Saigon broke your heart when she shuttered her doors on University Avenue in St. Paul last fall. She murmured something vague about a new housing development going up where her building stood. She said she’d be back soon. You scribbled your name and address in the tattered spiral-bound notebook she kept next to the register; she promised to write. Deep down, you knew she never would.
Except that her windows were dark, Saigon, in her new location at 704 University Avenue W. in Saint Paul, has looked ready for business for weeks, with chairs arranged neatly around the tables and bottles of rooster sauce standing proudly in the center of the condiment trays. Last week, Saigon flipped on her lights, unlocked her doors and welcomed us back. If you have been holding off, afraid that the new Saigon may tarnish your memory of your old love with the familiar creaky entrance and worn floors, wait no more. She’s as delightful as ever.
Saigon offers numerous variations of the phở (pronounced “fuh” and as if it were a question), rice noodle soup, from the classic beef, to chicken, shrimp or tofu, in sizes ranging from small to extra-large, for $6-$7. If you like a little of everything, you can’t go wrong with the #1, Saigon Special Phở, which includes thin slices of eye of round, flank, brisket, tripe, tendon, and slices of meatballs, as well as the rice noodles, cilantro, scallions, and onions common to all Saigon’s phở.
Even when the restaurant is packed, the soup arrives, along with a plate of bean sprouts, basil leaves, and lime wedges for you to use as garnish, within ten minutes. Saigon’s beef phở has a clear, rich broth with the faintest whisper of star anise. The slices of beef are served tender and rosy-pink rare, and the basil leaves are crisp and unblemished, leaving you with the satisfying work of pinching the leaves from their stems, juicing the limes, gathering the sprouts, and stirring the whole works into the noodles with your lipstick-red chopsticks until your soup is exactly as you remember it.
At the end of your meal, don’t wait for your server to show up with your check. Pay the Vietnamese way: toss the tip on the table, make note of your table number, and head straight for the cash register settle your bill.
The love affair is on again.