From skewered, grilled shrimp and beef to bowls of aromatic beef broth swimming with noodles and meat, Saigon Restaurant is making sure its customers are exceptionally well fed.
The attractive room decorated with prints of Vietnamese people and large potted palms makes a comfortable setting for this visit to Southeast Asia, a short drive away if you live in the Portland area.
A complimentary taste of the meal to come is offered upon arrival, with a cup of crab soup and its mild, thickened broth, sliced mushroom and cubed tofu.
A pot of jasmine tea is also served for free. The delicious, slightly nutty brew is perfectly in sync with the dishes you are likely to order.
Among the choices of beer and wine, which include several Asian beers, Portland’s own Shipyard Export Ale ($3.50) proved good to drink with the fish and other Asian dishes, its clean taste refreshing the palate for each tangy mouthful.
Grilled shrimp on skewers ($7.95) are served with their shell on, and once peeled, they are elegantly flavored by charred bits and their own sweet flesh. The server brought a bowl of warm water with lemon for dipping fingers after peeling the shells. It took us a moment to figure out what the bowl was for because of a language gap.
And that gap leads me to call the granules the server brought in a little dish “shrimp dust” — with the proviso that it might not be exactly correct. Whatever they were, they proved a lovely condiment to the grilled shrimp and beef after the server squeezed fresh lime juice into the bowl. A quick swish through the stuff collected a fringe of flavor that rang with umami, sour lime and hot spice.
The condiment comes from Vietnam, she said. Dried shrimp are a favorite item in Chinese and Southeast Asian markets, where they are ground to make a paste.
Grilled beef on skewers ($6.95) held other spices and flavors on its thin, flat length, and also benefited from a swish through the shrimp/chili/lime juice dish as we tore the meat off the skinny skewers with our forks or our mouths.
Fried crispy scallops ($6.75) are encased in golden batter, retaining the moisture of the fresh and tender small scallops. A bowl of applesauce jazzed up with spices and salt was their dipping sauce. I never did decide whether it made sense with the crunchy scallops, however much I liked it on its own.
Diminutive, sliced segments compose the spring roll with tofu appetizer ($3.50), each a perfect little mouthful first dipped into peanut sauce topped with bits of fried onion.
Pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup, seems like a far, far better thing to eat when you have a cold — and any other time too — than chicken soup could ever be, especially as it’s done at Saigon Restaurant.
The broth is enriched by bones and tendon, and has a smooth, thick body and an almost unctuous quality. Its flavors are clear and aromatic, with spices from the Pacific Spice Islands augmenting the meaty, almost yeasty, flavor.
A china spoon carries the broth to your mouth in between forkfuls of plain rice noodles and the crunchy bean sprouts you add yourself. The sprouts are served in a pile on a side plate along with basil leaves, a cilantro-flavored long green leaf, sliced green chili peppers, a tiny red Thai pepper and lime wedges to squeeze into the broth.
Saigon’s version, with rare beef and tendon (all versions of pho are $6.50 small, $7.50 medium and $8.50 large), presented the sliced, gelatinous tendon for consideration.
Novel and strange to the Western palate, it’s worth checking out given that it’s an utterly inexpensive bit of the animals we are already consuming. It isn’t squishy like fat, but rather slightly crunchy and chewy after hours of simmering.
Smooth, textured meatballs are served in another version of pho, and are very mild.
Grilled chicken on rice ($7.95) doesn’t hold any mystery, with its nicely browned meat stripped of skin and served with mild spices and oil. The rice below has sweet and sour vinaigrette geared up with fish sauce that you can add to your liking.
A sliced cucumber, pickled white daikon, fresh tomato, shredded lettuce and carrots paired fresh flavors with savory ones.
Fried crunchy fish ($11.95) omits the batter coating, wearing the finest shell of crunch that rapidly diminished under the black bean sauce. It’s perfect with the plain, white-fleshed fish and slices of heart of palm, straw mushrooms, sliced onion, broccoli florets and baby corn.
Brown rice came alongside by request; white rice is also available.
The restaurant serves an array of other fish, meat and vegetarian dishes.
A plate with juicy quartered oranges is the last touch — there is no dessert menu. The fruit is presented with what is sure to be a very modest bill.
N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of “Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast.” Visit English’s Web site, www.chowmaineguide.com.