By B.A. Nilsson
307 Central Ave., Albany, 426-0203. Serving
Mon-Thu 10:30-10, Fri-Sat 10:30-11, Sun 10:30-9. AE, MC, V.
Cuisine: a daunting mix of native fare
Average entrée price: $5 (noodle soup) to $15
(butter fried squid)
Ambience: warehouse with lanterns
Clientele: adventurous foodies
Vietnamese cuisine entered the Capital Region slowly, first
in the guise of elegant eateries like My Linh, which relocated
from Madison Avenue to Delaware Avenue in Albany, and Truc’s
Orient Express, a branch of the successful Berkshires restaurant
that opened in downtown Schenectady and, following the fate
of any fancy restaurant in downtown Schenectady, soon closed.
Van’s, in MyLinh’s old Madison Avenue space, is a hotel restaurant
without the hotel, also on the upscale side.
Restaurant Saigon does away with any pretense. It’s in a space
that could just as easily be an appliance outlet, but it’s
been gussied up with flea-market style decor that chuckles
with irony when contrasted with the earnest service and the
almost incomprehensible menu. The ceiling is studded with
gaudy plastic lanterns. Some are lighted; one of the lighted
ones has a shadowplay interior that moves. And the edges of
that lantern blink. Plastic rhinestones in primary colors
are pasted onto switchplates, and the walls otherwise sport
a tentative array of mirrors and lithos. At the back of the
restaurant, an oversized TV hits you with current programs
or, if you’re lucky, karaoke. Behind the TV is a shrine with
a light-up Buddha at its center, a starburst of light rays
emanating from his head.
The menu seems compact, but is so short on descriptions that
hundreds of items are packed into a few pages. Appetizers
include typical items such as spring rolls, egg rolls, barbecue-sauced
meatballs and lemon beef salad, and more unusual-sounding
fare like shrimp paste on sugar cane and jellyfish, shrimp
and pork salad. They’re priced from $3 to $9, and the preparation
and presentation, at least as can be judged from the spring
rolls and the meatballs, are more detailed than the cost would
It’s not fancy—nothing is terribly fancy here—but the intricacy
of the spring rolls is impressive, especially if you’ve ever
succumbed to the so-named pasty logs that appear on buffet-restaurant
tables. The meatballs—and several other dishes—can be sandwiched
into romaine lettuce leaves, although you’re not necessarily
going to be instructed in this technique. There’s a special
way of folding the leaf that keeps everything together, and
with a few dabs of sauce (especially the Vietnamese fish sauce,
a delicious brew unique to that cuisine), it gives a tasty
combo of filling and crunch.
Perseverance and open-mindedness are keys to exploring this
restaurant, qualities which have been lacking in at least
one other account I’ve read of this place.
Once your eyes begin to focus on the crowded menu, you’ll
see several categories, including a full page of exotic drinks—by
which I’m not talking rum-based, umbrella-capped libations
but rather salted-lemon or sour-fruit concoctions, an avocado
milkshake or the interestingly monikered “jelly fruit juice.”
Chow mein and lo mein dishes are listed, but I find myself
veering to the noodle soups. Chicken curry noodle soup ($6),
for example, is one of those glorious meal-in-itself dishes
that combines the excellent flavor of colorfully seasoned
meat with a rich soup base sporting a thicket of vermicelli
within. Beef noodle soup ($6.50) does the same, although the
darker-hued flavor of the meat within tugs the overall flavor
into a different, similarly pleasing, direction.
And the list of noodle soups goes on and on, with several
variations on the beef (round eye, meatball, et. al.), pork,
shrimp, wonton, several vegetarian versions and many more.
Although vegetarian items are scattered throughout the listing,
a few are collected under the appropriate menu heading. Some
are enigmatic—“Vietnamese vegetarian” certainly leaves some
room for speculation—while a simple-sounding dish like “fried
mix veg with tofu” ($7) turns out to be a nice array of the
usual veggies (broccoli, snow peas, bok choy) with an appealing
tofu preparation served over vermicelli and spiced with just
a little bit of a kick.
Fried rice dishes, in the $7 range, are generous portions
that can include beef or chicken or vegetables; the Saigon
Specials are $10 shrimp dishes of which I can commend the
sweet and sour fried shrimp as a dish more complex than what
sweet and sour has come to suggest on Chinese menus.
Among the rice dishes, and there are many, try the pork chop,
shredded pork and egg cake on rice ($7.50), and be prepared
to share some of the large portion. That egg cake is also
available as an appetizer, and it’s a nice contrast to the
Service tends to be as enigmatic as the menu. If the place
isn’t too busy, as was the case during one of my visits, your
order will be taken and then you’ll be left to yourself for
a while. A small child may dash across the floor, pursued
by its mom, but they’ll soon disappear again into the back.
It’s as if you’re dining in the large living room of an extended
family. Your food will appear with lots of bustle, the server
will vanish, and you’ll be able to replace any missing silverware
from an adjacent table.
But any small frustrations over service will vanish into the
glorious food, both because of its quality and because it’s
hard to believe you can pay so little for something so good.
Bistro at the Quackenbush House (Clinton Avenue
and Broadway, Albany) celebrates its ninth anniversary
at 6 PM Wednesday (Nov. 12), with a four-course banquet.
Following a champagne and hors d’oeuvres reception,
enjoy mussels with a saffron, garlic and white wine
velouté, a salad of forest mushrooms, tagine of
lamb with sauce Grand Veneur, chestnut risotto
and much more. Each course will be paired with an
appropriate wine. It’s $65 per person, and you can
reserve seats or get more info by calling 466-1111.
. . . Chefs from the area’s best restaurants—including
Jack’s Oyster House, the Albany Marriott, Glen Sanders
Mansion, Panza’s on the Green, Park Street Restaurant,
Springwater Bistro, the Meeting Place and Professor
Java’s—will showcase their talents as they compete
in the 13th Annual Culinary Cornucopia to benefit
Living Resources, a Schenectady-based agency that
provides life-enhancing services to individuals with
disabilities. The champagne reception and grand viewing
begin at 6 PM Sunday (Nov. 9), with a feast commencing
at 7. It takes place at the Albany Marriott (189 Wolf
Road, Colonie), and costs $100 per person. Make reservations
by calling Joan Meyer at 869-1870, ext. 3330. . .
. Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.