Saigon Bay serves savory stamina by the plate
Saigon Bay1407 Howe Ave.
Sacramento, CA 95825
Bob and Bing can take the road to Mandalay, but I’ll take Dorothy Lamour and Saigon Bay. This venerable Vietnamese eatery may not have the precise mix of star anise, coriander and cardamom in its pho for the just-so ephemeral epicurean exclamation mark or the town’s truly tip-top tripe, but it’s steady and reliable throughout its long menu.
Over the span of several months, meals have been taken here on various days at various hours, day and night. While the restaurant’s workers are generous in admitting diners close to closing time, the closer closing time it gets—particularly on Sunday at 9 p.m.—the more the ambient noise is dominated by vacuuming and the click-clacking of sriracha and hoisin bottles being shoehorned back into their spots on condiment trays. The whiff of disinfectant also grows more pungent as previously occupied tables are swabbed down and put to bed for the night.
The whole panoply of standard Vietnamese cuisine is offered here with a smattering of chien—Chinese—dishes such as Mongolian beef and chow mein. There’s bo, ga, heu and mon chay—beef, chicken, pork and vegetarian. All of same with com dia (rice) or bun (vermicelli). All at prices under $10. All served in a spacious dining room with a row of skylights, tall plastic bamboo trees, a plethora of plastic flowers and an overflowing (plastic) fruit platter—none of which look dusty, by the way.
More arresting, however, are the psychedelic tabletops and cabinet fronts, which look like a red-and-orange big-bang, beam-me-up wormhole speckled with bits of gold foil.
Many of the com dia and bun meals are served with eggrolls, which, irrespective of the establishment, all seem fried from the same oil, as it were. Just as it does for so many other comestibles, nuoc cham, the omnipresent Vietnamese dipping sauce, makes them far more palatable. Featured along with eggrolls on the dac biet platter—mainly a sampler of grilled fare—is what the menu bills as shrimp paste. These are spongy tiles that are obstinate in avoiding being eaten, even when soaked with soy and nuoc cham.
In short: No severe culinary sacrifice if neither is included on a menu selection. There are certainly plenty without them. What is worth sampling, however, is the lemongrass shrimp—smoky from the grill, sharp but sweet. A wonderful tease is the smell of the grilling food wafting past as one enters the restaurant. One wishes more than three shrimp were on each skewer, but there are shrimp-centric entrees as well.
Similarly noteworthy are the lemongrass chicken and beef. There also a fine selection of smoothies of which jackfruit is favorite.
“Tastes like Smarties,” says daughter Katie on one trip. Her chicken noodle soup—pho ga—is “super bland, just the way I like it.”
Apparently, when it comes to heat, the fruit fell quite a long distance from the tree.
As visits to Saigon Bay mount, the primary returning port o’ call becomes chiefly the pho dac biet with its amalgam of meatballs, brisket and raw steak that cooks itself in the broth, à la Japan’s shabu shabu. All swirled in a tangle of noodles and green onion-flecked broth.
A word of caution: The dac biet is routinely heavy on tripe (sach) which, to the uninitiated, looks like feathery flora from a distant galaxy. It is chewy, but not as chewy as the tendon (gan). And while the array of vegetables to toss into the bowl is limited to basil, sprouts and jalapeños, it is sufficient. As is for one person ordering a large order. Straightahead. Steadfast. Not steeply priced.