Saigon has a lovely Vietnamese mix of influences

Melting pot
By BRIAN DUFF  |  October 27, 2010

HYBRID MÉLANGE Mussels with lemongrass and oyster sauce.

For those who move to Maine from more diverse parts of the country, going out for an Asian meal requires some adjustments. Five years ago what struck me most was all the white people waiting tables — something you don't see as much these days. A more persistent quirk is the tendency of Asian restaurants here to make themselves hybrids In Maine you can get sushi in Thai and Korean places, teriyaki with your bi bim bop, and at Saigon Restaurant, Chinese dishes along with Vietnamese.

But all hybrids are not alike. The genius of Happy Teriyaki was to make the Korean dishes so outshine their Japanese food that Japan itself seemed diminished. That accomplished, the owners have now reopened simply as Korea House. Saigon Restaurant's hybridity is more subtle. The name Saigon hearkens back to the era when Vietnam was the center of a tug-of-war between us Americans and communist China. China won, coming to dominate Vietnam politically and economically, and that country's southern capital is now known as Ho Chi Minh City.

Saigon Restaurant | 795 Forest Ave, Portland | Sun-Thu 9 am-9:30 pm; Fri-Say 9 am-10:30 pm | Visa/MC/Amex | 207.874.6666

So Saigon the restaurant, and its massive menu, hearken back to a time when China's influence on Vietnam was more subtle and cultural, mixing with the flavors and ingredients introduced by French colonists. That older hybridity is on display in an appetizer of mussels cooked with lemongrass and oyster sauce. It's a huge serving of big and juicy, if not delicate, mussels. The dark oyster sauce pushes the flavors of lemongrass aside. Part way through we were introduced to a condiment of shrimp powder dissolved in fish sauce and encouraged to dip our seafood there. The effect was like a straight shot of salty umami. Another appetizer of spring rolls with tofu was light, crunchy, fresh, and well executed.

Saigon serves a nice, if not transcendent, version of the classic Vietnamese pho soup. The broth struck the right balance between rich and light, with hints of long-stewed ginger and scallion. The bowl was full of tender rice noodles and big pieces of white chicken meat. Mixing in a bit of lime, and leaves of mint and Asian basil, introduced fresh and sharp flavors. A brothless vermicelli dish was less successful but pretty good. We wished for more of the fresh vegetal crunch of carrots, cucumbers, and sprouts, and thicker pieces of the dark charred beef. The shrimp was too chewy and the fish sauce that held the dish together was a touch sweet and cloying. A fried noodle dish was exactly like a good lo mein.

The best use of noodles, however, was in that day's special. Though it was called "rice pancakes" the dish was actually delicate, moist little packages made from wide cuts of moist and tender rice noodles rolled around pieces of dark mushroom and ground pork. Order these if you see them. Ours were served topped with a cut of pale and sweet pork, and I might have preferred something with a bit more char and chew.

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