Young and Hungry

Saigon Bistro: A Best of D.C. Contender or Just a Pretender?

As I had noted in an earlier item, D.C. is not exactly awash in noodle shops. So I was excited to visit Saigon Bistro this weekend, a handsome new Dupont Circle operation that's run, according to its Web site, by some folks who "recently emigrated to the U.S. after running an exquisite Vietnamese gourmet restaurant in their native homeland."

I wasn't as excited when I left the place.

I don't know what it is, but the few places that serve pho within the District's borders just can't compete with the operators in the suburban hinterlands. Maybe the economics just don't work well in the high-rent District. Maybe owners have to cut corners to make a buck on a soup that no one—and I mean no one—will pay more than $10 for (unless, of course, Jose Andres turns it into some deconstructed dish at the minibar, with the rice noodles transformed into a powder, which you'd suck through a straw and chase with a beef gelatin cube and a demitasse of pureed Thai basil, jalapenos, and lime).

Whatever the reason, Saigon Bistro only confirms my bias against D.C. pho shops. I ordered No. 49, a "Special Beef Noodle Soup" with well-done brisket, rare beef, and tripe. The broth had a wan yellowish tint to it and barely registered on my internal beef-o-meter. Even the usual fragrances of pho—star anise, cloves, and cardamom—were so faint that you'd need a bloodhound to sniff them out. I typically resist the urge to load my pho with too much Sriracha or hoisin or fish sauce, lest I drown out the exquisitely perfumed broth. But in this case, the broth cried for condiments; without them, the sliced meats ferried very little flavor.

And just think: I paid $8.99 for this, which is a good two dollars more than I pay for pho in Maryland that's 10 times better.

  • http://coppolacomments.blogspot.com HCC

    where are you getting the good pho these days?

    the re-incarnation of my lai is close by so that's my go to, but I'm always on the look out for a good bowl.

  • Coltrane the Beagle

    You need a "bloodhound" to sniff out the flavors? A BLOODHOUND???

    You are dead to me.

  • J

    Go back and try some of their other dishes, i think you will be surprised. Plus folks must be enjoying it because its always pretty busy as far as I can see when Im walking home. Or how about a positive review once in awhile? I enjoy your column but am seeing more negative reviews recently than positive...

  • SG

    Tim,
    Will you try "DC Noodles" for me on U Street? It is in the space where "Simply Home" used to be (which was sort of a bizarre furniture store/restaurant hybrid). I have actually heard good things but would like to hear from a trusted source.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/food Tim Carman

    Lots of good commentary/questions here.

    HCC: I'm sort of embarrassed to admit it, but Pho 75 is still the best. I think there's a reason for it: It's all they do, day in and day out. But I also really like this place: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/bestof/2008/foodanddrink/show.php?id=35137. I'm also going to NoVa this afternoon for more pho tastings. (It's Best of D.C. time, if you can't tell.)
    J: You know, I'm not at all fond of dissin' on small, independent business owners, particularly in this economy. I will go back and eat more at Saigon Bistro (I did sample other items, including some grilled meats, which were chewy but loaded with good grill flavor and what tasted like a miso sauce). As far as positives go, wait for tomorrow's column. A pure rave.
    SG: I will put DC Noodles high on the list. Thanks for pointing me that way.

  • grubscout65

    Tim,

    I am afraid I need to disagree. I don't pretend to be a Pho expert. But I know what I like and I liked #47. Okay, okay I got it to go which I am sure is a Pho no-no. But it was damn satisfying on a cold Feb. day. Also, I was pleased with the decent amount of fat on the brisket it added to the broth. So, Tim you and I certainly differ on this one.

  • tomaj

    Tim—I think you cannot judge a Viet place by the pho anymore than you can judge a Japanese place by its ramen unless it specializes in the stuff. Only then can you expect the really good stuff; they don’t work well when the place is doing them on the side. Saigon Bistro probably deserves another chance but with its menu featuring “pad tha” (their version of pad thai?) and singapore noodles, I wonder about it. Also, they say the staff ran “an exquisite Vietnamese gourmet restaurant in their native homeland” (as opposed to their non-native homeland?), but it doesn’t say that the homeland in question is actually Vietnam.

  • hamster

    I tried the grilled chicken on vermicelli at Saigon Bistro and it was a travesty. Miniscule portion, limp greens, meat had obviously been grilled hours earlier as had the spring roll. Offensively bad.

    If you go to DC Noodle, try the spicy noodle soup. It's sort of Thai style, with peanuts and cilantro. Much better than the soy noodle soup, which just didn't have tons of flavor. I was very impressed by the spicy noodle soup, and it's a really large portion.

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  • ls

    My wife and I had lunch at Saigon Bistro today and both of us left unimpressed. While not bad, it was not good enough. There are better choices in the area for my limited dining dollars.

  • Ali T.

    I agree the Pho is not so great, but Saigon Bistro has some of the best Pad Thai I've had in the District. It's completely different from others that I've had, but it's delicious and just the right amount of spice and not too peanut-y. Highly recommend.

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