Mick's Picks: On the cusp of Madison Park near the Latino corridor of South Boulevard, Saigon Palace anchors the Seneca Place shopping center with a rich menu of traditional Vietnamese fare.
There is nothing hip or fancy here. No trace of gastropubbing. I suspect this establishment mirrors countless others in Ho Chi Min City or Hanoi. Black chairs and tables beneath red vinyl table cloths fill the dining room. Potted bamboo and murals of dense jungle vegetation invoke nostalgia for Vietnam. A couple joyful Buddha's bless the facilities as fish meander in large aquariums.?? The fare at Saigon Palace adheres to the Vietnamese dedication for crafting dishes with the freshest fruits, meats and vegetables, a diverse profile of spices, a variety of taste textures and presentations that stimulate all five senses.
Since my friend Fritz introduced me to Vietnamese food a couple years back, I periodically catch myself craving a big bowl of pho ga. He extended the invitation again last week and I gladly accepted.
We started lunch with the shrimp spring rolls which I find delicious despite the typical flacid texture of the rice paper. To the hand they feel like a limp balloon, but for the mouth it's a preview of the joy to come. Thick shrimp, crunchy lettuce, and the cool taste of fresh mint all dabbed with salty smooth peanut sauce serves as nice healthy appetizer.
I didn't feel like breaking from convention on this outing so I stuck with the pho ga. Never tasted pho ga? Just try to recall the greatest chicken noodle soup you ever ate. So wholesome. So much love. Then imagine all the ingredients were plucked, cut or crafted that same morning.
When the server lowered my bowl, my senses spun from the aroma as wafts of steam carried the scent of the limpid broth. Drawn from the patient simmer of marrow, oxtail, onion and spices, the stock is worthy of a meal onto itself. Ribbons of sliced chicken drifted amidst an abundance of cilantro, mint and mushrooms that concealed a mound of rice noodles. Your stomach and eyes grow eager at the swirl of colors.
The Vietnamese encourage customization and I helped myself to the plate of Thai basil, lime wedges, jalapeno slices and a mound of bean sprouts that accompanied the dish. I added a blast of fiery Sriracha rooster sauce from the condiment selection at each table. Alternating between the ladle, chopsticks, and my hand, you feel the dedication required in the preparation. It tasted perfect, even comforting, as I rapidly trawled deep until I reached the dredges of my bowl.
Fritz opted for the pork and shrimp vermicelli which used similar ingredients to the pho but lacked the broth. I gave it a taste and I'd certainly recommend it if you don't feel like soup that day.
Next time I visit, I'm going to get adventurous and try the specialty pho made with the works: tripe, livers, the whole shebang. Saigon Palace has yet to let me down with delicious food and respectful, almost reverent, service. My expectations are set high for any dish they label special.
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