Aug 27, 2011

Home With Saigon 39

Restaurant: Saigon 39
Food: Standard Vietnamese
Service: Traditional waitstaff & takeout
Atmosphere: Quiet, friendly, sterile
Price: $10 entrees
Rating: two napkins

I think a lot of people have a favorite takeout restaurant whose food they’ve adopted as akin to their own cooking. Eating this takeout feels just as satisfying, nourishing and comforting as eating mom’s (insert favorite nostalgic food your mother made often when you were growing up). It’s not Friday-night-on-the-town food, it’s lazy Sunday night dinner when it's too hot to cook. Or Tuesday night's “I burnt the chicken casserole” backup. It’s the only restaurant food I would even consider getting after a grueling two week road trip. And for me, it’s Vietnamese food from Saigon 39.

There’s good reason why I specify Saigon as a takeout restaurant. Like an unfortunate number or Asian restaurants in this city, their… facility leaves something to be desired. Sterile atmosphere, cold stone walls… almost no décor to speak of. It's usually quiet and dull when I walk in. So I rarely eat there. Their takeout containers are of a high quality, though, and everything comes tightly packaged up so it transports easily to my house only a few short blocks away. I'm back home in less than five minutes with piping hot food.

The staff has always been friendly in my experience and, over the years, has come to recognize me and my family/friends, too, who also frequent the place. I appreciate the consistent staff and the fact that it's a family-owned business. Over time, I've noticed that many of the other patrons in front of me in the takeout line, too, are regulars who the staff knows and chats with during their short transaction.

As typical with go-to takeout food, I have a few standby menu items I order over and over again: the bright yellow, rich, soupy curry with chicken and vegetables, rice vermicelli noodles with its anchovy sauce, egg noodles and fried rice.

And both the spring rolls and their peanut sauce are the best I've ever had. I certainly understand the viewpoint of others who prefer fewer noodles packed inside, and perhaps thai basil or mint. But Saigon's thick, sticky-fresh rolls with a sprig of cilantro and halved shrimp always start a meal off in a healthy, satisfyingly cool way, drenched in that dark brown, sweet peanut sauce that then runs across the rest of my plate, devilishly soaking into the noodles and rice of my other entrée items.

I recently had the pho which I found to be average. The broth was deliciously flavored with nuances of spice but a little light on the beef flavor. I added hoisin and as much lime and jalapeño as I was given to give it a little more kick, which helped. And the sliced beef itself, though overcooked, was good meat, to be sure. I can certainly see myself coming back to this dish in the winter when soup becomes such a life saver.

The dumplings hit the spot when dumplings are needed. Eight to an order, pan fried and topped with scallions and fried onions, they're as good as any other I've ever had.

Of my four mainstays, the curry, rice vermicelli, egg noodles and fried rice, though, I constantly debate with myself as to which are my top three. Currently the rank is 1) egg noodles, 2) curry and 3) rice vermicelli, but on any given night, that can get all switched around. In each, the veggies always taste fresh, and at a medium-spiciness level they wake up my taste buds and burn in my stomach in a way that perpetuates takeout addiction.

It's not light-the-world-on-fire food but it's good. And coming back to it is as routine as familiar as laying my head down on my pillow at night. It's part of me, at this point, and will be for a long time to come, I'm sure.

Rating: two napkins

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