Pho Explosion 

Saigon expands into the great outdoors, sort of.

click to enlarge food19_lede_saigon_148.jpg

You may never have noticed Saigon. It's tucked away on a busy Grace Street block in the middle of the Monroe Park campus of Virginia Commonwealth University. Its lunch special may be the real best-kept dining secret in a town known for well-kept secrets that everyone knows about.

Luckily for me, this was the second place I stumbled on back in '99 when I arrived from Portland to attend VCU. The three-course lunch was a boon to a poor student on a budget. For only $6.95 you get a very tasty wonton soup that actually has wontons stuffed with spiced ground pork (rather than a thin miso broth with a few noodles), a spring roll (either fresh or crispy — both feature a good portion of shrimp) with dipping sauce and your choice of entrees (from lo mein to pho to lemongrass-accented dishes of chicken, pork or beef, with rice or noodles). Vegetarians and vegans can substitute tofu for any of the meat dishes.

The new owners are Tinh Nguyen, a sister of the former owner, and her husband, Binh Nguyen. They used to own Vinh Phat, one of the most authentic pho joints in Richmond and part of the little Asian enclave off West Broad near Horsepen.

Though Saigon's new menu is not radically different, the new owners' influence can be found in the move toward higher-end dinner entrées. The pho noodle feature on the dinner menu is the Vietnamese hot pot. A fondue pot of court bouillon arrives at the table, kept near boiling with the help of a Sterno canister. A colossal portion of rice noodles with raw sliced beef, pork, shrimp and chopped vegetables shows up next. The rest is up to you. It's a do-it-yourself pho explosion with enough to easily feed two or three people.

The barbecue platter is similar in presentation to a fajita dinner, with rice paper wrappers instead of tortillas, and beef, pork and shrimp glazed with a sweet and spicy hoisin-tinged barbecue sauce. The vegetable delight is equally gargantuan and good.

This shift toward feasting might just be what helps Saigon turn the into a dinner destination — that, coupled with the most radical and welcomed change: the opening of the patio for dining.

I had wondered for years why the space was never used. The owners have added some nice wrought-iron tables and chairs to the deck outside, and now the VCU crowd has a comfortable shady spot in which to sit and relax between or after classes. Hedges block the street traffic. The old elm trees block the sun. Turn-of-the-century red brick and black iron lend an air of elegance to the scene.

But for some reason, the staff seemed reluctant to let us actually sit there to eat. The tables remained chained together, and service was a bit slow and cold at first, but warmed up as they seemed to get used to the idea. It was all very strange. Could it be that we were in fact the first customers to sit outside? Perhaps. But we won't be the last. This easy expansion would seem to double the seating capacity (and therefore the potential business). And it sure beats sitting inside, which shows just the barest traces of a makeover in the works — the tacky generic "Asian Food" poster and worn carpet still need to be addressed. But the comfortable chairs and starched white linen under glass tabletops, along with pots of hoisin and sambal sauces, make up for it.

The food is very good and admittedly Americanized to suit the tastes of the student/faculty regulars, who may be the only ones who have frequented this place in the past. Saigon will keep its clientele happy with its small accommodations to their tastes, and that extends from food to atmosphere. If you want true authentic Vietnamese, this may fall short of your expectations. But if what you crave is a spot in the shade and a meal that will satisfy any palate, even vegetarian, this is becoming the place on Grace. S

Saigon ($)
903 W. Grace St.
Lunch and dinner daily, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Closed Sundays and holidays.

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