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Saigon Healthy Cuisine, 820 South Mill, Tempe, 967-4199. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Everyone except Middle Eastern potentates sitting on large oil reserves gets strapped for cash once in a while. Recently, not through choice, I was forced to ponder the problem of finding really cheap eats in this town. If all you've got are hunger pangs, a five-dollar bill and a yearning to eat outside your own four walls, I wondered, are you doomed to Happy Meal McNourishment or a run-from-the-border taco combo?
Not necessarily, but it took a criminal insight to point me in the right direction. Willie Sutton used to rob banks, he said, because that's where the money is. So I turned that observation inside out. Where do cheap restaurants flourish? In student neighborhoods, because that's where the money isn't.
808 S. Mill Ave.
Tempe, AZ 85281-5602
So, armed with an appetite and a handful of singles, I peered into restaurant storefronts around ASU, looking for low-cost places that didn't have secret sauce, 59-cent burros or franchises in Moscow.
One that caught my eye was Saigon Healthy Cuisine. It's definitely not your run-of-the-Mill Avenue fast-food stop. It's an immigrant-family-run operation that, except for the plastic silverware, may remind you of mealtime at home. Signs read, "Please bus your own table." The room is airy and spiffily clean, with whitewashed walls adorned with mirrors and Asian-looking lacquered wall plaques. If you listen hard, you can detect the faint strains of non-Western music in the background.
Line up at the "Order Here" window and look over the menu. It has two striking features. First, there are plenty of choices: more than 50 options. Second, almost every item goes for under five bucks.
One that doesn't (it's $5.25) is the meal-in-a-bowl golden noodle soup. It's perfect for our crisp Valley autumn, when the thermometer may stall out at a bracing 80 degrees. This mild broth is filled with thin-sliced roast pork, shrimp, scallions, broccoli and a heap of sesame-wheat noodles. Cilantro, a Vietnamese staple, garnishes this and every other dish here. The woman behind the counter advised me to pour in some of the viciously hot chile sauce that sits at each table. It's tasty advice, as long as you don't get carried away.
The aptly named spicy-tangy vegetable soup is one belly-filler that requires no extra goosing of chile. It's exceptionally hearty, thickly stocked with tofu, straw mushrooms, peas and rice vermicelli, all freshened with mint and cilantro. And there's enough chile floating in the liquid to clear your snout for several hours.
If you can scrape up an extra dollar's worth of loose change from under your sofa cushions, spend it on the magnificent spring roll. Saigon Healthy Cuisine's model is as good as any in the Valley. Filled with pork, papaya and sea vegetables, it's got a memorable, offbeat flavor and a right-out-of-the-fryer crunch. Big spenders can nibble on the same ingredients stuffed inside the slightly costlier steamed bun. The main dishes come fashioned four ways: spooned over steamed jasmine rice, brown rice, rice vermicelli or sesame noodles. Unlike most cheap fast food, they're light on grease and heavy on fresh seasonings and vegetables. Take number 40, the spicy peanut sauce. Broccoli, cabbage and carrot sit on a pile of sesame noodles, surrounded by small mounds of rib-sticking peanut sauce that don't taste anything at all like what comes out of a jar of Skippy. Eat this for lunch, and you won't need an afternoon snack to make it until dinner.
Vegetable pineapple stew is a particularly fragrant item. Veggies, tofu and pineapple, flecked with crushed nuts and sesame seeds, come bathed in an easygoing coconut-milk sauce, over a big portion of rice noodles. Baked ginger chicken also provides a pleasant scent, especially if you enjoy unstinting amounts of ginger. Try this with brown rice. Tender Saigon charbroiled pork, marinated in sherry, sesame oil and garlic, gets a top score. So do the garlicky braised shrimp, once you douse them with nuoc mam, the salty fish sauce the Vietnamese use on almost everything. Untrained Occidental palates may take a while to adjust to it--maybe that's why the restaurant keeps it behind the counter. If you want some, you have to ask. You can't point to too many benefits from the French colonization of Southeast Asia. One positive legacy, however, was the introduction of good bread. Saigon Healthy Cuisine makes some excellent subs, aided by a first-rate bread supplier and sandwich fillings you can't get at the sub chains. The savory marinated chicken and pork are luscious. One quibble, though: The bread-meat ratio is a bit out of whack. More meat, please.
And if you've got a mild sense of adventure and a sweet tooth that must be satisfied, the tapioca pudding should do the job. But I prefer the wonderful homemade honey lemonade, which lets you have your sugar and drink it, too. It may not be dinner at Christopher's followed by a performance of The Phantom of the Opera. But a meal at Saigon Healthy Cuisine and a stroll along Mill Avenue is an entertaining poor man's alternative, offering its own sort of genuine value.