Saigon on Fifth
3900 Fifth Ave., Suite 120
Prices: Lunch, $6.95 to $12.95; dinner (appetizers and entrees), $5.95 to $19.95
By Frank Sabatini Jr. / Restaurant Review
There is more than meets the eye when perusing the upscale menu at Saigon on Fifth, where we discovered a subset of culinary gems once reserved exclusively for Vietnam’s royal families and banquet parties following Miss Saigon beauty pageants. Experiencing these dishes, however, could become a missed opportunity if your server senses you are hell bent on ordering meals from the regular menu.
Such was the case when visiting with friends last year, when we came away impressed over the printed offerings of cashew pork, sugarcane shrimp and crispy, flat noodles layered generously with meat and seafood. A deluxe version of pho might also anchor you to the beaten track, given that it incorporates rare, tender pieces of eye round steak.
“But wait,” owner Patrick Luu said this time around after spying on our salad orders as he guarded the elegant dining room to oversee the comforts of his guests. He urged us to go off menu and try a slaw of green mango. The firm fruit shows up in limited waves locally and indeed proved fantastic with its crispy texture matched to minty, sour elements, sporadic bursts of heat and chilled shrimp. My companion agreed wholeheartedly when I uttered it was the best salad I’ve had all year.
Luu rattled off a few other secret dishes of the kitchen, helmed by his mother who once cooked for royal leaders in their native Vietnam. Among them, steamed baby bok choy crowned with shiitake mushrooms in a savory glaze. Delicious. We were also nudged into ordering what he called “barbecue pork,” though a misnomer considering the skewered meat was flavored poignantly with lemon grass and zesty spices rather than tomato-based sauce.
Before proceeding with another recommendation of Luu’s, we returned to the menu card for a semi-gelatinous asparagus soup housing spoonfuls of shredded crab. The victor, however, was coco-chicken soup served inside a hallowed, peeled coconut.
Initially, the broth tasted like the warming, medicinal kind made in American home kitchens. As we dove deeper, the coconut meat began exuding its mild sweet flavor into the liquid, turning it into a novel delicacy. Its unique presentation attests to Luu’s claim that his kitchen goes through numerous cases a day of whole coconuts, used also in an array of other dishes such as red curry and coconut shrimp.
A dish called Miss Saigon is also absent from the menu, but loosely resembles “creamy basil fish” from the specialties section. Instead of yellow curry, it uses red curry, plus ginger, lemon grass and pulverized peanuts, all pureed with coconut milk into a velvety sauce draped over sea bass or salmon. The dish, said Luu, is served customarily at elaborate banquets following Miss Saigon beauty pageants. We opted for the salmon, and beautiful she was.
The restaurant’s chic cuisine corresponds perfectly to its clean, tranquil atmosphere. Dark-red draperies and an ivory statue of a young Buddha accent the front dining room, which flows to a rear patio and a new back room, where guests are seated in plush red leather chairs. A fully stocked bar appears along the way.
Skipping over mango rice for dessert, we instead chose fried banana cheesecake. The twist is that it substitutes a graham cracker crust for crispy rice paper that encases the creamy filling. Shaped like an egg roll, we miraculously polished off the whole thing, realizing that Saigon on Fifth is one of the easiest places in San Diego to overeat.