I am still not over the sign, and I don't think I ever will get over it.
I was concerned a few years ago when it disappeared from the front of Saigon Vietnamese restaurant on South Calhoun Street not long after the restaurant received a facade grant. The naturally aged metal sign was a thing of beauty and was one of my favorite features of what I considered to be the most authentic ethnic eatery in the city.
When it returned, it looked brand new, which broke my heart.
“Well, it didn't work then and it works now,” I was told by an employee. It could have been repaired without the glossy anything-but-authentic finish, but I digress.
The sign wasn't the biggest change that worried me at the time. It had a new owner, which could have altered it in ways other than aesthetic. But luckily that didn't happen.
The interior was also overhauled, but that only sharpened up the quaint old place. New carpet, snazzy new furnishings such as bamboo wall accents, and a new black ceiling to match the new tables and chairs modernized it, but that old counter – duct tape and all – and the vintage charm remained.
What I loved more than anything else about the makeover, though, was that credit and debit card payment was added, which was long overdue.
The menu did not change, which I also loved. There are still way too many dishes to choose from – everything from Chinese staples like chop suey to bowls of pho containing unique ingredients like “bible tripe” and the gelatinous tendon bits dubbed “soft tender.”
Egg rolls are a must. They are, indeed, egg rolls, with wraps made with egg. They were fried until bubbly and crispy, and there is no better version of this old-school treat than Saigon's.
Sticking with eggs, the egg drop soup is also a delicious endeavor. It is egg, chicken broth and nothing else. It is super thick, almost as if someone dropped scrambled eggs in a blender, but it is also deftly seasoned and especially yummy on a cold winter's day.
Winter is the best time to dine at Saigon, because soup is king here.
The No. 20 Pho Tai Bo Vien – noodle soup with eye round steak and beefball (i.e., meatballs) – was just as amazing as always. It had a dark, rich broth with a lot of depth, a plethora of halved meatballs, and thinly sliced raw steak that cooked in that bubbling broth. White onions, cilantro and thin rice noodles swim in that broth, and fresh Thai basil, bean sprouts, sliced jalapeño peppers and lime wedges come on the side to add to your liking.
I add all the herbs and sprouts, and a few of the peppers, to my pho. I then carefully add sriracha, hoisin sauce and a little of the fiery, house-made pepper emulsion from the table until it is at the perfect level of heat.
There are versions of pho to fit any appetite. Some are similar to good ol' American soups only with Asian noodles and condiments, so there is no reason to be intimidated by the exotic nature of this Vietnamese soup. There are also ramen noodle and fresh noodle soups.
My No. 30 shrimp fresh noodle soup had ramen in its light broth, along with a bevy of vegetables – cauliflower, carrots, mushrooms, broccoli, celery and big onion slices. The noodles expanded quite a bit and looked puffy, but they were not overcooked. The soup did have issues, however.
The broth was simply not up to par with the beef and chicken in terms of flavor. It had none of the complexity and seemed unseasoned. This soup was also flanked with just limes and jalapeños, so there were no fresh herbs to boost its flavor. I also hated that its six shrimp still had tails, which made it a clunky endeavor.
If I were to try another seafood-based soup, I would likely ask for it with chicken broth, because this broth was not up to snuff.
My No. 19 Mi Bo Xao – sautéed ramen noodles with beef and vegetables – was not short on flavor at all. These stir-fried noodles were drenched in a sweet soy sauce that would have tasted good on shoelaces. It had big onion petals, celery and carrots that still snapped a bit, a little cabbage and well-done broccoli. The beef was also super tender, and it soaked up that sauce well, too.
The only flaw with that dish was that it arrived before my appetizers, which threw my meal off kilter.
My No. 25 Combo Lo Mein had much less sauce than the sautéed ramen, and I liked its thicker egg noodles better. It included beef, pork, chicken and shrimp, and its vegetables were on the side, not mixed in. The flavor was solid, and the only minor flaw was that it could have used a couple more shrimp.
The No. 8 Bun Tom Nem Nuron was perfectly executed, and you would struggle to find a better version of this cold noodle dish in the Summit City. It had three big grilled barbecued shrimp and three skewered and flash-fried barbecued meatballs sitting atop its vermicelli noodles, with chopped green onions, peanuts, pickled carrots and daikon radish also on top. A dish of sweet clear dressing came on the side.
The meatballs were the stars thanks to that textural twist from the fryer and their sweet, addictive barbecue flavor. I will order extra next time or just forget about the shrimp, which also had a yummy barbecue essence. I thought the dish was a bit boring until I found the lettuce and diced cucumbers underneath the noodles. Once I mixed it all up and got everything in one bite, it was magical.
Aside from the egg rolls, my other appetizers were anything but magical. The crab rangoon had a super sweet filling, but that sweetness was coming from something other than the imitation crab because I struggled to even find any trace of it.
I wanted to try the Shredded Pork in Rice Paper, but I was talked out of it by an employee who did not think I would like it. I have no idea why and found it very odd, but I took her advice and had spring rolls instead.
The spring rolls were nicely made with plenty of pork and shrimp inside their raw wrapping, along with noodles, crispy lettuce and fresh herbs, but the peanut sauce was not up to snuff. It was more red than brown, and though it had peanuts mixed in, it was more peppery than I like and lacked the signature peanut butter flavor I expected and had grown used to at Saigon.
That was the biggest change I wish hadn't been made there. But I can live with it. I'll gladly be back soon and just stick with the egg rolls. And I'll use my credit card to pay for them.
Address: 2006 S. Calhoun St.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes, but not restrooms
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Egg rolls ($1.50), crab rangoon ($3), spring rolls ($8), No. 20 pho ($8.50), No. 8 bun ($8.75), No. 30 fresh noodle ($8.50), No. 25 lo mein ($9.75)
Rating breakdown: Food: ★★ (3-star maximum); atmosphere: ★ (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.
Out of a possible five