The Saigon Restaurant Serves Up Authentic Vietnamese With a Warm Welcome

By Cathy Adams

     Baltimore doesn't have a large Vietnamese community, so the foods of Vietnam are not as familiar as Thai or Korean. The Saigon Restaurant, on Belair Road, serves authentic Vietnamese cuisine with many of the flavors associated with Thai food: lemongrass, cilantro and ginger.

     The cooking techniques are simple and homey, with many noodle dishes, soups, steamed rice casserole dishes, and grilled food. Trang Nguyen, the owner, said the food she serves "is the same as my family eats."

     Pho, noodle soup, the most well known and versatile of Vietnamese dishes, is a meal in itself. Available in 12 different variations, it is served in a wide, shallow bowl brimming with a flavorful broth, noodles and either beef, meat balls, seafood or pork. "For $6.00 you get a big bowl of food. It tastes good and is healthy for you," Trang said.

     Spring rolls are on the menu, but Summer rolls are more exotic. Rice paper (a thin, translucent pancake made from rice flour) is wrapped around shrimp, pork, rice noodles and served with a dipping sauce, similar to hoisin, topped with chopped peanuts. Trang Nguyen explained that Summer rolls are popular, especially during summer holidays, because they are so easy to carry and eat.

     Soups other than Pho are also available in bowls or family sized portions. Nam Dong Co is rich with tiny shrimp, thin strips of chicken, black (dried shiitake) mushrooms and cilantro or Thai Soup, with shrimp, lemongrass, tomato and pineapple.

     The Saigon's chef's specialties are among the most interesting of the entrees. Chao Tom, is described as grilled shrimp on a sugar cane stick. It is really more of a fragrant shrimp paste dumpling wrapped around sugar cane (instead of a skewer) and grilled, served on top of rice noodles, with a carrot and vinegar dipping sauce and rice paper wrappers on the side.

     Com Ga Siu Siu An Dong, another of the chef's specials, is moist chicken and black mushrooms braised in an aromatic ginger sauce, served over jasmine rice in a covered casserole and garnished with cilantro. (Also available in tofu or shrimp versions).

     The Hot Pot specials, which serve two, arrive in a tureen of simmering broth on top of a burner and are available as Lau Thap Cam: shrimp, squid, scallops, beef, fish dumplings, tofu, Napa cabbage and vegetables or in a spicier version, Lau Sate.

     For the Tet (New Year) Holiday in February, the Nguyen family hosted a special evening where they dressed in their traditional Vietnamese dress, the Ao Dai, and offered free tastings of selected specials, like Bo Cuon La Nho, grilled beef wrapped in grape leaves.

     With soft Vietnamese music in the background, cloth napkins, over-sized plastic chopsticks (knives and forks for those not handy) and a fish tank with well-fed goldfish, The Saigon, while not elegant or sophisticated, is more comforting and welcoming than it's storefront might let on. The tables are close enough together to spy on what everyone else is eating, which is always fun when trying something unfamiliar. For those who want to add heat, there are two kinds of hot sauces on the tables: Sriracha, a bottled hot chili and a hot, hot chili sauce in an anonymous glass bowl. For beverages, there is Jasmine tea served in a china pot or strong iced French coffee, with or without condensed milk (it is unsweetened though), fruit shakes made from jackfruit or sour sop.

The Saigon Restaurant
3345 Belair Road
Baltimore, Md
(410) 276-0055
Appetizers and Soups: $3.25-6.95
Entrees: $6.95-11.95

Wednesday and Thursday 11-10
Friday and Saturday 11-11
Sunday and Monday 11-9
Closed Tuesdays

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