Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Little Saigon: Service with a Song

This article originally appeared on The Gotham Palate.

Sometimes it can be hard to muster enthusiasm over food when your daily staples consist of PB&J, ramen an chicken (albeit cooked four different ways, at the end of the day it's still chicken). Lately, these have been my home meals. My lunching and snacking habits at work aren't much more inspiring. Granola bars, nuts, raisins, copious ham, egg & cheese sandwiches, tacos, a cheese slice.

Thank goodness for Little Saigon! When I'm stuck in a food rut or just longing for some quick Chinese-Vietnamese food, Little Saigon provides fuel for the brain.

Mainstays: Pho, lemongrass shrimp fried rice, chicken/beef satay, spring rolls, any of the bun (or rice vermicelli) dishes, and bottomless refills of oolong tea - a full-bodied, nutty brew with a tinge of sweetness. The curry isn't bad either, although it definitely tastes more Chinese than anything else.

Satay Combo.

For appetizers, the Ga & Bo Satay, or combo chicken & beef skewers, is among the better ones...perhaps not the most authentic, but since this restaurant is a fusion of Vietnamese and Chinese, it's bound to have more of a Chinese bent. And that's OK. Plus, how can you say no to peanut sauce? (Apologies if you're allergic.)

Bun Cha Gio Bo Nuong Xa.

I'd also recommend the Bun Cha Gio Bo Nuong Xa, or marinated grilled lemongrass beef and spring roll, served with lettuce, bean sprout and cucumber on rice vermicelli. I had it once and it was scrumptious. My only complaint is that it could have used more turmeric to up the flavor ante. But other than that, the beef was cooked and marinated thoroughly, the crunchy fried spring roll flaky and hot. Generally, I prefer hot noodles over cold, but I wouldn't mind having this dish again.

Com Chien Tom.

My parents really liked the Com Chien Tom, or lemongrass shrimp fried rice with crushed peanuts, basil and lime zest. No MSG here! Carrots and celery add some color.


Of course, any real Vietnamese meal wouldn't be quite complete without mentioning pho. Pho keeps the winter blues away. A surefire hit to warm the body and soul. My favorite combination thus far is the savory Tai Nam Gau Gan Sach (rice noodle soup with eye of round beef, brisket, tendon and omosa - tripe) but I also like the Xe Lua (rice noodle with brisket, navel, flank, tendon, meat balls and eye of round beef) for its generous amount of meat. And don't' forget the Sriracha sauce! Toss in your basil springs and bean sprouts and squeeze the lime over it.

The pho is much better in the restaurant than the take-out version. When I ordered pho to deliver, it didn't seem to maintain its shape well. Since the soup and broth were separated, the noodles were dry and stuck together. Despite the fresh ingredients, the broth was missing an element of spice. Not the best place for pho, but for a location that doesn't require me to beat it to Manhattan, thoroughly acceptable.

But what really makes Little Saigon stand out is our waiter. I call him "our" because he's the waiter in charge who always greets us promptly and is known for singing songs as he works. He behaves like he truly loves his job! What a joy (and anomaly) to behold. The service industry is no light matter - people can easily get burned out from the long hours, physical toil and high stress level. But not he (oh, I think he goes by the name Alex, as I've heard other customers call him). Alex is always ready to serve with that winsome smile and solicitous bearing. I never need to remind him to refill our tea cups. When he's not busy helping other customers, he'll come by and chat with us for a bit.

The restaurant ambience is a standard, small Chinese restaurant feel. Most dishes range from $6-$9 and dare meant to be served family-style. Top-notch service with large portions and an economical price = great value. Alex, you can sing me a tune any time!

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars. It's the service that really stands out, even if the take-out pho was a tad underwhelming.

Little Saigon
253-09 Northern Blvd
Douglaston, NY 11362