Saigon Kitchen

Mick Vann likes what he finds at Saigon Kitchen.

4323 S. I-35, 326-3969

Mon-Sat, 11am-9:45pm; Sun, noon-9pm

Kim Nguyen, the owner and chef at Saigon Kitchen, is a bit of an anomaly, in that a female chef at any Oriental restaurant, anywhere, is a rare and unusual find, even in these days of political correctness. True, there was Toy's wife "M" at the original Thai Kitchen in the old days, and Niki's Tokyo Inn in San Antonio had a female sushi chef (extremely rare, even today, and she bore an amazing similarity to a Far Eastern version of Geraldine Chaplin). But those two were the exception to the rule, not the norm by any stretch of the imagination. At Saigon Kitchen, Kim rides herd on the cash register and the kitchen simultaneously, zipping back and forth like a tennis ball in a U.S. Open finals match, and does both better than most males could.

Vietnamese restaurants in South Austin are also a rarity. Most forays into the world of Vietnamese cuisine require a schlep to the hinterlands of at least Koenig Lane, or worse, Research Boulevard. And with Austin traffic as bad as it is, that usually translates to a 30-minute drive each way for the Bubbas among us -- reason enough to patronize Saigon Kitchen, even if the food weren't as good as it is.

My first visit was a lunch excursion with a friend living near the cusp of Webberville and Bastrop, so it made a convenient meeting spot. Saigon has several choices to pick from (even vegan) on its $3.99 lunch special menu, but we turned to the menu for the complete selections offered. One minor complaint about Saigon Kitchen is the organization of the menu categories. Everything is nicely laid-out until you reach the Special Dishes section (31 different selections), followed by the Everyday Special section (24 items). Both sections require careful consideration because they are a bit discombobulated -- meats, seafood, soups, and noodles are all jumbled together (the sort of thing designed to drive a Capricorn batty). But a major plus of the menu is that many of the Special Dishes are available as large or small portions, allowing the diner to taste more dishes, or compose a feast of little meals to build the whole.

Suzanne and I settled on starters of Vegetarian Spring Rolls ($2), which were pleasant enough but could have benefited from the addition of more herbs and scallion. The complimentary Hot and Sour Soup was done in the Southern Vietnamese style (tomatoes are plentiful in the South), much like a spicy, sour, tomato-based Chinese egg drop. For entrees, we selected Vermicelli with Chicken and Lemongrass ($4.25), Shrimp Fried with Garlic and Salt ($7.25), and Special Tofu with Hot Chile and Lemongrass ($4.95). The large bowl of vermicelli had a good ratio of meat to vegetables, and a subtle undertone of lemongrass. The shrimp dish was interesting, with a nice balance of sweet shrimp (kept moist by cooking in salt), aromatic garlic, and a hint of vinegar to round things out. Our favorite was the tofu dish, which had silken pillows of tofu, lightly browned, and served in a spicy sauce of caramelized chile slices and minced lemongrass.

Dinner on my next visit included Shrimp Simmered in Fish Sauce ($7.25), Beef with Hot Chiles and Ginger ($4.99, small), and Curry Assorted Vegetable with Coconut Sauce ($6). The shrimp dish was a winner, with the slightly sweetened fish sauce accentuating the flavor of the shrimp, tossed with scallion, and ringed with lightly steamed broccoli. The beef dish consisted of thin slices of lean beef matched with an intensely flavored, spicy sauce of caramelized ginger and chile slices, fish sauce, and topped with chopped, fried garlic. The veggie curry came with bun noodles, and was a melange of vegetables and lightly fried tofu bathed in a deceptively spicy, rich coconut curry sauce. All of the dishes were superb, and the portions substantial.

If you find yourself not wanting to hire a herd of Sherpas to make the trek north to Little Vietnam, or if you live in Bubbaland, like most sensible Austinites, you can't go wrong dining at Saigon Kitchen. Kim Nguyen has manned the reins of this venerable shrine to the cuisine of her home country for the last 14-plus years, and she treats both the food, and her customers, with the utmost respect.

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