Saigon Remembered Lives Up to Its Name
You know that sense of delight you get from running into an old friend someplace you wouldn't have expected to find him or her? We got that feeling when we discovered that the folks who brought us Saigon, that longstanding Northeast Baltimore outpost for Vietnamese food, had left their Belair Road digs (and former name) behind and taken up residence in Govans, in a recently vacated space across from the Senator Theater.
Saigon Remembered (5857 York Road,  435-1300) retains many of the dishes we came to love at Saigon, while forging new culinary territory. Trang Nguyen , who owns the restaurant with husband Huy, still greets customers warmly, like guests in her home. "I named this place Saigon Remembered," she says, "because I wanted people to remember the good times at the old Saigon." We did, we do, and we rejoice that fortune appears to be grinning like mad on the new venture.
Meeting our friends (and fellow longtime Saigon customers) Dena and Gary on a Saturday night, we are anxious to start sampling as much of the old and the new as possible. They start with bowls of Thai soup ($3.95; also available in family size, $13.95). Tart, sweet, and spicy, the soup supplies a mini-journey through the flavors of chili, pineapple, shrimp, mushroom, and lemon grass. Seafood spring rolls (two for $4.95) are plump and packed with ground shrimp, cellophane noodles, and crab. C.C. doesn't fancy the texture--the noodles make it too spongy for her--but the rest of us don't mind a bit.
Gary and I love mussels, but he's never tasted the green-lipped ones from New Zealand that are featured in the basil mussels ($5.95). Each bivalve is a fat beauty, salty with the sauce, spicy with slivers of onion, ginger, and the pleasing heat of handfuls of purple basil.
The biggest surprise among the appetizers is the beef in grape leaves ($5.95), four flat, square bundles, nothing like the Greek version of the dish. The meat has been marinated for flavor and tenderness, then shredded. The bundles, skewered and grilled, taste of smoke and lean beef. We could make a meal of these, with some rice, but we pace ourselves.
C.C. and Dena stick with the tried and true, basil seafood ($14.95) and chicken in clay pot ($10.95), respectively. The flavor of basil is mild in C.C.'s dish, a mix of lobster, scallops, and shrimp with broccoli, snow peas, water chestnuts, tomato, straw mushrooms, carrots, and baby corn in a little bit of mild brown sauce. The veggies are cooked but crisp. None of the seafood items is dry or overcooked, and the serving is generous. Dena's clay pot (the pots are new, and very pretty) is packed with a base of steamed rice and seemingly countless slices of tender, lightly browned white-meat chicken mixed with slivered ginger and black mushrooms. If you love ginger, this is your dish. If you make it to the bottom of the pot (which Dena barely did, and only with a little help from her friends), your reward will be the rice, supersaturated with the mingled juices.
Gary--who has been here three times already and always ordered the Saigon Remembered fried rice (chicken, pork, shrimp, and beef with tomato sauce, $8.95)--is persuaded to order one of the menu's new dishes, grilled salmon filet ($14.95). It's a good-sized hunk of fish (but cooked a shade too much for me), and the topping of ground shrimp and crab is flavorful, but the filet is a bit dry, and bears scant evidence of the lemon herb sauce promised by the menu. With only a bowl of rice on the side, it's the most lackluster of our selections.
My selection from the new menu, crispy fried fish ($16.95), proves to be an outstanding choice, simple but superb. And large: The flounder, served whole, extends in both directions over the edges of the platter. Heads turn in our direction as it makes its way to the table. The fish has been slashed in several spots, and the gashes stuffed with green onion before the fish is coated and fried. The smell is wonderful, and the fish is so beautiful that I hesitate to dig in. But I do, dividing it up so we can share the sweet, moist flesh. There's nothing wrong with the little dish of ginger sauce served on the side; we just don't need it. We don't even need the rice, although it's well-cooked and flavorful.
No one has space for dessert, although French pastries and flan are available. I'm not one to go dumping things in my after-dinner coffee, but I'm a pushover for Vietnamese coffee and condensed milk ($2.75), served hot or cold. (I always get cold.) The sweetened condensed milk sits on the bottom of the tall glass, with the rich Ban Me Thuot coffee on top, so there's a good bit of stirring necessary to mix the two. I close my eyes for the first sip, to focus on the sweet, dark flavors.
While some of the menu items have gotten pricier since their days in old Saigon, vegetarian entrées and rice or rice-noodle dishes top out at $9.95. Meal-sized salads and soups range from $7 to $10. Come to think of it, a family-size vat of asparagus with crab meat soup ($12.95) would go down cheaply and well on one of these chilly autumn nights.
Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 12:30-10 p.m. Sunday.