The beguiling Vietnamese flavor palette of garlic, lemon grass, coriander, chili, ginger, and peanuts—and the cuisine’s contrast of crackling and silky textures—is becoming more familiar in New Jersey as more Vietnamese restaurants open. One of the most recent and interesting is Saigon House.
The restaurant is clean and brightly lit. In back are several tables tucked into what look like small arbors decorated with garlands, adding a whimsical touch.
The flavors of Vietnam never lose their appeal for me. A big bowl of pho bac biet, Vietnam’s classic beef-noodle soup, makes a soothing but hearty meal. The delicious broth, with its hints of clove and kick of fish sauce, brims with flat rice noodles, thin strips of well-done flank steak, tiny meatballs, soft tendon, and tripe. A worthwhile add-on is strips of raw beef to plop into the steaming soup.
Excellent summer rolls filled with mixed vegetables, pork, or shrimp, can be dipped in a classic tangy Vietnamese sauce made with red chili, brown sugar, and coriander. Another pleasing starter is salt-and-pepper calamari. The tender fried rings, barely crisp on the outside, are tossed with salt, pepper and butter. Good, too, are the gelatinous Vietnamese dumplings, filled with bits of pork and shrimp and steamed in banana leaves. I love the roasted quail: two whole tiny birds split and roasted with butter and herbs. Shrimp, pork, and slivered green papaya salad with peanuts and spicy dressing is crisp and refreshing.
The way the menu is laid out, it is easier to choose dishes by their ingredients than to figure out whether they are starters or entrées. Fortunately, the servers are happy to tell you how big the servings are. One certainty: Everything in the “Kitchen on the Table” section is for two. These dishes are cooked at the table, some on a grill, others (such as beef vinegar hot pot, or fondue in broth) in a pot on a burner. The food comes with discs of rice paper you dip in water to soften. Grill your raw beef or shrimp and roll it up in the softened rice paper with vermicelli, shredded lettuce, and herbs. It’s delicious finger food.
Whole fish is excellent. The Saigon House special (bass, the day we were there) is deep fried and retains its sweet flavor, enhanced, not overwhelmed, by the strongly spicy ginger sauce served with it.
Soft-shell crab with pineapple and raw onion on lettuce and tomato is crisp and tasty. Seven huge shrimp, split and deep-fried, are outstanding served with shredded raw carrots, peanuts, sweet potatoes, and coriander. Caveat: The shrimp are cooked in their shells. The Vietnamese usually eat them shell and all, but it’s fine to peel them first. Lemongrass beef sautéed with onions and bell peppers gets an enticing kick from chili sauce.
The best dessert, fried banana with ice cream, brings the meal to a sweet, satisfying conclusion. —Valerie Sinclair