Vietnamese comfort food at Little Saigon
By Avery King
Photo: Mixed vegetables with tofu in saté sauce at Little Saigon
Little Saigon is a tiny, family-owned restaurant tucked away off Woodman Drive that has inspired pilgrimages from faithful foodies for ages. The one-room establishment exudes a familial spirit that spans from the handmade rolls to the conversational wait staff to the interactions with fellow customers.
The dining room décor is traditional Vietnamese with ornate tables and chairs carved from dark wood. Blue and white vases line the walls, as do images of the homeland. A wooden service counter lines the back wall and separates the kitchen from the main dining area. Verdant plants punctuate the restaurant, adding splashes of green to the white walls and brown tables.
The matriarch drives the restaurant. A kind, motherly woman doted on us throughout our meal, making helpful “suggestions” the way ones’ own mother might – suggestions that leave little room for deliberation. When my date and I arrived on a Wednesday evening, our server, who was friendly and accommodating, immediately greeted us. Within minutes, we felt like family.
Little Saigon offers a variety of appetizers, both Vietnamese and Chinese in origin, including such staples as spring rolls, egg rolls, dumplings and crab rangoon. We started with spring rolls: she had the vegetarian and I had the shrimp roll. Her vegetables were crisp and wrapped in a delicate rice paper wrap. The shrimp slightly overwhelmed mine, de-emphasizing the vegetable blend, but it was still enjoyable. The peanut dipping sauce accented both rolls nicely. While we were satisfied with our choices, a splash of mint would have brightened the rolls.
New on the menu were the dumplings. Our server was excited for us to try them and after tasting them, we understood why. The dumplings were steamed and then pan-fried, served hot on a bed of lettuce with a soy-based dipping sauce. The crunchy crust yielded to a flavorful blend of cabbage, onions and other vegetables inside.
Many people think pho with they think Vietnamese food. Pho is a noodle-based soup served as an entrée. I ordered the vegetable pho with tofu. At the insistence of our host (one of several of her “suggestions”), mine was mildly spiced. The broth was outstanding and the best part of the dish. Its savory flavor was warm and welcoming like the best comfort foods. Generous chunks of cauliflower, broccoli, snow peas, onions and carrots swam in the broth alongside firm portions of fried tofu. Thin rice noodles formed a base at the bottom of the bowl. Pho typically comes with a side of bean spouts, cilantro and lime that one adds to the bowl tableside. The cilantro was a nice augmentation, but the sprouts could have been fresher.
In addition to pho, Little Saigon offers a variety of fried rice and noodle dishes, including rice and vermicelli noodles. My dining companion skipped the pho and instead ordered mixed vegetables with tofu in a spicy saté sauce. The dish comes with a choice of thin or thick noodles, but our matronly host insisted that my date order the thick noodles, noting without a chance to dissent, “thick noodles are the best.”
She wasn’t wrong. The dish was the star of the meal. Despite the fact the meal was vegetarian, the saté sauce imparted a rich umami flavor; it was savory with a touch of heat. The stir-fried snow peas, broccoli, carrots and cauliflower were tender crisp and the tofu, like that in the pho, was meaty and hearty. These ingredients were all layered on a bed of thick fried rice noodles. We both sought out the crispiest parts of the noodles, which imparted a crunch that paired well with the vegetables.
The service throughout the meal was attentive and, true to the familial atmosphere, we interacted not only with our wait staff but also other customers. The highlight of the evening, aside from the food, was watching our host beam proudly at two dresses she had made for one of the other customers – a family with a young daughter who was entering a national beauty pageant. The dresses were as elegant and as well-crafted as the food and the young contestant was darling as she practiced her walk, her smile and her wave to everyone in the room.
Due to an issue with the liquor license, Little Saigon does not sell beer or wine, but they do allow you to carry your own in. Our entire meal was very reasonably priced – under $50 including tip, not including the wine. The sizes are also very generous – we both took leftovers home with us.
My date had cautioned me at the start of the evening that she tended to be a bit jaded towards Midwestern Vietnamese restaurants. She had once lived in Seattle and judged all Vietnamese food against her favorite restaurant there. Yet, by the end of her meal, she had conceded that perhaps a solid Vietnamese meal could exist in Dayton. With a side of pageantry, no less.
Little Saigon is located at 1718 Woodman Dr. For more information, please call 937.258.8010 or visit littlesaigondayton.com.
Reach DCP food critic Avery King at AveryKing@DaytonCityPaper.com.