Little Saigon exists in multiple dimensions
by Aidan Morgan
817 Victoria Avenue
There’s a time-honoured way to respond when visitors to Regina ask about dining options: you say, “We have Vietnamese restaurants.”
“Oh,” they begin, “We have Vietnamese restaurants in our city too. There’s one right around the corner from my son’s school— ”
That’s when you grab the visitor by the collar and deliver the most piercing look you can summon. “No,” you say, very slowly and clearly, “You’re making no sense. We have the Vietnamese restaurants. All of them.”
(Crumpling up like a discarded napkin at the visitor’s feet and sobbing “don’t take this away from us” is the other popular response. But please don’t.)
Over the years, Vietnamese restaurants like Little Saigon have perfected a style of dining that has served as an alternative to the traditional Chinese restaurants your grandparents always want to go to. Having grown up in Nova Scotia in the ’70s and ’80s, where egg rolls trumped spring rolls, I was floored (FLOORED, I tells ya) by my first bowl of rice vermicelli noodles with barbecue pork and fish sauce.
Little Saigon’s menu is long. It may in fact be infinite, and each visit will only reveal a few pages to customers. Some pages have a high probability of reoccurrence and will show up on nearly every visit; a few are so rare that their frequency wavelength is actually longer than the average human lifespan. In other words, you could go there for 40 years and probably never encounter Lemongrass Unicorn served on a bed of old Dragnet DVDs, but I wouldn’t rule it out entirely.
Given the variety of items, ordering requires a bit of familiarity with the menu. To get the most out of Little Saigon you must go several times and learn its ways. This can be a bit of a gamble because several dishes aren’t worth your time. But once you understand the restaurant’s strengths, your experience will improve.
On our first visit, I took along some newly deputized Knights of Appetite who were curious about the glamorous life of restaurant critics. We ordered a plate of Vietnamese spring rolls ($6.75 for 6), two orders of fresh rolls ($4.50 for 2), Crispy Spicy Squid ($6.99), Hunan Curry Chicken ($9.50), Beef Noodle Soup with Tendon ($8.95), Szechwan Beef ($11.50) and the Beef in Black Bean Sauce Hot Plate ($11.50).
The results were not great. Despite the extremely cheerful server, the food was unexceptional, with starchy sauces and cheap, chewy meat. The squid was mostly breading. Even the spring rolls — usually a safe bet — had an unfortunate flavour. I suspect that the oil in the deep fryer needed changing.
The beef noodle soup was probably the best thing about the meal, with a surprisingly mild but still beefy broth. It felt like a great dish for a chilly evening or a hot afternoon, and probably a few drops of chili oil would make it perfect. I also liked the flavour of the Szechwan beef, if not the texture.
My lunch experience was a lot better. I went with three of my Knights and we all ordered variations on the classic rice vermicelli bowl ($8.50). I had my go-to barbecue pork and spring rolls. Knight #1 opted for the shredded pork and spring rolls, while Knight #2 went for the vegetarian spring roll bowl. We also ordered the small wonton soup ($3.95) and vegetarian fresh rolls.
The fresh rolls weren’t very exciting (if you’re the sort to get excited about fresh rolls, I guess), but the wonton soup was delicious and my vermicelli bowl could have held its own against any other dish of its kind in the city. Knight #2 wasn’t overly impressed with her vegetarian option.
On the advice (orders?) of Steve Whitworth, I went back one more time to try out the salty lemongrass tofu ($8.95), which consists of several squares of deep-fried tofu sprinkled generously with a crispy mixture of lemongrass and spices. It’s a good reason to return to Little Saigon.
During that visit we tried out the Hot and Sour Soup ($5.95), which had a strange but well-judged sweetness. The Chiang Mai noodles ($9.50) came out covered in a mild red curry and coconut sauce. It wasn’t bad, but it would have worked better with other Thai dishes. We also ordered the Chili Pepper Squid ($12.50), which had a nice dry peppery flavour and a surprisingly supple texture. Order it instead of Crispy Spicy Squid.
The service at Little Saigon is a bit scattered but very attentive. During the course of our last meal, two (or maybe three) people tried to take our order repeatedly, even though our menus were still open (I think they’re used to clientele who know exactly what they want). The woman at the till wore a green t-shirt that read “Naughty Irish Girl”.
Sometimes the service tipped over into the surreal. Around the end of one dinner, our waitress asked which one of us “wanted the lime.” As it turned out, none of us wanted the lime. What lime? There was a lime in the kitchen, and our waitress was certain that one of us had asked for it.
“Someone here wanted the lime,” she said. Which made a kind of sense, because the restaurant had emptied out by then. If not us, then who? Did someone phone for a lime? Were we deep in the realm of parallel dimensions? Did our waitress step over from another universe that resembles our own in every detail, with the exception of an expressed desire for a lime? Did she ever make her way back to that world to complete her lime-based mission?
Seriously, if you’re the one who wanted the lime, please go and pick it up.
WHAT IS IT: Little Saigon
WHAT’S IT FOR: Lunch and dinner
WHAT SHOULD I GET: The #34 rice vermicelli bowl is a classic; also, the salty lemongrass tofu is a great vegetarian option.
WHAT’S SHAPED LIKE A FISH: The serving plates. I want a set of my own.
WHAT SHOULD I AVOID: The crispy squid appetizer is not so great if you want to taste squid. If you like breading, go right ahead.
WHAT YOU WANT: The lime.