Open Tuesday through Thrusday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 3 p.m. and 5:30 to 10 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations. Prices: Main courses range from $3.25 to $7.25, average $5 to $6. Full course dinners $5.15 to $12.50.
Washington has more than a dozen Vietnamese restaurants, more than Spanish or Thai or German. But except for the pan-Asian versions like Germaine's and Rendezvous, their menus are similar, the range between the best and the worst is narrow. Is there such a thing as a bad cha gio (spring roll)? I doubt it. And is there a superb caramel pork? I haven't found it.
Thus, if it seems that Vietnamese restaurants appear frequently on these pages, it is explained partly by the number of Vietnamese restaurants available, as well by the reasonable prices for which Vietnamese restaurants serve interesting food. But candor requires that I admit I am searching for the Eurasian beauty, the perfect hybrid of French and Chinese cuisines.
While I have not found it, I have found clues to the French-Asian connection at Saigon Inn. The carrot-celery-onion mixture that French chefs call mirepoix, forms the vegetable base of many Saigon Inn dishes. Touches here and there -- of pate-like Vietnamese salami, of creme caramel and sometimes of cream puffs -- introduce additional French accents to the Asian-style food.
The restaurant offers other subtle amenities that distinguish it from its sibling restaurants.
This is the right time of year to visit Saigon Inn, for in winter it just can't be the same without fresh mint.
Start with the cha gio, which is what one usually does in any Vietnamese restaurant anyway. Generally these pork-crabmeat rolls are wrapped in rice paper for frying. The wrappers at Saigon Inn, however, are different, more like the very thin wheat flour wrappers of Chinese spring rolls. Saigon Inn's chef did not like using rice paper because it often bursts in the frying. So the kitchen makes its own paper-thin dough of wheat flour. The filling though not unique, is extremely well seasoned, so that the first flavor is of faint sweetness, the final and lingering flavor of black pepper. The rolls are to be dipped in a clear red-gold, sweet-hot fish sauce with shreds of carrot.
The sweet-sour-salty-hot interplay, all four tasts evident at once, is a constant theme at Saigon Inn. In soups, the broths are distinctly sweet and sour, with warmth of judiciously applied pepper. Such soups, with pork, chicken wings or shrimp, rice noodles or a tangle of homemade egg noodles, are unlike any Western soups in their delicacy, for sweet and sour in European cuisine also tends to mean heavy and rich.
Saigon Inn's menu is long, its 70 dishes even including cheeseburgers. But choices can be broken down into appetizers (which might tempt you to make an entire meal), soups with or without noodles (meals in themselves unless you share a bowl with several people), house specialties of grilled meats or shrimp to wrap in rice paper, and meats or seafoods stir-fried and sauced with or without vegetables.
Try them all. Take a crowd or remain frustrated with what you have missed.
Along with cha gio, the most interesting appetizers are cold rice paper rolls stuffed with shrimp, pork, lettuce and fresh mint, to dip in a superb hoisin-peanut sauce. Explore also the steamed rice dough rolls with bits of ground pork, topped with smooth homemade steamed sausage and bits of fried onion and scallion, all of which is eaten with lettuce and cucumbers. Main courses should include at least one house specialty, perhaps grilled pork with rice cake ($5.50), the crisp-edged marinated and charcoaled pork cubes to be wrapped in glossy, glutinous rice noodles, or grilled shrimp on sugar cane ($7.50), the shrimp paste wrapped around the cane for flavor before grilling, then removed to fold into rice paper. In both cases, branches of mint leaves, fluted carrot slices, cucumbers and iceberg lettuce are wrapped in the sandwich, then dipped in golden fish sauce.
This kind of participatory food is not only fun, it is light eating and sufficiently crunchy and cool to appeal to flagging summer appetites. Also among specials are beef fondue ($6.95), the paper-thin meat cooked at the table in vinegared broth; and a crisp rice crepe wrapped around meat, seafood and bean sprouts.
The fondue is less tasty than the grilled dishes, and the crepe filling has a soggy consistency from overcooked bean sprouts.
If you don't like folding and wrapping your own dinner, similar combinations are served over noodles, or you can have your noodles sauteed with vegetables and meats, all for $3.50 to $4.50. The stir-fried dishes can be chicken, pork, beef, shrimp or fish filets with bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, green peppers, Oriental mushrooms or mixtures of those seasoned with allspice, curry, ginger, black pepper or combinations. In each case, the sauces are light and clear, unthickened and pungent but carefully balanced. A touch of sweetness is frequent but never cloying. Pepper heat is typical but rarely fiery. Everything is nearly familiar as Chinese food, but with some exotic touch, like bits of corn in the steamed rice.
Saigon Inn waiters wear blue shirts; waitresses wear Vietnamese tunics like those on the dolls in glass boxes that decorate the room. Our waiter, a member of the owner's family, took a strong but gentle hand in guiding the ordering. He suggested the best dishes, balanced the choices, queried whether hot or mild spicing was preferred. Then, when the food arrived, he showed how it was to be eaten, and described its preparation as if he were telling his favorite story. As we dined we were bathed in delightful aromas of garlic and ginger and lemon grass and fish sauce, the woodsy scent of grilling meat, the heavy perfume of deep frying, the tingle of mint.
There is a wine list, but the beer choices are better. One of the best is France's "33." The Polynesian-style drinks can be ingnored with no loss, for they are sticky sweet.
At Saigon Inn you can order full two-to-five-course fixed-price dinners for $5 to $13, but dining a la carte is not expensive. Even with drinks, tax and tip, it would be challenge to spend more that $25 a couple, since most of the main courses are $6.50 or less.
Saigon Inn is far from elaborate, and there is nothing spectacular about the food. Rather, it is simple cooking with a deft touch to the sauces and special care in homey details like noodles and dough wrappers, fresh mint. It is an endearing restaurant this is typified by having not cream puffs today because -- in the midst of a suburban shopping center -- it buys all its eggs from a farm in Pennsylvania that missed its last delivery. It is a restaurant for those of us who are willing to do without cream puffs or mint if that means they will be fresh when we get them.