On Food

Nondescript (Looking), but Nonpareil (Tasting)

This article appeared in the October 6, 2000, issue of the East Bay Express. Unfortunately, New Saigon no longer exists. Saigon City has been reincarnated as Bui, a terrific, upscale restaurant on Solano Avenue.
Don’t judge these two Vietnamese restaurants by their facades. Both New Saigon and Saigon City are treasures.

NEW SAIGON
824 University Avenue, Berkeley

SAIGON CITY
2566B Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley

By Eve Kushner

Two new Vietnamese restaurants in Berkeley prove that appearances can deceive. If you judged Saigon City or New Saigon from the outside, you’d be none too inclined to go into either and try their incredible food. And you’d have no idea what you’d missed.

Saigon City’s unremarkable front (large windowpanes in a white brick wall) makes such an understatement that most people don’t notice the place. Everyone knows about Bison Brewing and the Fondue Fred courtyard, but what about the Vietnamese restaurant nestled between them?

When it comes to New Saigon at the intersection of University Avenue and Sixth Street, many people have whizzed past the space on their way to somewhere else, and perhaps they’ve observed how many restaurants have come and gone at that location. For the past five years, up until this April, it was another Vietnamese restaurant; before that, Cambodian. But this spring, owner-chef David To created the latest incarnation. It’s curious that nothing ever seems to last there. The building is easy enough to see, and the location makes it convenient, as does the rear parking lot. Xanadu has thrived in a similar location nearby.

I think the problem lies in the building itself. It’s hard to conceive of less attractive architecture. If you took a giant shoebox and affixed corrugated siding with horizontal, vertical, and even diagonal stripes, you might approximate the New Saigon building. You would then have to paint it in three unappealing hues, using traffic-light green to highlight the point where the lid meets the box. Above all, you couldn’t include any windows.

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Ha Long Bay, near Hanoi, Vietnam.

Indeed, this lack of windows has always kept my Vietnamese friend, Kim, and her new husband, Jean-Claude, from venturing inside. Intrigued by the jubilant “Grand Opening” sign, I persuaded them to put all prejudices aside and take a chance on lunch. We’re so glad we did, because New Saigon has the most unusual Vietnamese food any of us, including Kim, have tasted.

I’ve got to tell you that walking inside didn’t calm our anxieties, however, because the interior has major design issues. You walk through the door to confront a wall. Forced to the right, you trip up some steps to arrive at a limbo-type area near the bar. Staff members greet you warmly, directing you to turn 180 degrees toward another room. This space, too, has been divided horizontally and vertically, one room sitting loftlike above another.

Aside from these problems, the interior is quite pleasant. Four skylights brighten the place, as do green-and-white checked tablecloths and a light gray carpet. Vietnamese hats hang on the walls to charming effect, as do colorful prints: one of goats at rest, another of roosters atop lily pads and pumpkins, oddly enough! What seemed even more enchanting on that first visit was the chubby-cheeked toddler who hung over the balcony for a while, staring at us while we scanned the menu.

This process took time, because the offerings are numerous, including a specials list longer than other restaurants’ entire menus. Many options seemed unfamiliar (even to Kim), so we puzzled over the ingredients listed for each dish. Much to our surprise, caramel figured into more than one concoction. Some dishes had wonderfully quirky names, including the “warmsoft rolls” and the “shaking beef.” Other items alarmed me; I wasn’t adventurous enough for the garlic frog legs, and I worried about the crispy Vietnamese rolls, allegedly containing “crabmeat and prawn mouse.” Kim and Jean-Claude insisted that the owner meant “mousse” (which turned out to be true).

The egg rolls ($4.25) were delicious, smelling “very, very fried” (to quote Roberto Benigni) in a way that only junk-food junkies can appreciate. Served hot, they came with a clear, reddish dipping sauce, as well as a delicious side of warm vermicelli topped with scallions, peanuts, and a light sauce. Kim, who spent her first thirteen years in Vietnam, raved about the rice noodles as a special touch. Zigzags of jicama and carrots served as another refreshing accompaniment.

The egg rolls contained crab, jicama, and carrot, but Jean-Claude and I complained that we couldn’t taste the seafood inside. We had a similar frustration with the otherwise great warmsoft rolls ($4.50), which featured garlic-sautéed crab and jicama. “The crab is supposed to be subtle,” Kim explained. Both the warmsoft rolls and the soft shrimp rolls ($4.50) came in translucent rice paper, and to my mind, the crisp, chilled mint inside nearly overwhelmed the other ingredients. Kim praised the bold mint accents, but it was a bit much for my American palate.

Before the entrées came, we munched on the free fixings: a satisfying, peppery carrot soup and a refreshing salad that mingled cabbage, lettuce, carrots, and rice vermicelli. Then we tucked into the shaking beef ($7.95). The small cubes of soft, succulent meat had been stir-fried with caramel, garlic, soy sauce, and fresh tomato (though this last was difficult to detect). We also devoured a lunch special of the day: sautéed crab over vermicelli ($5.50). In this dish we found a lovely mixture of soft, gentle things (vermicelli, tofu, and presumably crab), all of which created an intriguing contrast with the sharp tomato and garlic. We polished off every bit of the entrées, with the newlyweds fighting for the last scrap of crab vermicelli.

After providing courteous, unobtrusive service, New Saigon charged us only $31 for this feast. We marveled at how much food we’d been served for so little money, and Kim felt pleased on another level. In the Vietnam she knew twenty-some years ago, restaurants didn’t offer such dishes. Vietnamese cuisine traditionally has a certain rigidity, she says, so improvisation is rare. But David To has added special twists, combining unusual ingredients and devising sauces to make dishes fancier than traditionalists might expect.

Having made Kim and Jean-Claude so happy, I next enticed my husband, Arif, to try dinner at New Saigon. We found the place completely empty, although two parties came in later. Again we sat in the lower dining area, and once more the environment seemed pleasant, even without help from the skylights.

We started with fried vegetarian rolls ($3.95), which were shockingly hot. I burned the roof of my mouth, and Arif muttered something about high “heat capacity,” which is an engineer’s way of cursing. I didn’t care for the dark dipping sauce, which had an odd taste that I couldn’t identify, but the rolls had a great flavor without it. Dominated by vermicelli, these also featured mushrooms, tofu, carrots, cabbage, and celery.

I adored the second appetizer—a fried soft-shell crab ($5.50), flavored with garlic and white pepper. With each leg separated from the body of the crab and then dipped in a wonderful light batter, the pieces acquired much more flavor than a whole fried crab could have. As on the first visit, the appetizers came with a pillow of warm, white vermicelli and artfully sliced jicama and carrots.

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Tomb of Thu Duc near Hue, Vietnam.

At dinner, soups and salads do not precede the entrées, so we were quite eager to eat when the two main dishes arrived. The first one, black pepper catfish ($6.25), came in a clay pot shaped like a primitive saucepan with a chunky handle. “Smells like sweet-and-sour fish,” we observed and dug right in. Earthy, peppery, and smothered in fish sauce, the catfish struck me as initially fascinating but then became hard going, probably because I’m not a fish-sauce fan. I soon gave up, which was lucky for Arif, who deemed it the find of the evening. I took solace in the chunks of mango tempura served alongside the catfish.

With its thick batter, the tempura was remarkably distinct from the thinly coated, satisfyingly greasy fried banana that accompanied our other entrée, coconut chicken ($5.95). Although the platter looked bland, with its mix of chicken, mushrooms, and coconut milk, it had some punch, thanks to the flakes of red pepper. Snow peas and broccoli rounded out the picture. Neither too spicy nor too sweet, the dish struck us both as satisfying though not earth-shattering.

You’re forgiven if you think Saigon City is far from new. Owner-chef Patrick Bui opened it in August, 1999; he inherited both the name and the menu from the previous owner, but he changed the way everything on that menu tasted. In just a year, Kim and Jean-Claude have become devotees of the place. Recently we joined them and their Japanese colleague, Masaki, for a Saigon City dinner.

Hailing from five different countries, we looked like a UN gathering or perhaps a convention of physicists and engineers. Despite being the sole nonscientist, I was the only one who could manage the mathematics of the bill. We confronted further challenges when it came to splitting food five ways, but Kim and Jean-Claude generously split the fourth portion of many dishes, since they had sampled the food so often before.

Kim also took it upon herself to explain the finer points of the menu. She noted that Saigon City is unusual in serving both gourmet food (all appetizers and dinners) and more everyday food (all the soups, rice plates, and noodle plates). And she encouraged us to order her favorite dishes, which we did, adding a few more to feed our sizable group.

We started with a spring-roll medley: deep-fried imperial rolls, fresh shredded pork rolls, and fresh spring rolls (all $3.75). Served cold and wrapped in translucent rice paper, each contained pork along with various herbs and vegetables. The spring rolls also featured vermicelli and shrimp. Kim showed us how to eat a roll properly by wrapping a lettuce leaf around it and then instructed us on the correct combination of rolls and dipping sauces, but I dunked everything in the addictive peanut sauce—a breach that did not go unnoticed. Divided five ways, the delicious rolls disappeared immediately.

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Government propaganda in the countryside near Hoi An, Vietnam. The sign reads, “Women should not get married till after 20 or have their first child till after 22.”

Next we feasted on the roasted quail appetizer (a steal at $4.75), which comes with legs uplifted in a bonfire formation. Although the crispy skin and moist meat needed no further enhancement, most of us used the tangy, tart dipping sauce made of salt, pepper, and lime. Even with such a large group, we had plenty to savor.

We moved on to two beef entrées. Saigon City prepares sliced beef with lemon sauce ($7.95) by marinating the slices of beef in a mixture of lime juice, lemon juice, and fish sauce. The citric acid cures the beef, moving it far enough past rawness that it doesn’t need cooking at all but still attains an out-of-this world tenderness. The more conventionally prepared cube beef ($7.95) had a delectable charbroiled taste.

We still had plenty of room for seafood, so we dug into the big mound of pan-fried prawns ($7.95). With salt and other spices atop their intact shells, the shrimp had some kick. This prompted a debate about how they stacked up to a similar dish at Xanadu. My tablemates all preferred the Saigon City version, though I couldn’t decide. We also tried the Thai-style mussels with hot sauce (an unbelievable $6.95). The New Zealand green-lip mussels had a strong seafood taste but didn’t seem to have absorbed the green, spicy sauce beneath the shells. The mussels provided an unexpected bonus, though; the interiors of the empty shells mesmerized us with their colorful swirls and moires.

Although we had nearly bottomed out, we perked up when the best dish of the evening arrived. A special that night (although Bui might add it to the menu), the chicken curry didn’t win us over with its appearance, for it looked like an unattractive soup, with potatoes and carrots bobbing in a thick, yellow sauce. Kim dug down and produced a lone hunk of chicken with its dimpled skin intact. Still using a spoon, she pushed the tender meat off the bone. Bui’s mother then came over to fuss in Vietnamese. “It would have looked better if you’d cut it on the plate,” she scolded. “And you shouldn’t use a spoon for that!” Kim has called Saigon City a mom-’n'-pop place, for good reason.

We ladled chicken, vegetables, and sauce over rice, and then one after the other of us burst out with words of astonishment: Oh, the chicken falls apart so easily! What a great surprise to find sweet potatoes! Wow, what a complex layering of tastes! Kim put her nose next to the curry and exclaimed that it smelled like her childhood. Jean-Claude immediately took a deep sniff, saying, “I want to know how Kim’s childhood smelled!” I marveled at how sweet it was to see newlyweds still in love. “Oh, God!” Jean-Claude said, sitting upright and looking grim. “Does it not last?”

For this tremendous meal, we paid only $80 between the five of us, including tax, tip, and a handful of beers. “That’ll be $20 per person,” said one of the table’s world-renowned scientists, and the others assented. Incredible food sometimes addles the brain.

When Arif and I next paid a visit, we made certain not to invite anyone else, because we wanted more for ourselves. We ordered two of the dishes we’d enjoyed with the larger group—the quail and the prawns—and once again they tasted fantastic. We picked the quail cleaner than vultures would have done, and Arif gushed, “What they do with this quail is an art!”

Venturing farther afield, we tried vegetarian egg rolls with a peanut sauce ($3.75). Light and satisfying, they contained bean sprouts, tofu, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, and black mushrooms within the translucent wrappings. We also ordered a platter of barbecued beef, chicken, and pork, and for $8.95 we received enough to feed all the homeless on Telegraph. Sliced thin and perfectly hot, the meat burst with flavor, particularly the beef with its black grilling stripes. We barely made a dent in the portion and took it home, where we couldn’t even finish it on the second attempt. For all this fine dining, we ponied up $29.95 before the tip. My only regret is that we were too stuffed to try the dessert offerings: tiramisu and flan. Kim and Jean-Claude have raved about these, so we’ll definitely try them in the future.

We’ve had enough Vietnamese food for the time being, but when the urge strikes again, we’re sure to return to both of these unheralded treasures. I just hope enough people patronize them that they’ll stick around for a while.