Entertainment at restaurants usually comes in the form of TVs, music, the occasional live performance.
The recent afternoon’s show at Saigon Restaurant, however, was of a decidedly more suspenseful variety. Triggered by the tumultuous winds outside, the power kept going out in the dining room. Every few minutes, the lights and TVs and the various humming sounds that make up the background noise of a restaurant would cut out, leaving nothing but the wind hissing outside. And then, moments later, the lights and sounds would return, followed by exclamations of relief from the dozen or so patrons assembled inside.
Saigon chef/owner Vicky Truong and her staff cheerfully shrugged off the frequent interruptions, displaying the unflappable spirit that has made Saigon one of the city’s foremost Vietnamese restaurants for three decades now. That spirit – along with the quality of Truong’s cooking – enabled Saigon to prosper in the Northeast Heights and, in 2011, expand to a second location in Rio Rancho. More recently, it’s helped the place survive pandemic-related shutdowns and a long stretch as a takeout-only operation.
The restaurant’s name, of course, refers to the capital city of the former South Vietnam. Saigon is now officially known as Ho Chi Minh City, although many people continue to refer to it by its old name. The fall of Saigon in 1975 triggered a wave of Vietnamese immigration to the United States. A few thousand of those immigrants came to Albuquerque, where they helped build a dining scene that stands today among the city’s most well-represented ethnic cuisines.
Saigon Restaurant’s place in that scene is evident the moment you enter the dining room and spot the host of awards hanging on the wall. The restaurant sits at the corner of a brick-walled shopping center on the south side of San Mateo just before the Osuna intersection. Inside, there are a couple of long community tables in the front and curved banquettes around the perimeter.
Truong and one server worked the door and dining room, which got a spruce-up during the pandemic. The old wallpaper and tiles that once adorned the walls have been replaced with new wainscoting and paneling.
The menu begins with 10 appetizers ranging in price from $4 all the way up to $14.50. Foremost among them is a plate of Egg Rolls ($12.50) that ranks with the best in the city. The six cigar-sized rolls filled with ground pork and carrots arrived piping hot from the fryer and sharing the plate with a mound of basil, cilantro and lettuce. Truong showed me how to wrap them. You line a piece of lettuce with basil leaves and cilantro, roll it around the egg roll and dip it in a sweet and sour sauce. I’ve never had egg rolls this way and I almost immediately became a convert. The veggies add crunch and peppery, minty notes of flavor.
Entire sections of the extensive menu are devoted to different types of soups. The to-go version of the Rare Beef with Rice Noodle Soup ($12.50) was thoughtfully assembled, with rice noodles and thin-sliced beef in one container, the basil, bean sprouts and cilantro in a separate plastic bag. The broth, still quite hot when I got home, was aggressively salted and herbed and overflowing with the aroma of cardamom, ginger and star anise. Once assembled, it made for a terrific version of the classic Vietnamese pho.
Most of the entrees come in at less than $15. The most expensive item on the menu – also the one Truong told me she liked best – is a Steamed Bass with Black Bean Sauce ($33.50). It’s beautiful in its simplicity. The fish is served whole, its sides scored for easy access to the firm, flaky flesh. The sauce underneath, made with fermented black soybeans, soy and ginger, burst with umami that gave a charge to the mildly flavored fish and the accompanying plate of rice.
Saigon has an extensive drinks menu featuring Vietnamese coffee, Thai iced tea and a variety of shakes. The Fresh Young Coconut ($7) served in the shell, its top hacked open to allow for a straw, paired nicely with the food. Well-chilled, nutty and not too sweet, it was an exemplary palate cleanser.
Service was stellar. Both Truong and the server were attentive and obviously knew the menu well. There are some gluten-free dishes, but they are not marked on the menu.
Pandemics, power outages: no matter. Saigon Restaurant continues to stand out, even in a city known for its Vietnamese cuisine.