Small price to pay for treats in Saigon

September 01, 1995|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

I have a new candidate for the hole-in-the-wall with great, incredibly cheap food.

Saigon, Baltimore's newest Vietnamese restaurant, doesn't quite fill the bill. For one thing, it's not a hole-in-the-wall. It's too clean and neat, although the green oilcloth tablecloths are thumbtacked in place, and the refrigerated drinks case is an important feature of the decor. For another, the food is good, sometimes excellent, but great is stretching it. Incredibly cheap is right on the mark, though. Nothing on the menu costs more than $7.25.

Start with the delicious summer rolls, served cold, which have some of the aesthetic appeal of sushi. Lettuce, chives, rice noodles, shrimp and thin slices of pork are tucked into soft, rice paper wrappers. The rolls have a dipping sauce that looks something like a melted Snickers bar but tastes like hoisin with chopped peanuts.

Follow them with Vietnamese beef noodle soup, which sounds ordinary and is anything but. It comes to the table family-style, in one large serving bowl. Thin slices of beef and rice noodles fill the flavorful broth; you add leaves of fresh lemon basil, wedges of lime, slices of jalapeno pepper and bean sprouts to suit your taste.

Rice paper makes its appearance again in my favorite of our main courses. You fill the rice paper pancakes yourself with grilled shrimp; delicious bits of barbecued pork, crisp fat and all; carrot slivers; lettuce; noodles; and as much hot sauce as you can stand.

The other dishes we tried were more ordinary but quite good: seafood and mixed vegetables in a smoky sauce, and shrimp and pork with crunchy fried noodles and vegetables.

These were what our waitress recommended as typically Vietnamese dishes, but I regret not trying the intriguing-sounding shrimp on sugar cane stick or the chicken and black mushrooms in a clay pot. Next time.

My advice is to skip dessert; but if you have to have it, go whole hog and order the honey banana. It will put you in a diabetic coma if the grease doesn't clog up your arteries first, but it has a certain appeal for those with a very sweet tooth: The banana is deep-fat-fried in a thick batter, then drowned in honey.

Saigon doesn't have a liquor license, but you can get beer at Ed's Bar across the street. Those of you who prefer wine with dinner are in a bit of trouble here. If you sweet-talk the bartender at Ed's, however, he might break up a four-pack of strawberry coolers for you.

Saigon

Where: 3345 Belair Road

Hours: Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday and Monday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; closed Tuesday

Credit cards accepted: D, MC, V

Features: Vietnamese food

Call: (410) 276-0055

Prices: appetizers, $1.50-$2.75; entrees, $4.25-$7.25

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