Like an Auto Mile lined with car dealerships, it appears that Superior Avenue is fast becoming Pho Road.
When first I learned that a Vietnamese restaurant called Saigon Grille was slated to open 100 feet from #1 Pho and 300 feet from Superior Pho, I kinda felt bad for the owner, Henry Leui. Here was a guy who for years had run a nail supply shop, now taking on two of the most popular Asian noodle stops in town.
It looks like I needn't have worried. As the market for pho — along with Vietnamese fare in general and AsiaTown restaurants in particular — continues to balloon, not only is there room for another entry into the marketplace, there's a need. While Superior is still tops in my book when it comes to pho, #1 hasn't been number one for quite some time: Coasting on an early entry and a strong start, that restaurant could profit from some motivation to improve.
In Saigon Grille, it has that and more. Not only is this Asian upstart putting out some very fine Vietnamese food; it is doing so with the sort of passion and enthusiasm that seems sadly absent from some of the competition. There is a lot to be said for a simple eagerness to please.
When Leui moved to AsiaTown a little more than seven years ago, his neighborhood looked far different than it does today. "A lot of the buildings were boarded up, there were homeless people on the streets, and nobody came out on the weekends," he says. "Now, lots of people come here to eat and shop, it's much safer, and the buildings are restored."
Including his own: a sharply renovated double storefront. Shiny, bright, and crisp, the 60-seat eatery is a welcome roost come lunchtime.
At $2.95 a pop, Saigon's banh mi sandwich was one of the best deals in town. I say "was" because the price quickly jumped to $3.75 soon after opening. Happily, it is also worth that and more. Tucked inside a crisp, flaky baguette is a riot of meats, veggies, and herbs. In addition to the more typical cold meat version, Saigon sells a wonderful banh mi filled with warm, sweet roasted pork.
Both the crispy eggs rolls and the non-fried shrimp-and-pork summer rolls are textbook in their presentation, texture, and taste. The same cannot be said of the Vietnamese crêpe, which, while appropriately crisp-edged, was too thick in parts and lacked any discernable perfume of coconut milk. Moreover, the chicken inside was dry and bland.
Made with both white and dark meat, the shredded chicken and cabbage salad feels a bit heavier on the palate than typical all-white-meat versions. Personally, I enjoy Saigon Grille's more succulent version of this classic dish.
And I adore Saigon's pho: Its broth is a hint lighter than those brewed elsewhere, and it possesses the ideal balance of beefiness and sweet spice. If you are at all adventurous, order the version with tendon. The kitchen manages to transform this tough and fibrous tissue into a quivering pudding of near-liquid collagen. It's a treat.
Also, for a nice change a pace, give the banh canh a try. This brew features fat, udon-style noodles in a spicy broth with a variety of roasted meats, thin-sliced onion, and fresh herbs. It's more stew than soup.
A perfectly cooked sunnyside-up egg and freshly grilled pork came perched atop a mountain of delightfully sticky broken rice. This and other versions of the rice and pickled veggie dish come with the usual vinegary fish sauce condiment. Same, too, for the myriad vermicelli dishes that arrive topped with everything from chopped egg rolls to grilled pork.
While sweet and attentive, the service could use some sharpening. Despite specifically requesting that our starters and mains be separated by more than a little time, they were delivered just minutes apart. Still, I'll be back — for the banh mi and the beautiful broths.