Taste of Saigon restaurant in Pinellas Park serves an array of noodle dishes that wrap the irresistible in the mantle of wholesomeness.
By LAURA REILEY, Times Food Critic
Published June 14, 2007
Taste of Saigon
6527 Park Blvd. N, Pinellas Park
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Details: V, MC; reservations not necessary; no beer, wine or liquor
Prices: Entrees $4.95-$9.50
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Simple, wholesome and cheap, Vietnamese food often satisfies all of my baser hankerings and loftier health aspirations simultaneously. There's sweet, spicy, salty and fatty, yes, but it's often gussied up with lots of crunchy greenery and swaths of fresh herbs.
Take Taste of Saigon's egg rolls $2 for two vs. its spring rolls ($2.50 for two), for instance. The former arrive piping hot, fried big time, filled with ground pork butt and bean thread. Dense and a little greasy, they get waggled in a bright, clean, sweet-sour nuoc mam (like a Vietnamese vinaigrette) that almost convinces you they're good for you.
The latter are uncooked rice-paper rolls enfolding steamed shrimp, bits of pork, heaps of soft rice noodles and a pile of crunchy herbs. All clean-living stuff, they in turn are dipped in a plummy hoisin that adds the illusion of decadence.
Taste of Saigon is not much to look at. Straightforward and utilitarian, eight tables are spread in a small wood-paneled dining room, each draped in a red lace tablecloth and cluttered with condiments - the electric red Sriracha hot sauce, soy sauce, sugar, salt, pepper, slow-burn chile oil and more.
The owners' warmth makes up for the lack of decor. They hover and ask how you like everything as if you were dining in their home (and with prices so low, you do feel a bit like an honored guest).
The bulk of the menu consists of phos (the classic Vietnamese soup), vermicelli bowls and rice plates. The best dishes contain grilled pork, grilled shrimp and lemongrass-spiked chicken.
The Number 22 pho (all phos are $4.95 for a regular size, $5.95 for a monster-sized bowl) is the way to go, the just-tangy broth chock-full of rare slices of eye of round, flank steak, fatty brisket, very soft tendon and bible tripe. ("Bible tripe" is from the third of a cow's four stomachs, the omasum, also called "book" or "seam" tripe. Many cuisines more commonly use "honeycomb" tripe from the second stomach because it holds its shape better during cooking, but to my mind, the wisps of bible tripe make for good pho.)
Of course, if you just want a simple, less organ-oriented soup, the Number 34 features just the wafer-thin slices of beef round among the noodles (to which you add your own fillips of Thai basil, bean sprouts, lime and jalapeno).
In our visits, our favorite dishes were the vermicelli bowls, each with soft pasta, daikon, carrot and lettuce in a warm melange, over which you pour the ubiquitous nuoc mam (a concoction of sugar, lime, fish sauce, dried chiles and a little garlic). The Number 11 ($5.95) adds thin slices of delicious sweet-spicy beef wrapped around grilled shrimp, and the Number 12 ($5.95) gets a tasty and texturally interesting combination of egg rolls and slices of grilled pork.
A short list of "authentic Vietnamese dishes" gives you an alternative to all the noodles, our favorite being a plate of white-meat chicken and sweet onion in a spicy lemongrass sauce, accompanied by a small bowl of white rice.
Beverages, desserts and so forth are in keeping with the rather bare-bones ambience. No booze, a very sweet lemonade with sugar at the bottom ($1.50), soft drinks ($1) and slow-drip Vietnamese coffee with a layer of sweetened condensed milk ($2) are the safest options. Beyond that, an array of sweet, fruity drinks (coconut, grass jelly, fruit combination, $1.75-$2) function as beverage and post-prandial treat, again satisfying our desire for a sweet indulgence and a wholesome meal-ender in a way a slice of chocolate cake never could.
Getting a hold on pho
Pho (pronounced fuh - say foot without the "t") is the Vietnamese national breakfast. It's a one-dish meal and, unlike so many Asian dishes that are shared or passed, pho is strictly a "hold your own." The word means "your own bowl, " and once you've seasoned it to suit your taste and begun to noisily suck up the noodles and broth, no one really wants to share yours anyway.
The soup consists of a huge tangle of soft, pale rice noodles in a rich beef broth made from simmered shinbones. Food fiends claim that pho, like Japanese miso or Jewish chicken soup, functions as an analeptic, stimulating the central nervous system when you're sick, sad or hung over. I don't know if I buy that, but there's just about nothing else more wholesome.
A plate containing the fixings comes alongside the brimming bowl of soup. Choose to add crunchy bean sprouts, wedges of lime (or sometimes lemon and mint), a pile of basil and rounds of jalapeno to tinker with the flavors. Go easy on the jalapenos and the bottle of Sriracha chili sauce. There's a fierce cumulative effect as the peppers steep.
To eat pho, spoons are grossly inadequate unless you fill the bowl of the spoon with your chopsticks. The chopsticks also will let you down during especially slippery bites. Eating pho is a messy endeavor, causing big plops and droplets of broth to moisten everything nearby. Some pho fans add hoisin or fish sauce to the mix, which really raises the stain potential. I suggest avoiding these until you've mastered basic technique: Lean into the bowl, angle chopsticks and soup spoon in tandem, then slurp.
Laura Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The St. Petersburg Times pays all expenses. A restaurant's advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment. Reiley can be reached at (727) 892-2293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.