After years of conditioning that 8 bucks is a pretty expensive entrée price at a Vietnamese place, it was a bit jarring to open up the Little Saigon menu and find stuff for $14 and $15. In fairness, most of the selections are still well under 10 bucks, but even some of the staples -- goi cuon at $3.50 and banh xeo at $6 -- seemed a little more expensive than what I'm used to seeing around town.
Then again, this isn't just "around town," this is the Euclid strip in the Central West End, adjacent to one of the largest development projects in all of St. Louis, the Judeo-Christian Health Barnes expansion. In fairness, the folks who built Little Saigon, in addition to the likelihood of facing higher rents than their counterparts on, for example, South Grand or Delmar, have created a minimalistically elegant space of two dining rooms with neutral walls decorated with a handful of artworks, stone-tile floors in one and polished hardwood in the other, with perhaps the most dominant decorative item a modern bar at the entrance.
Combine this with the French pop music gently filtering from the sound system, and you have a style of Vietnamese restaurant that was heretofore relatively unknown in St. Louis, at least until Pho Grand moved into its charming new digs a few doors down from its former location. Plus, in contrast to the lengthy menus of most Vietnamese places in town, Little Saigon has only 15 entrées -- reassuring in terms of being able to guarantee freshness of all on-hand inventory.
As far as how it's executed, goi cuon is that spring roll that looks a lot like the ghost of a burrito -- rice noodles, shrimp, pork slices, shredded vegetables and cilantro rolled in rice paper, which most closely resembles white, translucent, rubberized cabbage. You dip the whole thing in a tangy-sweet-nutty peanut-soy sauce. The ingredients of goi cuon at Little Saigon taste ultrafresh, but even with the higher prices, you only get two with the diameter of a fat cigar, whereas at other places I've seen sizes approaching that of a paper-towel tube, a rasta spliff or, perhaps the most appropriate analogy, a burrito.
The bahn xeo -- many of the same ingredients, with the addition of fresh leaf lettuce -- is designed to be rolled in an accompanying airily eggy pancake and dipped in a spicy rice-vinegar sauce. In this case, the quantity was more than sufficient, certainly big enough to be shared by two people.
Both of these were appetizers, and we also tried the bahn uot, which went back to the rice paper -- this time somewhat softened and glistening -- as a build-your-own holder for tender slices of marinated, finely sliced grilled beef.
Among the entrees, we split our choices evenly among the over-$10 and under-$10 items, proving that it is possible to eat well at Little Saigon on the budget end with the $6 ca ri ga, chicken in a mildly spicy yellow curry sauce with a large addition of carrots and quartered potatoes. The $8.50 ca kho to, fish (in this case, catfish steaks, bone-in) in what was described as a traditional Vietnamese style, was served in a rich, syrupy brown reduction that was tangy, with a hint of sweetness, but finishing off with the taste of black pepper. However, with only three half-inch-thick slices of the fish, the quantity came up a bit short. The accompanying bowl of rice served as a fine collector for the sauce but was, out of necessity, a principal part of the dish.
On the pricier end of the scale, the to yen Saigon came in a special edible "nest" of woven, baked strands with a vaguely potato-bread taste, surrounding a selection of shrimp, scallops, squid, baby corn, broccoli, mushroom and snow peas. Not bad, but not a knockout, either. In terms of holding our interest, the bahn hoi chao tom did a better job: Butterflied shrimp were "pasted" onto lengths of sugar cane, with a resulting ethereal sweetness imparted to the shrimp. Here again, the dish came with fresh cucumber, bean sprouts, carrot, cilantro and mint and was served over a mound of angel-hair rice noodles, but also here again, the use of only three large shrimp, even bulked up as they were, left me wishing for a little more.
The desserts we tried, a coconut flan and fried bananas, were gently sweet finishes to the meal, with simple, elegant presentations that matched the environment of the restaurant.
Although we had been assured that the bar was in operation, we were never offered beer or wine; we settled instead for the intoxicating-in-its-own-way Vietnamese iced coffee, dripped black roast flavored with sweetened condensed milk, as well as made-from-scratch smoothies, one of berries and another of slightly sweetened avocado. This new taste experience alone was almost worth the trip.
Service was exceptionally attentive and charming, although on one visit, the appetizers and entrées arrived within about two minutes of each other. Such errors are easily fixed.
In contrast to the relative priceyness of the dinner menu, it should be noted that a separate lunch menu is offered, with everything 6 bucks or less. There's also outside dining, although this "sidewalk café" part of the restaurant wasn't yet in operation when we visited -- possibly because of the weather or possibly because of the permit process, which was advertised by bills posted up and down the street on light standards.
So if you realize going in that Little Saigon is a bit more expensive for dinner than what you might expect, you can counterbalance the price considerations with the coolly elegant atmosphere and the location on one of the hoppingest strips in the city. Add to this the fact that Little Saigon occupies a nonrestaurant space converted into a restaurant space -- helping the Laclede/Euclid corner reach the same sort of entertainment critical mass that has made north-of-Lindell a separate destination from south-of-Lindell when in fact the whole of Euclid would work better as one continuous strip of culinary indulgences.
Me, I'm likely going to go back for one of those avocado smoothies.