And it was in the appetizer section that we found pertinent clues to one of the most overlooked chapters in Vietnam's history of foreign occupation -- that of the Japanese during World War II. Saigon offers for starters the choices of yakitori (teriyaki chicken on a skewer; $2.95), and gyoza (plump dumplings; $3.95), two traditional Japanese appetizers. We wanted to try the gyoza, but the restaurant had none on hand. Also unavailable were the seasonal blue crabs. According to myth, these crabs are best with a hard shell, not soft, and when caught during a new moon, when they're said to be most meaty. A return visit might be required to test this.

We did approve of the chicken atop a rice noodle mix ($3.95), embraced with the Vietnamese standard nuoc cham, that essential sweet fix made with sugar, vinegar, fish sauce, and lime. Nuoc cham, Vietnam's answer to duck sauce, is served with a variety of dishes, including the national favorite cha gio ($3.95), a rice-paper spring roll stuffed with pork, crab, and cellophane noodles. For the China-oriented, Cantonese egg rolls ($2.00), a variation on a theme, are offered as well.

Our table favorite seemed without affiliation, though by its name (chef's spicy chicken wings), we guessed it to be largely Vietnamese. In any case, the platter of batter-fried bird ($6.95) alone was worth the drive to Hollywood. More sweet than spicy (spicy was a misnomer for virtually every dish we ordered), this main-course-size aviary was coated with sauce and a spate of broccoli and celery, and could easily be enjoyed as a meal.

My only objection to Saigon, in fact, was the circumscribed range of offerings. The unique combination of culinary elements found in Vietnam is an opportunity for wonderful creative dishes as well as the traditional. Saigon, however, takes no such advantage. On both sides of the menu, choices are staid, stale with safety, apparently designed to avoid offending American palates unfamiliar with standard Vietnamese passions such as the use of pungent fish oils and multitudinous entree soups, or possibilities springing from the rich potential of French meeting Asian (more common on the West Coast, where Vietnamese assimilation has led to innovative kitchens). But if the menu, and the kitchen, lack creativity, then it's best to avoid any pretense of it.

SAIGON ORIENTAL RESTAURANT 2031 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood, 923-9256. Open for lunch Monday -- Friday from 11:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. Open for dinner nightly from 5:00 to 11:00 p.m.

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