There is perhaps nothing more disconcerting than going into a Vietnamese restaurant to find both a nice decor and a polite staff in uniform. And if the menu makes sense, you know you’re really in trouble. From a boy who grew up in Hong Kong, believe me that if there isn’t one idiomatically nonsensical statement, like “the healthy, conscious choice”, the food isn’t going to be good. If you feel like you could just as easily be sitting in an Earls, get up slowly and head for the door. You don’t have to believe me. I didn’t always really believe me. But it is something that you might want to think about, and that I should have thought about, before I went into Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant on Bernard St. in Kelowna BC.
Now I should point out that I’m a bit of a Phô addict, possibly just borderline dependant. There was a stage in my life when living in Vancouver that I was going nearly 4 to 5 times a week. People started avoiding me when I asked them to go for lunch, as it seems my passion was just a little stronger than everyone else’s. Even my wife, who does enjoy a good bowl of Phô , would cut me off with a “no” before I could even begin to pronounce that one syllable. So I would go alone, to places that were either lined with mirrors and neon pink and purple lighting resembling a migraine, or ex-tiki restaurants whose only heating is a suspicious duct taped pipe. These places only take cash and the waitress refuses to take an order that isn’t a number. Once, my friend joined me just to have a coffee, and could not get one until he said “number 132”. The thing is, you don’t go there for the service, and certainly not the ambiance, and you should probably wear a jacket even in the summer months. You go there for that clear delicious broth that is spiced so wonderfully with fresh basil, charred ginger, star anise and clove. You go there for the rare beef that cooks in your soup, or if you’re more adventurous the tendon, tripe and mysterious beef balls whose contents are better left unknown.
So this is where I’m coming from. I take Phô seriously. Oh and by the way it’s pronounced ‘fuh’ as opposed to ‘foe’. Yet, despite all this, I walked into Saigon on Bernard and was greeted, yes greeted, and sat by an elegant and polite hostess in traditional Vietnamese dress. I am more accustomed to faded Expo 86 t-shirts and sweatpants, so this already began to feel wrong.
Really though, I should have stood up and walked out when my server brought me water without me asking. Without me asking! Getting water at Phô is half the experience. It is a mental battle between you and your server. The server will avoid eye contact at all times, which is quite a feat when walking straight at you. You will resort to all the old tactics, from coughing, saying ‘excuse me’ and the full on air traffic control waving gestures. If she deems to stop, you will ask for water. The server will pretend to forget, and you will have to go through the whole thing again. If you’re lucky, you’ll have warm water with no ice by the time you’re ready to pay the bill. Ah yes, and the bill will already be at your table as they print your cheque as soon as you order – some sort of vague attempt to dissuade you from ordering anything else.
But here I was with a glass of water with ice! What is worse, the glass itself was made of glass, not some form of yellowing plastic. I started to sweat. I ordered from the menu without using any numbers, and in a daze stared at the people eating around me. There was not even one staff member eating at a table or sitting with his feet up while drying chopsticks. Instead, there was a bunch of people happily eating with silverware rather than chopsticks, and not one of them was making loud slurping sounds.
When the spring rolls arrived, I was prepared for them. Their skins were too thick, and the filling was pretty tasteless. They seemed awfully reminiscent of store bought rolls. My hopes were left to wait for the soup. In the meantime, I was curious what others were eating. Some were having salad rolls, and somebody else had a seafood platter of some sort. All of these was presented very nicely, and looked quite good. But I don’t go to Vietnamese restaurants for seafood platters or salad rolls, so yeah, pretty much irrelevant.
When the Phô came, I was pleased to see that all the appropriate accompaniments were there. Fresh lime, Thai basil, and bean sprouts – there wasn’t any fresh chili, but I’m partial to chili sauce anyway. The meat was good quality, but was definitely not rare enough. A good rare beef should be raw, so that it can cook to rare in the broth. As for the broth, it was passable, but was not great. It had a very sweet taste to it and didn’t have the richness that is created by a stock that has been simmered overnight. The spicing, which contributed to the sweetness, tasted mainly of cinnamon and I wondered whether there were any of the other spices in there.
Throughout the meal, my server was very attentive and filled up my water more than once. To be honest, Saigon is a nice restaurant: nice staff, nice atmosphere, nice presentation and nice décor. The problem for me is I’m not looking for any of those things, well at least not when on a Phô hunt. If you’re looking to be eased into a taste for Vietnamese food, Saigon might be a place to start as the food is passable, and some of the other dishes might be worth investigating. But if you are really serious about Vietnamese food, particularly Phô, I would go to an ATM get some cash and look for something a little more dodgy.