Xuan Saigon

Vietnamese
$$$$ ($14 and under)
'

Editorial Review

Xuan Saigon is the kind of restaurant that every neighborhood should be so lucky to have. Opened by members of the Nguyen family, who fled Vietnam just after the fall of Saigon and have lived in Leesburg for more than two decades, Xuan Saigon is the longtime dream of Xuan Nguyen, the mother of the family.

"My mother always wanted to open the first Vietnamese restaurant in Leesburg," Sung Nguyen, Xuan's son, explained recently. His mother, whose first name means "spring" in Vietnamese, cooked for years in the United Airlines kitchens and later at the Federal Aviation Administration's cafeteria in Leesburg, while others in the family operated Vietnamese restaurants in the area.

Now the whole family -- including the father, Daniel, and a son with the same name -- has come together to operate Xuan Saigon, located in an unassuming strip of shops just off Leesburg Pike. It may prove a bit difficult to find, but it's well worth the search.

The interior is as spare as the exterior; the major decoration is a mirrored strip that runs along two walls. Tables are widely spaced, and the tile floor is spotlessly clean.

The menu focuses on pho , the classic Vietnamese soup staple that is consumed as breakfast, lunch or a midafternoon snack. Even in Vietnam, pho is usually restaurant fare -- or at least a street market specialty -- because of the length of time and amount of resources required for its preparation.

At Xuan Saigon, you can choose appetizer, regular or large portions of the dish, which includes rice noodles in a deeply flavorful broth, topped with thin slices of beef (usually flank steak or brisket, though it may also be tripe or soft tendon) and accented with green onions and cilantro. You are also provided bean sprouts, jalapeƱo slices, basil and lime to add to the soup as you wish. It's a princely meal at the amazing price of $6.50 for the largest size.

Xuan Saigon also serves a vegetarian version of pho, and vegetarian interpretations of several of its other main offerings.

But if you concentrate just on the pho, you'll miss the gems in the rest of Xuan Saigon's menu: excellent examples of street-stall food and Vietnamese home cooking. Start with the spring rolls (A1 on the menu), rice paper packets of vegetables and pork that arrive crisp and hot, with little trace of the hot oil in which they were deep-fried. Or try the fresh garden rolls (A2), which are shrimp, pork, rice noodles, lettuce, cilantro and cucumbers folded into rice paper cylinders and served with peanut sauce accented with fiery peppers.

The green papaya salad (A4) and the vegetable salad (A5) are both mounds of finely slivered vegetables, pork and shrimp, napped with traditional fish-sauce-based dressings and accented with crispy shrimp crackers. The sliced beef salad (A7), also an appetizer, is fiery with hot chili peppers and garlic and cooled with fresh lime juice.

Xuan Saigon offers competent versions of grilled pork and shrimp, and grilled lemon-grass-marinated beef and lemon grass chicken over either steamed rice or rice noodles. The shrimp were fresh tasting and succulent, and the chicken and beef were moist and properly cooked, but both meats lacked the zing of lemon grass that I expected. Preparations that included rice vermicelli were served in bowls over tangles of loose noodles, rather than over nests of noodles, making those dishes more difficult to eat.

The most satisfying dishes are on the short list of Chef Xuan's specials. Item D2 on the menu, a stir-fry over sauteed egg noodles, includes slivers of beef, chicken, broccoli, carrots, snow peas, mushrooms, onions and garlic intertwined with fresh egg noodles nearly as fine as Italian angel-hair pasta.

D7, which the menu calls simply sauteed large rice noodles, substitutes the silky rice noodles used in pho for the egg pasta. It includes slivers of shrimp, chicken, egg, bean sprouts and roasted peanuts.

My favorite is D5, here called Saigon pancakes, though elsewhere they are often called Vietnamese crepes. A rice-flour batter is poured into a round skillet, topped with shrimp, pork, onions, bean sprouts and scallions, and cooked until the batter is crisp. Then the pancake is folded over like an omelet and served with sprigs of cilantro, basil and lettuce, and traditional Vietnamese fish sauce. At Xuan Saigon, a single order is two of these large pancakes, each large enough for one person's lunch. The price: $7.95.

--Nancy Lewis (May 5, 2005)