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In an American Express TV commercial, a young man hosts his first business dinner in a posh restaurant. At the conclusion of the meal, which has been successful so far, he cavalierly hands a credit card to the waiter. Cut to the server, holding the card (another company's, of course) between two fingers as if it were bad fish. "Sorry, sir. Your card's been denied."
The problem, it turns out, is that the Generation Xecutive has reached his account limit (probably from charging the expensive suit he's wearing), which naturally wouldn't have happened had he had the good sense to carry American Express. Unable to cover the bill, he is embarrassed in front of bosses, colleagues, and clients. The subtext of this particular advertising campaign is clear enough: Be prepared.
I can empathize with the guy. Most of my meals out are business dinners in one way or another, and I've had my share of mishaps. I've accidentally sent people to the wrong restaurant -- one friend waited in vain for me at Villa Havana while I went ahead and ate without him at Villa Habana. I've gotten irretrievably lost and left guests sitting for more than an hour. I've borrowed money from my companions when restaurants won't accept the credit cards I carry.
16752 N. Miami Ave.
North Miami, FL 33162
Region: Aventura/North Miami Beach
With experience come precautions. I double-check a restaurant's name, address, and phone number. Though I can't help but run on Jewish time and am sort of always a minute or two (or ten) late, I let my husband, who has a sense of direction like a migratory bird, do the driving. And I bring a pocketful of cash just in case. That way when I dine with people who have some say in my vocational life, as I did at the two-year-old Vietnamese and Chinese restaurant Little Saigon in North Miami Beach, certain factors are under my control.
The one variable whose outcome I can never predict, however, is the flair of the fare.
My guests on this recent night out were a current boss (Tom Finkel, my editor at New Times) and a former one (John Balaban, director of UM's creative writing program), and their wives. I always deliver a standard disclaimer when I sit down with a group at a restaurant I intend to review. I've never been here before, I say, and have no idea how good the food is. In this case, though, I didn't feel the need to address this concern: Tom and John had separately informed me about this place, rather than vice versa; it had come recommended to them as a great find. The kind of unassuming place, they were told, that serves authentic, freshly prepared, great food. The kind of place, in other words, that I'm always on the lookout for.
Our expectations were high. The 40-seat restaurant's clean, nondescript interior, tables simply set, walls painted seafoam green and hung with a few Oriental prints and other doodads, seemed a good sign. So was the diverse clientele, which included a fair number of Southeast Asians. And so was the scope of the Vietnamese menu, which sets forth a wide range of authentic dishes -- even drinks like salty lemonade and three-color bean paste with coconut milk. Sad to say, though, our meal didn't live up to the early promise.
Though Little Saigon does have a Chinese menu, you're not likely to see it unless you ask for it. We didn't bother; the Vietnamese menu we were given covered plenty of ground, and appealed to the pocketbook as well as the appetite. Some items we tried to order weren't available, though -- the restaurant was out of pork chops, and snails in black bean and pepper sauce had been taken off the menu because they didn't sell, our waiter told us. This was a little odd, according to John, who spent time in Vietnam as a conscientious objector during the war and later chronicled his experiences in his memoir Remembering Heaven's Face; snail dishes are common in Vietnam.
When we found out that an appetizer of tai heo (pig ear julienned and served cold) was available, John was more than willing to give it a go (I confess I ordered it mostly out of a sense of duty). Though he consumed plenty of it with interested enjoyment, to me the slices looked like pale shiitake mushrooms but tasted more like rubber bands, cartilage surrounded by a thin layer of skin. The strips were accompanied by nuoc mam gung, a salty ginger condiment spiked with garlic and fish sauce (nuoc mam), which gave the dish some flavor but couldn't make the texture palatable. Had my editor not been at the table with me, I might have gone so far as to spit this out.
Cha gio, deep-fried spring rolls, are often referred to as the national dish of Vietnam and are a common street food. These should be tasty little nuggets bursting with shrimp, vegetables, and ground pork. At Little Saigon, unfortunately, the greasy rice paper wrappers tasted old, as if the oil in which they'd been fried hadn't been changed recently. The filling -- minced pork, rice noodles, shredded carrot, and a speckle or two of tree ear mushrooms -- was virtually flavorless. A dip in nuoc cham, the ubiquitous Vietnamese sweet-and-sour sauce whose main ingredients are nuoc mam, garlic, sugar, lime juice, vinegar, and chilies, failed to improve matters; an insipid version, it was hardly tangy, barely sweet, and not at all spicy.