Good Soup, And That’s About It, At Well-Liked York Road Mainstay
Saigon Remembered moved its authentic Vietnamese cuisine from Belair-Edison to its current, more spacious home in Govans about five years ago. Directly across the street is the Senator Theatre, and Saigon Remembered has no doubt enlarged its patron base by providing fast and reliable pre-movie meals.
The restaurant is adept at hurtling food out from the kitchen within minutes of your ordering it; on the other hand, main courses might arrive while you’re still working your way through your appetizers. But Saigon Remembered is not the kind of place you’d want to linger, and the wholesale lack of boogie that afflicts so many area Thai, Japanese, and Chinese joints around town is in firm place here. It’s not so much ugliness working here as indifference to aesthetics, service, and comfort, which for many diners signifies such virtues as value and authenticity. But neither does Saigon Remembered have "dive charm," the ineffable beauty of, say, a Korean barbecue joint or an Essex crab house. It’s just a big, harshly lit room with many booths and tables.
I told some fans of Saigon Remembered about my planned visit, but they never got around to telling me what their favorite dishes were. I wish they had. The printed menu offers scant support for diners new to the cuisine or the restaurant itself. It’s just a long numbered list, broken up into appetizers, soup, salads, steamed rice/noodle dishes, Vietnamese specialties, vegetarian dishes, and seafood, 76 items in all, not including a separate page of rice-paper rolls and salads.
Obviously, some pho will be ordered, but these are limited (and obscurely listed). The pho we did try, rare and well-done beef noodle soup ($8.95), satisfied with its simplicity. Here was an enormous bowl of nourishing beef broth, piled generously with thinly and gently sliced beef, furnished with what looks to be a pound of nicely cooked vermicelli rice noodles, and laced somewhat tentatively with green onions and basil. Good enough but lacking a bit of complexity and foreign flavor.
But the rest of the meal, selected somewhat haphazardly and based on "what sounded good," evoked less the scent of green papayas on a sultry Saigon evening than a one-way ticket to Dullsville. Vietnamese steak ($13.95), the restaurant’s version of shaking beef--sautéed chunks of flank steak served over lettuce and tomato--tasted flat, delivering neither the pucker of rice vinegar nor the pungency of fish sauce, and suggesting little evidence of garlic, mint, cilantro, or any other ingredient to engage the senses. Similarly, a spicy chicken and lemon grass dish ($11.95), served with rice, and described as "chicken sautéed in a rich caramel nuoc mam (fish sauce) with fresh lemon grass and hot pepper," sounded like an alluring combustion of competing flavors and textures but turned out to be an unattractive presentation of minutely flavored chicken strips. Fish sauce is one of the most compelling flavor enhancers of the world’s cuisines, and it’s a shame not to actually administer it. And you’d be hard-pressed to detect any caramel tones in the lightly applied sauce.
Better was a shrimp in a clay pot ($15.95), a handsome mix of fresh-tasting jumbo shrimp, black mushrooms, and not enough ginger in a very simple brown sauce. The clay-pot method does a superior job of preserving the integrity and vividness of component parts--shrimp tastes like shrimp, mushrooms like mushrooms--but the parts don’t add up too much. The bland brown sauce is to blame, and only healthy doses from the bottle of tabletop chili sauce brought the mix to life.
Some of the disappointment was set up by an early success, a family-sized serving of spicy Thai soup ($14.95), in which exotic, pungent, and spicy flavors were allowed to play themselves out. Sweat-inducing, peppery heat was here, as was the salty bite of fish sauce, the fascinating tropical mingle of shrimp with pineapple, lemon grass, and cilantro.
Rice-paper rolls ($5.50-$6.95) are good, too. Stuffed most often with shredded rice noodles and lettuce and laced with either fish or peanut sauce, the rolls are delicately beautiful and satisfying. But even with these, the fish sauce seems tame and the presence of cilantro timid. And, although they’re offered in a listing that suggests the variety of sushi rolls, one tasted pretty much like another to us. So--maybe a return visit is in order, before a movie. And next time with better advice from Saigon Remembered fans about why they like it so much.