With a bullet
Pho Saigon5304 Stockton Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95820
The extra large pho at Pho Saigon restaurant must come in a vat, since the medium size is almost more than a mortal can manage. Coupled with the two 8-inch-long, inch-diameter spring rolls crammed with vegetables and four prominent shrimps apiece, it’s too much to be consumed by just one person.
Message more clearly stated: Come hungry to 5304 Stockton Boulevard, near Fruitridge Road. Finished fasting for world peace? Break it toothsomely and inexpensively at Saigon. And, as of July 1, fasts can be broken up until midnight rather than only 10 p.m.
Saigon is bright, clean and airy. It’s light cedar paneling contrasts nicely with four very plastic, very green coconut trees and a brick-fronted kitchen. A respectable wine selection is ensconced behind a wrought-iron grill. Saigon isn’t Banh Cuon Tay Ho down the road on 65th Street. No one brings scissors from the office to help cut glazed ramen. The giant flat-screen TV is not cranked up so that someone around the corner can hear the broadcast. Nor is it tuned to CNN. At Saigon, it’s the muted “fair and balanced” Fox News. And so, in the name of karmic circularity, it seems important to bring Christine Haddon, who endured the Banh Cuon death march, to the oasis that is Saigon.
There is no banh cuon here—the less famous culinary creation of North Vietnam. But of banh cuon’s more famous brethren, pho, there is abundance. Fifteen versions of the noodle soup are offered including pho ga (chicken), pho tai (with rare steak), pho tai nam (rare steak and flank), pho tai sach (rare steak and tripe), pho tai gan (rare steak and tendon) and, the zenith, No. 1 on the chart with a bullet: pho Saigon dac biet, the house specialty. Medium is $6.50.
The house specialty is everything to want in pho and mo’. There’s round steak, flank, tendon, brisket and tripe buttressed with scallion rounds and some onion slices, and they’re all just itching to have a handful or two of the accompanying bean sprouts, shredded cabbage, jalapeño wheels and basil leaves rain down on them. With appetite also bring affection for anise; it plays a major and unmistakable role in the broth.
There is no lollygagging at Saigon. Within seconds of butt meeting chair—in one instance before the menu is even opened—a waitress asks: “Are you ready?” To which someone less polite would respond: “Madam, there are 167 items on this menu counting beer, wine and sweet-bean desserts, to say nothing of 25 nuoc ngot (beverages), six vegetarian dishes, 21 com dia (rice plates), appetizers and a crowd of chow funs and chow meins, none of which has received more than five seconds of consideration. So kindly back off and give us a little time.”
Scant seconds transpire before someone else returns to the table seeking an order. We stall by ordering a $2.95 sinh to bo, avocado shake. This in lieu of the jackfruit, strawberry, mango, coconut, soursop and durian shakes. It’s avocado all right, although there’s no “whoa—avocado” taste until breaking through the Everest of whipped cream to the seriously green magma below. At worst, we can brag we’ve tasted one. At best, we can brag we’ve tasted one.
The $9.75 sizzling hot plate of seafood is Chinese-influenced and heavy on scallops, carrot coins and munchkin corncobs. A waiter tries to wave us off the bun bo hue dac biet, or spicy beef noodle soup. It doesn’t taste like pho, he stresses. Vietnamese palates dig spicy beef noodle soup, but some non-Vietnamese dilettantes don’t.
Thanks, son. Just bring the pho-king soup, OK?
The noodles, comparable to udon, are fatter than those of pho. There’s a whole lotta lemongrass going on in the dark brown broth, which hides oxtail, fatty pork, beef shank and, a discovery mercifully made after the meal, gelatinous slabs of congealed pig blood. Good, though.
There’s a reason pho is in Saigon’s name, but there is lots to commend about the restaurant’s extensive menu options and flavorful fare—a fairly authoritative taste of Vietnam.