Saigon Restaurant

933-935 Washington Avenue


"Annie Hall" captured the Oscar for Best Picture in 1977 amidst stiff competition from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Saturday Night Fever" and "Star Wars." Seatle Slew won the Kentucky Derby; Portland beat the 76ers in the NBA Playoffs. Elvis Presley died that year, as did Bing Crosby, Charles Chaplin, Groucho Marx and Vladimir Nabakov.

President Jimmy Carter, recently sworn in, pardoned Vietnam War draft evaders. But that healing news was almost overshadowed by the Postal Service's request to raise the cost of a first class stamp to 13 cents.

The first fine Vietnamese cuisine was introduced to Philadelphians in 1977 by Ha Nguyen, who, 24 years later, remains one of our most beautiful and talented proprietress-chefs. She has maintained Saigon as a restaurant, which, pound for pound, serves the best Vietnamese fare in the city.

The establishment's facade fronts onto Washington Avenue, close enough to 9th Street so that its bricks seem redolent of the nearby Italian Market's fresh produce. Nothing but a neon sign proclaiming "SINCE 1977," and jutting vestibule, differentiates this shebang from neighboring rowhouses.

Two-and-a-half decades ago, one entered upon spartan, cramped surroundings at 933 Washington Avenue. Small wooden plaques and sharply bright sconces adorned white walls. Each table had settings of "puzzle" paper place mats. Hop Lee, Ha Nguyen's husband, was the sole waiter for 16 closely aligned tables. Their children, Linh, aged four, and Richard, then two, ambled from patron to patron with inquisitive minds, wearing bedroom slippers. They disappeared upstairs into the family's living quarters in preparation for bed time at 8 p.m., only to reappear for hugs and kisses goodnight from all. Over the years, we have become part of each other's families. The "children" (Linh's now in banking; Richard is graduating University of Pennsylvania) still wait tables on weekends. They remain tenderly cordial.

The family bought 935 next door some time ago and broke through, doubling the eating area. The interior has a small bar now, a new fish tank, more mirrored walls, darker paneling and white linens. But the cost to feed two sumptuously for under $25 remains inviolate.

Review the numbered menu items, and recite this: "2, 36, 37." Linh will probably reply, "That's the Philadelphia Lawyer's Littany."

#2 is "Meat Dumpling Noodle Soup with Shrimp" ($4.95). It is its name; a double-serving oversized steaming bowl brimming with egg noodles. Its aroma arises naturally from simmering seafood and silken dumplings. Freshness permeates the brew so that Southeast Asian spriteness translates to heartiness. Devour the liquid with aid of chopsticks, tilting your bowl in the air just above your lips while pushing all contents between them. Your tongue becomes scented by the pork delicately housed in thin-skinned dumplings floating throughout.

#36 is "Seafood 4 Ways" ($8.95). Huge butterfly shrimp are french-fried into golden baubles. They share space with Crab Shuma, crab balls as creamy, warm and battered as the shrimp. Spring Rolls add a corral around the others, served with hatchmarks, demarcations for dividing themselves into bite-size pieces. The crust on each is moist and crispy, wrapped to contain a mixture of coarsely ground seafood, pork, mushrooms, onions and vermicelli. Dip into the omnipresent ginger sauce, smother in Rice Shrimp Fried Rice (the fourth of the 4 Ways), and swallow. Mellowness caresses the insides of your chest.

#37 is the "Saigon Specials" ($8.95). Beef, pork and lemon chicken strips are skewered, tenderized in various marinades of caramel and oils, then grilled. The charred offerings are seared to sultry smokiness. Tendonless taffies.

If you've got money to spare, don't miss the #46 "Vietnamese Pan Cake" ($5.25). It's a grand egg omelet folded onto a platter, housing bean sprouts, peppers, chicken chunks and spices. The emphasis is on "Cake."

If you've got money to burn, head straight for the #28c "Squid Chef Style," requesting "extra spicy." This entrée is a Vietnamese salad replete with vegetables and squid parts, in a sauce scoured by flames. Baby squid have been bathing in red chili oils until their tentacles are pleading with preliminary objections. Gums and inner cheeks have a heated exchange, until the bounciness of squid-limbs succumbs to molars. Hot delicious debris dissolves as one's crimson face turns into a gargling gargoyle.

For something sweet to conclude your meal, simply garner a smile from Ha Nguyen. Despite having had to close the restaurant for over a year because of her debilitating back problems, she has now returned (as of September) with a warm and gracious grin that shines like a mid-faced halo.


Copyright 2004 Richard Max Bockol, Esq. Back