Next stop: Mekong Delta

A trip to Vietnam inspires this culinary tour of Seattle's Little Saigon.

Besides being deathly afraid of flying, I worried when I traveled to Vietnam that I wouldn't be able to fully enjoy eating there, because so much of the cuisine depends upon raw vegetables as complements to cooked foods. Knowing about sewage seeping into the water and other microscopic deterrents, I was stuck with whatever was boiled or grilled. At least I had Seattle's Vietnamese fare to look forward to when I returned, which is by comparison more subtly flavored and prepared. According to a friend of mine, a French native who spent years in Saigon, the influx of Vietnamese into Seattle followed the fall of Saigon in 1975; these immigrants tended to keep more of the French influence of their former colonists in their cooking. Ample proof of this is found in Seattle's own "Little Saigon"—where, among the mini-malls of S Jackson Street beyond the International District, you'll find the highest concentration of consistently good Vietnamese food. Pho, the noodle soup that is for many Vietnamese the morning meal (and lunch and dinner too), was a mixed bag in Vietnam, ranging from too-salty broth to noodles the consistency of Top Ramen. In Seattle,Pho Bac(1314 S Jackson, 323-4387) reigns supreme. Slurp those slippery rice noodles and squeeze lime into the steaming broth, fragrant with ginger, lemongrass, star anise, cuts of beef, and garnishes galore (bean sprouts, basil, mint, cilantro, jalape�. The chicken-coop-meets-takeout-window interior is filled with the staccato of spoken Vietnamese; the constant customer flow is a sure sign that food comes first. For less than $5, the beef pho comes fast and hot. Eat, and don't stop to think about how sticky your table is. A couple of others whose soup is worth a mention: the pho at Asia Express (219 Broadway E, 329-1991), as well as its canh chua, a pineapple-tamarind-based soup ($4.95) that's hot, sour, sweet, and great with shrimp. Also fine is the house noodle soup at Mi So 1(1400 S Jackson, 860-9331), which features mi, thin Chinese egg noodles in a pungent broth with chicken, pork, lettuce, chives, and a single crusty deep-fried shrimp bobbing on top ($4.25). While in Vietnam, my days began with thick rice soup sprinkled with green onions. In the afternoons there was steamed fish with ginger and garlic, grilled meat with rice, deep-fried egg rolls, or flour-turmeric-bean-sprout cr갥s, and plenty of Huda beer. Almost every eatery played syntho-pop with shrill Vietnamese being sung from a radio or crude speaker system. Once we were even serenaded by women clicking small teacups together like castanets. In my local quest for rice soup and music that would transport me back to the Mekong River, I found Thanh Thanh(2215 Rainier S, 323-2277). In this setting of wall-to-wall tables and blaring Vietnamese pop, I experienced the best sort of d骠 vu. The glutinous soup—rice thinned with chicken broth and speckled with green onions ($4.50)—tasted just like I remembered. I also tried and liked the spicy chicken with lemongrass sauce over rice ($4.95). My group of five took over the last remaining table at Vietnam's Pearl (708 Rainier S, 726-1581) on a Saturday night. Crowded with families, the space is set off by a neon-lit banquet room that's supposed to look like the interior of an oyster shell. Everyone within earshot was extolling the virtues of its dinners ("This was, hands, down, the best chicken I ever had"; "Wonderful, just wonderful"). We tried the Fire Pot with catfish, which came in a tamarind-pineapple broth simmering with bean spouts, tomatoes, and cilantro over a burner ($13.95). The rather bland fish remained tender, and was pleasantly off-set by the tang of pineapple and tomatoes. The fried tofu saut饤 in a light tomato sauce was unexpectedly smooth and sweet ($5.50), and we ended up emulating the table next to us in praise of the five-spice roast chicken ($6.95), which had been marinated in soy, sugar, five-spice, garlic, and black pepper before being slow-roasted and flash-fried, with the savory drippings spooned on top. For dessert, we took turns sampling the confection chuoi chien, a single banana dipped in egg and deep-fried, topped with cooked coconut juice and peanuts ($2). I've lost track of how many times I've eaten at Saigon Bistro(1032 S Jackson, Suite 202, 329-4939), but it remains my favorite. Traditional fare has never failed me here, nor have the staff suggestions (my mother loved the eggplant casserole, with no idea she'd eaten sea snails). For appetizers, I usually rotate between the fried egg rolls with shredded pork and mushrooms ($4.50) and the Vietnamese cr갥, a fluffy pancake of rice flour, turmeric, mung beans, sprouts, and green onions that you wrap in lettuce ($4.50). Another popular option are the summer rolls, fresh shrimp rolled in rice paper with lettuce, mint, sprouts, and thin rice noodles, to be dipped in a thick, caramel-like peanut sauce ($3 for two). The roasted coconut chicken ($4.50)—marinated in coconut juice and coconut milk, onions, and fish sauce, is simply delectable. At Saigon Bistro, anything cooked in a clay pot is worth a try—most notably the pork spare ribs or, if it's fresh, the catfish ($5.95 and $6.95). Both options are stewed in a caramel-fish sauce mixture that tastes like molasses and will have you cleaning every last bone on your plate. Top these off with a sweet dessert drink—navy, mung, and red beans in coconut milk over ice ($1.50)—or an iced coffee with condensed milk ($1.50), and you might be tempted to order a second glass before you settle the bill.

 
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