Diverse Taste Scenario

Little Saigon, 1588 West Montebello (Christown Mall), Phoenix, 864-7582. Hours: Breakfast, lunch and dinner, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

A hundred years ago, in America's biggest cities, new neighborhoods with names like Little Italy and Germantown sprang up, home to swarms of late 19th-century European immigrants looking for a better life.

These days, in America's biggest cities, you can find new neighborhoods with names like Little Saigon and Koreatown, where waves of late 20th-century Asian arrivals have settled, looking for a better life.

The Valley hasn't quite yet reached the level of ethnic density and cosmopolitan diversity you see in this country's largest urban centers. But the immigrants are coming here, and they're coming faster than you think.

Less than a decade ago, you could have counted the combined number of Vietnamese and Japanese restaurants in this town on two hands, and had enough fingers left over to flash a peace sign and a couple of thumbs up.

Not anymore. These days you'd need not only all your own fingers and toes to do the addition, but also the digits of several friends. From Mesa to the west side, budget-friendly Vietnamese restaurants are blooming like desert wildflowers after a rainy winter. And our appetite for raw fish seems to be almost insatiable--at least a dozen new sushi parlors have opened over the past few years.

Now, it's one thing for new ethnic restaurants to open. But it's another thing altogether for good ethnic restaurants to open. Too often, Valley Asian restaurants tone down their fare, in order to appeal to unadventurous local palates. Anyone who's ever encountered a pu pu appetizer platter or cream cheese sushi roll knows what I'm talking about.

Happily, folks who wander into Little Saigon or Sushi Mishima won't know what I'm talking about. With their wonderful fare, both of these new neighborhood spots show how ethnic diversity can improve the quality of city life.

Little Saigon, a full-service restaurant tucked away in a corner of Christown Mall's food court, isn't even a year old. But the proprietors clearly have their act together--the place is pretty; the staff is friendly and helpful; and, in the best ethnic-restaurant tradition, the food is cheap, plentiful and tasty.

The room has a serenity that's out of step with the shopping-mall surroundings. There's a tiled pool with a graceful footbridge arched over it. Tables are lined with linen and a double-necked turquoise vase with red silk roses. A big aquarium is stocked with several species of exotic fish.

The food is equally serene. Little Saigon has a very extensive menu--more than 100 dishes. Most of them are topnotch.

Vietnam's food differs substantially from its neighbors'. Detractors might note it lacks the aromatic wallop of Thai dishes, the subtlety of Chinese cuisine or the bold garlic and chile flavors found in Korea. But there's much to appreciate in the clean, light and healthful simplicity of Vietnamese fare.

Little Saigon's appetizers will give you a good idea. Yes, you can order deep-fried egg rolls. But why would you want to, when there's goi cuon: shrimp, barbecued pork, veggies and noodles wrapped in rice paper. Dip it in peanut sauce, and savor.

Banh khot are marvelous: seven oval-shaped, bite-size doughy pancakes, tinged with coconut and topped with a shrimp. They come with a plateful of greenery--lettuce, basil, mint and cilantro. Make a greenery sandwich of the banh khot, and then dunk it in nuoc nam, the ubiquitous, salty, fish-flavored Vietnamese condiment that accompanies every dish. It's better than just about any deep-fried munchie you've ever had.

So is the rice flour crepe, a big, crispy pancake stuffed with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts. Split this two or three ways--if you don't, you'll have to call it a night even before you hit the main dishes.

Soup season will be here soon, and Little Saigon's models will get you primed. The sturdy noodle broth with shrimp, pork and squid delivers old-fashioned comfort, while the shark fin soup is tantalizingly different.

The main dishes show a lot of spunk. Charbroiled ground beef, wrapped in grape leaves and skewered, delivers an extraordinary taste explosion. At $6.95, this platter costs about as much as a movie ticket, and it's better than anything now playing. Lemongrass chicken is probably the strongest-flavored dish on the menu, and it's punched up even more by a slightly spicy sauce. The dish labeled "Sauteed Squid" doesn't sound very intriguing, but the kitchen does it impressively. The thick pieces of squid aren't at all chewy. And while beef with bok choy also seems deceptively plain, it's not: The tender strips of stir-fried beef teamed with baby bok choy in a spoon-lickin' brown sauce will keep you interested until the last bite.

If you want to combine dinner and do-it-yourself entertainment, order #76. The server will bring over a platter of raw, thin-sliced beef and shrimp, a mound of butter and a portable grill. Start the fire, get the butter sizzling and begin cooking. When the beef and shrimp are done, stuff them in rice paper, add greenery and dunk in the fish sauce. Life will seem good, indeed.

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