Call me a heretic, defame my name, chop me up & throw my parts in boiling oil, I’m going to stand by my opinion that, while house of local worship New Saigon is solid, it’s no better than Dong Khanh/Saigon Bowl, at least with respect to the standards.
In fact, when it comes to salads (goi in Vietnamese), I give the edge to the latter.
Saigon Bowl’s shrimp & pork salad (goi tom thit)
New Saigon’s squid salad (goi muc)
You can tell by looking that Saigon Bowl’s goi is more closely tended to—the veggies more carefully chopped & balanced, the peanuts chopped coarser for more interesting texture. You can’t tell by looking that the dressing is better as well: both are nuoc cham–like with fish sauce, acid (presumably lime juice) & sugar, but Saigon Bowl’s is a bit lighter, tarter & spicier with a daub of chili, whereas New Saigon’s errs a little too far on the merely sweet side. And the squid was a bit tough & scrappy; bigger pieces like so would not only have been prettier but less likely to overcook.
Granted, between the enormity of the menu & the constant crowd in the dining room, the prep cooks here would have to be superhuman, morphing & teleporting all over the place, to execute with both speed & precision 100% of the time. As it is, 2 different takeout orders of bun (noodles) at 2 different times can make 2 very different impressions: on a busy Saturday night, the bun tom quet with, supposedly, rice-paper-wrapped, deep-fried shrimp paste
was sloppy & dull, offering scant chopped peanuts, fried & green onions, herbs & such for the glut of rice noodles, bland with or without the one-note (sweet) nuoc cham. As for the “shrimp paste,” it was like no shrimp paste I’ve ever seen; instead, it appeared to be a very flat chopped shrimp omelet. Though the highlight of the dish, it was nonetheless a head-scratcher.
In any case, compare to the bun with grilled pork & egg roll we got on a sleepy Tuesday night.
Boasting a much better ratio of toppings, including sufficient cilantro & mint, to noodles, it was also covered in almost jerkylike (in a pleasant way, really), thoroughly sweet-soy-marinated & grilled pork as well as chopped pork egg roll.
Consider, however, that the roll was pretty clunky, & it all adds up to the fact that for the freshest, crispest, brightest Vietnamese basics—your bun, your pho, your stirfries—my, erm, dong’s still on Dong Khanh. It’s for the jackpot of less common regional specialties that I’ll keep betting on New Saigon.
Among them is the Indian-influenced, coconut milk–based South Vietnamese ca ri (curry), served in its own pot over an open flame. The ca ri chay with tofu recently got the nod from Westword’s Lori Midson,
& I myself preferred it to the ca ri tom dac biet with shrimp.
While the shrimp themselves were excellent—giant, firm & sweet—I’d be willing to bet they got that way by separate cooking or a last-minute add, meaning that they didn’t really have time to adapt to their environment or lend any character to it in turn; they didn’t blend into the whole, whereas the tofu did. It’s nonetheless an interesting dish, rustic in style, thick & mild with huge chunks of both white & sweet potato as well as carrot & acorn squash. But when our server volunteered his own recipe—”it’s more hotter. I cut up whole chicken, whole duck. We eat everything”—I couldn’t help but wish for a side-by-side taste test.
Do chay dac biet looked like every other Asian veggie stirfry I’ve ever had,
but the sauce of coconut milk–black bean sauce, creamy but with that slight funk of fermentation, really distinguished it. The veggies & tofu were neither here nor there, the former a little overdone, in fact; I wound up pouring the sauce over the accompanying rice & eating that instead, happily poking around for the scattered split beans. To what extent this is a typical preparation, by the by, is something I’m still trying to determine via this Chowhound thread; though coconut milk & black beans make for a traditional dessert, the combination is new to me in a savory context.
The same goes for the use of grape leaves in a dish of frogs’ legs (though it’s likely a byproduct of colonialism, as it was the French, bien sûr, who planted vineyards in Vietnam). Stirred up as I was by the sight of it on the menu, I was subsequently crushed to learn it’s no longer available. Settling instead for the frogs’ legs stirfried with lemongrass & onion, I expected something light & zesty; what I got was pretty oily &, again, sweeter than I’d hoped, though balanced well enough by chili & garlic.
The meat itself was beautifully cooked, moist & tender, slipping clean & easy from the bone. For all the squawk about frogs’ legs tasting like chicken, they’re at least as evocative of a flaky, firm white fish such as cod.
Squid excepted, then, between the shrimp, the frog & the pork, I’m thinking meat/fish cookery might be the kitchen’s forte. It even dries beef with pizzazz:
That there is sesame-cashew jerky ($22/lb.; I got $8 worth) & it’s snazzy—soft, slow-burningly spicy & fruity too. (Fruit’s a common Asian jerky flavoring; this guy says it’s usually strawberry jam, despite labels that simply list fruit punch concentrate, like the one on the bag I got a while back at Pacific Mercantile.)
In the end, I don’t intend to join the New Saigon congregation. But I’ll certainly show up for services now & then—namely when seeking enlightenment in the form of snails & duck feet or an answer to the mysteries of suon non ram man & suon no xao thom; according to a friend, the servers discourage whiteys who ask about them (the menu offers no description of either), though Google indicates suon non are simply pork spareribs. Hmm. Anyway, the point is I’m not so much a heretic as a searcher, still holding out for not just good but transcendent Vietnamese food in Denver.