Cafe Reviews

Saigon in Scottsdale

Nineteenth-century journalist, poet and author Charles Pierre Monselet once stated that "a true gastronome should always be ready to eat, just as a soldier should always be ready to fight." How right you were, Chuckles, but of course, it doesn't hurt if the cuisine in question happens to be the type you're hankerin' for.

Consider, then, the joyous news that a new Vietnamese joint is revved up and ready to go out near the Scottsdale Airport. Why, this high caliph of caloric intake had just been jonesing for some Vietnamese comestibles when my agents in the field alerted me that Saigon Nites had been open for about a month and a half on Hayden Road near North 83rd Place, in a little commercial cul-de-sac it shares with Blue Saguaro Cafe and Sushi N' Rock.

Without a moment's pause, I hopped in my trusty Studebaker and made my way to the outer reaches of Snottsdale where nearby Kierland Commons is the mercantile mecca for most. It's not an area necessarily known for its ethnic fare, unless you count P.F. Chang's -- and believe me, I don't. But Saigon Nites is hoping to make some inroads on the collective palate of yuppie heaven with a select menu of Southeast Asian eats and a more aesthetically pleasing ambiance than the divey digs of its culinary cousins on the west side (home to many a Vietnamese restaurant, you see).

From the parking lot, Saigon Nites could pass for a dry cleaner's, but past the mirrored glass doors are charming, cabernet-and-cr'me-colored walls, smart black and brown tables and chairs, and a gray and umber tile flooring that's clean enough to eat ice cream off. Vietnamese music is piped in, and on the walls are enchanting cityscapes of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) by night, and portraits of elegant Vietnamese women in colorful, embroidered ao dai, the traditional, long-sleeved dresses of that country.

The menu here is relatively small and selective, with a range of items from Vietnamese cooking's rich tapestry of influences, such as Chinese, French and Thai. Those of you already familiar with Vietnamese food won't be disappointed by Saigon Nites' spring rolls and egg rolls. The spring rolls are made on order, with fresh ingredients. I learned this when my cilantro-averse companion asked that her rice-paper-wrapped rolls of shrimp, pork, bean sprouts and mint come minus that (for her) leafy kryptonite. Dipped in the accompanying peanut sauce, these rolls are as scrumptious with or without cilantro. The short, crunchy Vietnamese-style egg rolls are just as addictive, especially when you eat them as is customary: wrapped in one of the lettuce leaves with which they're served, and dipped into a small bowl of sweet fish sauce.

The Vietnamese hot-and-sour soup is sure to defy your expectations. The broth tastes both citrusy and savory, and comes in a bowl piled high with pineapple slivers, bean sprouts, tomato chunks, celery, basil, shrimp and green chiles. It's indicative of how complex and delicious Vietnamese dishes can be. You'll find another example in the papaya salad with shrimp, a truly magnificent mountain of shredded papaya, in spicy fish sauce, with basil and bits of fried onion, topped with crushed peanuts and mint, and surrounded by halved shrimps.

Only the spicy chicken wings don't live up to their title, at least the "spicy" part of it. They do pass the "crispy" and "tasty" tests, but I could have used some Sriracha or even Tabasco on mine. Unlike at most west-side pho palaces, Saigon Nites eschews the lazy Susans with their assortment of condiments like savory hoisin sauce, piquant Sriracha, fish sauce, and so on. However, SN does bring out the Sriracha when it's pho time, and the fish sauce with the egg rolls. Next time, I'll ask for some hot sauce when I order wings.

Though SN is not a classic pho house with a thousand and one different types of pho on the menu, its "Saigon Nites Special" pho is more than adequate, with thinly sliced steak, well-done flank, meatballs and rice noodles in a broth made from stewed beef bone marrow and spices such as cinnamon, ginger and anise. SN also has chicken and shrimp phos on offer, as well as other soups, like egg noodle and so on. But I would appreciate the addition of tripe to one or more of the soups. I love the way tripe tastes in pho, and it's a standard ingredient at other places that serve pho. Maybe SN doesn't want to scare off its Anglo clientele, but it shouldn't worry. The timid will steer away from it, leaving plenty for more adventurous tummies out there.

One more kvetch: The chopsticks you get at SN are a bit small for wading around in all that soup. I'm used to the longer, plastic ones you get at most pho establishments, though the smaller ones work fine when you're dealing with some items like SN's "shaken" beef (in Vietnamese, bo luc lac). This is actually easier to eat with short chopsticks, as it's a platter of sizzling, sauted sirloin nuggets, here served with tricolor bell peppers. What makes the preparation noteworthy is the lemon-pepper dip that comes with it. I'm telling you, a plate of shaken beef, a saucer of that lemon-pepper dip and an endless supply of brew-ha-has would make me happier than Dom DeLuise with a new pair of elastic breeches.

As for SN's crisp rice crepe, you're better off eating it by hand than with chopsticks or even a knife and fork. Folded in half, this "Vietnamese pancake" contains pork medallions, shrimp and bean sprouts, and like the egg rolls comes with lettuce, mint, cilantro and a side of fish sauce. Break off some of the crepe, wrap it in lettuce with a touch of mint, and then dip it in the fish sauce (as ubiquitous in Vietnamese restaurants as soy sauce is in sushi bars) and chow down. Not bad, but here's another time I wish the Sriracha bottle had been closer.

Saigon Nites is far from perfect, but I have reason to suspect that perfection may one day come. The Lam family -- Paulene and husband Phan, and their daughters Emily and Julie -- runs the place, providing doting service to diners. I and my ever-ravenous belly wish them much success.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons

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