LISA DUTTON / BLADE Enlarge
At Saigon Bistro on Airport Highway, you ll find familiar Asian food like that served in Chinese and Thai eateries around town. But first-time diners at Toledo s only Vietnamese restaurant should also be prepared for some mouth-watering surprises, from unique tapioca drinks and coconut desserts to grilled quail and pho, Vietnam s national dish, a thick, hearty beef noodle soup.
For novices like myself, it does help to know that the food is generally lighter than Chinese, less hot than Thai. Its influences include French, Chinese, and Thai, and there are certain ingredients that Vietnamese cooks rely upon, such as star anise, lemongrass, cilantro, and sweet-salty hoisen, plum, chili, and peanut sauces folded into entrees or for the dipping of appetizers.
All this translates into the kind of food that will not only satisfy your appetite but may even capture your heart.
At Saigon Bistro, the emphasis is on several varieties of a noodle-soup called pho (pronounced fuh ), along with grilled and marinated shrimp, pork, and chicken served with an array of vegetables. Of course, really adventurous diners could always travel to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) where the likes of fried eel, Mekong Delta crocodile, and more such delicacies are part of the exotic post-war cuisine.
Located in a strip mall, Saigon Bistro is modestly appointed, with blue-painted walls in the dining room adorned by several eye-catchers: a shadowbox filled with plaster fruit, gorgeous bamboo curtains, and a stunning enamel mural alight with silver birds.
What the large menu doesn t tell you, the knowledgeable servers will, explaining such dishes as pho, hu-tieu (noodle soup with pork or chicken and vegetables), many rolled appetizers, and a good selection of nonalcoholic drinks. (You can bring in your own beer or wine, but be sure to take along a church key or corkscrew.) A sheaf of utensils is provided, including chopsticks, fork and spoon, and a plastic soup ladle.
We immediately fell for bobo tea, also known as bubble tea, a delightfully sugar-sweet, milky drink in flavors ranging from honeydew to mango. Best of all, there s a surprise at the bottom of the glass: marble-sized pearls of tapioca with the consistency of gummy bears. A fat straw allows the sipper to suck the pearls up through the bubbly foam. (Parental caution: Children have been known to use the big straw to fire the tapioca balls at each other, peashooter-style.)
For dinner, we tried a variety of Vietnamese fare, starting with summer and winter rolls ($3.95 and 4.95 for two). These are similar to egg or spring rolls, except that the overflow of meat, seafood, and vegetables are enfolded in translucent rice paper and could serve as meals unto themselves.
Two marinated, char-grilled pork rolls ($3.95) featured chunky bites of meat wrapped in fine vermicelli, while another vermicelli dish ($6.95) was loaded with spicy grilled shrimp and pork. Barbecued quail ($7.95) amounted to several small but succulent char-grilled chops with sweet plum sauce, and a lunchtime special brought delicately sliced Korean barbecued short ribs ($8.95) to the table, dripping with medium-rare beef juices and accompanied by egg-specked fried rice and peas for $1 more.
But the highlight of the evening was pho ($5 or $6 for small portions, a dollar or two more for large). Bobbing with meatballs or thin slices of round steak, the rice noodle soup gains its intense flavor from an aromatic broth of star anise, lemongrass, onions, herbs, carrots, peppers, and bean sprouts a repast in a bowl, sprinkled with cilantro and piquant chili and hoisin sauces.
Our eager server, who hails from Thailand, reeled off a list of desserts, among them cheesecake, flan, and tiramisu cake, but urged us to try the Whole Young Coconut Delight ($5). It s a small, peeled coconut with a coconut lid that lifts off to reveal many delicious spoonsful of jelled coconut, to which we could only say, Vietnam mon amor.