Always up for group feed, I signed up immediately when my friend Ellen put out word that she was organizing a dinner at Saigon. Though I usually head over to Convoy Street for my Vietnamese food fix, I was looking forward to trying more of the menu at Saigon, whose El Cajon Boulevard location is an easy hop from my office.
The dining room at Saigon is a tall, purple-florescent-light-tinged space filled with a happy cacophony of sounds—a mix of laughter, clanking dinnerware and the clamor that is the soundtrack of a joyful meal. Come in at a prime eating time and there'll likely be a wait for a table, but the service moves at such a breakneck pace and everyone eats with such gusto that you'll not be waiting long.
You could eat for months at Saigon and not choose the same thing twice, as the menu offers more than 300 items, mostly Vietnamese classics combined with a large list of Chinese-inspired dishes, an influence also seen in the predominance of huge round dining tables meant for large-scale feasting, topped with lazy Susans to facilitate family-style eating. It's tempting just to open the menu and point randomly to an item, but buyers beware: Saigon posts a no-return policy that might dissuade you from being casually adventurous. But, if you've an open mind, and gullet, be brave! Most of the menu comes in at less than $10, so it's not really such a risky prospect.
Ellen's a regular at Saigon, and I'm an at-least-once-a-week Vietnamese food eater, so our friends entrusted us to do the ordering. Wanting to do right by everyone, we chose a combination of universal favorites and new dishes that piqued our interest.
We started with piping-hot fried rolls, wrapped in lettuce leaves so they were cool enough to handle, and then moved on to fresh summer rolls, their tender skins bursting with rice noodles, shrimp and pork. Next came ban xeo, a rice-flour crepe stuffed with seafood, meat and veggies. I always get excited about this dish but forget how quickly the lacy crispness of the crepe batter turns sodden. It's also filled with more bean sprouts than are necessary.
I love the char-grilled pork at Saigon, so we tried it in a combo with strands of shredded pork atop round rice noodles about the diameter of spaghetti. This banh tam dish was one of the stars of the night, as the thick noodles kept a nice texture even after being doused in the nuoc mam dipping sauce, a Vietnamese staple condiment, and tossed with a julienne of vegetables. The grilled pork—sweet, smoky and lusciously tender—when dunked in a bowl of creamy coconut milk, made for one seriously sexy mouthful.
Ellen was craving duck, so we ordered a whole bird, de-boned and then deep-fried and served with a sweet sauce. It was fairly tasty, but I was more enamored with the pickled vegetables that came alongside.
The rich, caramelized flavor of com tay cam, a clay-pot rice dish cooked with chicken, dried lily bulbs and onions, made for another complete hit. I usually get the salt-and-pepper shrimp at Saigon, one of the many Vietnamese and Chinese seafood dishes that are a delicious bargain, but adjacent on the menu was the tempting-sounding fried shrimp in butter with garlic, so I went for that and—praise be—the crustaceans were delectably crunchy from head to tail and liberally sprinkled with chewy bits of caramelized garlic that I ate by the spoonful. Sorry to the friends I saw later that night, if I offended anyone with my garlic breath.
Even including more than a handful of beers, our tab came to just $15 each, a steal for the amount of food we all put away. Saigon's value was apparent when I went out for Vietnamese in Pacific Beach a few nights later and the identical dishes were at least $1 to $2 more per plate for lesser-quality food.
Wallets barely lightened and with sufficient funds to continue the fun, we made a quick stop at Starlite (less than 10 minutes away, door-to-door) for a few commendably mixed cocktails, and I contemplated returning to Saigon for breakfast, as they're open at 9 a.m. daily. An avocado or jackfruit shake might go down nicely, and there are approximately 217 dishes that I've yet to try.
Saigon is located at 4455 El Cajon Blvd. in City Heights. 619-284-4215 or