I've long praised East Boston for its trove of terrific budget restaurants, especially the Latin-American ones. Of course there's more: fine Italian and Italian-American cuisine, pub fare, shore food, pizza, and cafes — even a worthy fine-dining option or two. I keep digging and turning up welcome surprises. But there's not much in the way of Asian food, so I half-expected Saigon Restaurant to dumb down its dishes for a timid American clientele. Luckily its chef/owner, Hoa Ven Cao, a Saigon native, isn't shy about offering real traditional flavors amidst a long menu of more-familiar Vietnamese dishes.
As he's from the South, his menu reflects strong Cantonese and Thai influences as well as the traces of the French colonial era seen throughout Vietnam. For instance, ca red snapper hap (market price), a gorgeous steamed whole fish in a simple ginger/scallion sauce, would be right at home in Guangzhou. A Vietnamese take on pad thai ($9.95) boasts familiar ingredients in a hefty portion but doesn't shy from fresh chilies or fish sauce: it's far less tame than most Americanized versions. Similar to shrimp toast, a Cantonese dim sum dish, banh mi chien tom ($4.95) tops slices of baguette with minced shrimp and sesame seeds, crisped under a broiler and accompanied by a sweet, vivid sour-plum dipping sauce. Ca kho to ($8.95/small, $10.95/large) is beautiful and exemplifies the South's penchant for sweeter flavors. Arriving sizzling in a heavy iron pot, it features sautéed cod fillets in a ferocious sauce of caramelized brown sugar, fried shallots, garlic, and scallions, a side of lovely steamed jasmine rice providing a necessary mild base. To pho, the more famously Northern standby of noodle soup with beef or chicken in a highly aromatic broth, pho rau cai dau hu ($6.95/small, $7.95/large, $8.95/extra-large) adds a Southern accent in the form of lots of crunchy vegetables and fried tofu.
Beyond complimentary iced oolong tea, beverages include the usual assortment of sugary, intense espresso/chicory drinks like ca phe sua da ($2.50) and fresh juices like coconut with slices of pulp ($2.50). Desserts include fried ice cream ($2.50), a tennis ball of lightlyfried dough encasing vanilla ice cream, served with zingy ginger syrup. The 28-seat room is clean and spare, the service sweet and boasting creditable English. Just two blocks from Central Square, Saigon Restaurant is yet another Eastie attraction for tight-fisted gourmands, demonstrating that its array of rich traditional cuisines goes far beyond the Americas.
Saigon Restaurant, located at 305 Meridian Street, in East Boston, is open daily, from 10am–10pm. Call 617.567.1944.