as the décor.
The pho, for instance, was one-note, its broth — the crux of this soup — unremarkable, though the meats (brisket especially) were rich and beefy. Fresh spring rolls, wrapped in tender rice paper, lacked finesse, with hefty wedges of cucumber and too-sweet grilled pork sausage.
Nearly all the meats I tried here as toppings for rice noodles or rice plates, or banh mi filling, were overly sugary, especially the grilled pork, which in several dishes was also fatty and gristly. (Smokier grilled chicken was a better choice.)
The pork’s shortcomings were notable in the odd “Vietnamese tacos,” with plain flour tortillas enclosing pork, a “taco sauce” and a roundup of vegetables. I didn’t quite get the point of the fusion in this dish. It wasn’t offering anything in terms of flavor or texture that a more traditional Vietnamese dish doesn’t do better.
I was likewise underwhelmed with a mild chicken curry served with a baguette, in which chunks of grilled chicken swam in a pleasant-enough yellow coconut base. The baguette did slightly better service in the hefty banh mi, though again, wide slices of cucumber made the sandwich harder to eat. A somewhat better entree choice was the shaking beef, with chewy pieces of medium-rare beef. It was a bit oily, but the flavor balance was good.
Several small plates offered interesting departures from the basics. I was intrigued by clear, pleasantly gummy banana-leaf dumplings — little oblong packets that, when unwrapped, retained the leaf wrapper’s herbaceous flavor, with pork and shrimp inside. Buttery, toothsome garlic noodles were a crowd pleaser, and gamy grilled mussels got a little pop from shallots and peanuts.
Fried crispy rolls were the winners of the appetizers, as is so often the case. Here they were stuffed with chicken rather than the more common pork and had a delicate flavor. I appreciated the huge, fresh pile of vegetables and herbs served alongside, also a feature of another standout dish, the banh xeo (rice-flour crepe). The crepe was lacy, crisp and flavorful, stuffed with shrimp and pork and accompanied by a lovely assortment of herbs. It’s my new favorite rendition of banh xeo in town.
A similarly fresh standout was the tofu salad. I get it, tofu salad doesn’t sound like a winner on the menu. But this was hands down the best dish I tried at Saigon Street Eat, a dramatic tangled mound of shredded cabbage, peanuts, fried shallots, jalapenos, tons of herbs—including the astringent note of rau ram — and slices of crunchy-edged but yielding fried tofu. I would go back just for that.
Drinks included soft drinks, a strong iced coffee with condensed milk, Thai tea and lemonade. I asked about beer and wine, and there are beer bottles on the counter, but the server didn’t seem to understand my request. At lunch, the coffee more than makes up for confusion about alcohol, and at dinner, I was happy enough to stick with the pitchers of refreshing citrus-infused ice water delivered to the table.
That water was a nice touch that, like many details at Saigon Street Eat, bespeaks ambitions that go beyond the average cheap-and-cheerful lunch place. From food to décor to the building that houses it, Saigon Street Eat isn’t quite there yet, but a few sparkling dishes and the restaurant’s eye for stylish touches show its potential for improvement.
Email Kate Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @washingtonkate
Saigon Street Eat
1827 Broadway; 916-443-7888
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. daily.
Beverage options: Soft drinks, plus lemonade and coconut juice, Thai tea, Vietnamese coffee and a few beers.
Vegetarian friendly: Not very; there are meatless items, but most include a fish-sauce-based dressing, so vegetarians should tread carefully.
Gluten-free options: Yes.
Noise levels: Modest.
Ambiance: The tired old Pho Bac Hoa Viet space has been upscaled with colorful, cute parasols covering the ceiling and a big menu chalkboard, but the facelift is far from complete, with remaining oddities such as a couch with a large stuffed frog and the old Pho Bac welcome mats at the entrance.
With an abundance of excellent Vietnamese food close by on Stockton Boulevard, it’s easy to overlook this spot hiding in plain sight on Broadway. Both food and atmosphere are uneven, but low prices and some menu standouts (that tofu salad!) make it worth a look.
All the familiar basics of Vietnamese restaurants are here, if spottily executed: bun (noodle bowls); somewhat lackluster pho; good fried and so-so fresh rolls. Salads, fusion-style small plates (Vietnamese tacos, anyone?) and some strong main dishes — a light, crispy banh xeo (crepe) and shaking beef — add to the lineup.
Friendly but mostly hands-off and sometimes a bit rocky. Dishes were sometimes delivered in confusing order, and we experienced a few challenges with communication.
Prices are quite low, with only three items breaking the $10 barrier and large salads, noodle bowls and rice plates hovering around $8–$10. Small plates, some of them a reasonable meal size, are just $6.