A tiara-worthy wealth of Vietnamese dishes enlivens this Sixth Street spot
DINE There really is a Miss Saigon inside of Miss SaiGon, but she seems to be made of plastic, if — to quote Groucho Marx — I'm any judge of horseflesh. With her motionless good cheer, the big doll looks like salvage from some airline's marketing campaign, circa 1968. Next to her stands a kind of aqueous sculpture, with sheets of water rippling down a long glass panel.
Such kitschy drama, and we're barely inside this Vietnamese restaurant (not to be confused with the musical of the same name). The semi-cavernous dining room — weirdly reminiscent of a dance floor in some mid-list gay bar — is screened from the street by a barricade of translucent draperies that hang from floor to ceiling with lacey, lingerie-like suggestiveness. It feels like an after-hours, members-only sale at a Victoria's Secret warehouse.
Yet behind the bar, the wall is painted a nervy lime green — a hue that will be powerfully reminiscent (to the restaurant-minded) of Mangosteen. Mangosteen is part of the new wave of Vietnamese and Southeast Asian restaurants that have opened along Larkin Street, on the north side of Market, in recent years, while Miss SaiGon stands just steps away from old-guarder Tu Lan, which Julia Child is said to have admired. One evening, on my way to Miss Saigon, I peeked inside Tu Lan and wondered how Child even fit inside, let alone enjoyed herself, and whether the oft-told tale of her admiration might be apocryphal.
Miss SaiGon, slightly more two years old, belongs to the post-Child era, but I would guess the old doyenne would find the newer place eminently acceptable. The interior is attractive without being overbearing, the social tone is comfortable, with lots of younger people among the clientele (laptops glowing on tabletops in front of them — but aren't laptops quaint now?), and the extensive menu is mostly excellent.
If brevity is the soul of wit as well as menu-writing, then a vast menu like Miss SaiGon's, with so many items that they have to be numbered (including No. 4, kimchee, a ringer from Korea), is generally best approached with caution. The more dishes a kitchen has to master, the more likely it is the chefs' attention will be diluted or that ingredients for the less-loved dishes will sit around too long — that something will go awry, in other words.
But the execution at Miss SaiGon is sharp and assured, the flavors properly balanced and amplified, like rich sound. The only exception, to my mind, was an unlikely one: slices of pork stir-fried with lemon sauce and vegetables ($9.50). The vegetables were ordinary — celery and carrots, mainly — and the lemon sauce was MIA. Instead, the dish was dominated by an unannounced walk-on: pineapple, in chunks. Pineapple is fine in piña coladas and as a supplement to lubricious activity, but as an accompaniment to pork here it was too sweet, too overwhelming, and too obvious.
Neither too sweet nor too obvious was the papaya salad ($6.50), which resembled a nest of glass shards and was fortified with shrimp and ground pork. Ground peanuts added texture, leaves of fresh mint brought their bewitching breath, and — best of all — the salad was dressed with some version of nuoc mam, the salty-tangy-sweet blend of fish sauce and vinegar that is one of Vietnamese cuisine's signature condiments.
The prospect of cold noodles — sesame ($3.95) — on a cold night caused some consternation around the table, but there turned out to be something sufficiently warming, or at least sustaining, in the fatness of the noodles to muffle the disquiet. Sesame can have a sharpness that verges on the unpleasant, but the potentially harsh edge was blunted by the plush saltiness of fish sauce.