None Pho Me, Thanks

Rolled in rice paper wrappers but not fried, the iceberg lettuce and shredded pork interior of bi cuon, cousin to the spring rolls, were given a boost by pungent fresh coriander. Two to an order, these bundles were also somewhat bland, though a dark, rich peanut sauce helped obscure the uninspiring texture of the pork, which was dry and crunchy in places.

Goi ga, traditional Vietnamese chicken salad, was perhaps the most interesting appetizer we sampled, and certainly the most generous in terms of portion. Chopped cabbage, grated carrots, and thinly sliced onion marinated in a simple vinaigrette provided the base for the salad. Another dressing of nuoc cham and a sprinkling of shredded mint and coriander leaves provided some extra emphasis and gave the poached chicken, an ample quantity of which was arranged on top, a surge of flavor. The poultry was tender and juicy, though undercooked in some places to an alarming degree. We also found some chopped cartilage and gristle mixed in with the meat, as if the whole bird -- bones and all -- had been cleavered and served, an authentic "hacked-up quality" that appealed to my editor, who thought it not out of place in this mom-and-pop place, but which didn't thrill me.

Eleven varieties of pho, the chili-spiced broth frequently consumed for breakfast in Vietnam, were available. But hu tieu nam vang, a rice noodle soup stocked with shrimp, pork, and squid, was a bit of a disappointment. Also known as Saigon soup, the pork-and-chicken stock is frequently prepared with dried squid, which should give it a signature smoky flavor, and daikon radish, which absorbs the squid's salt and sweetens the whole affair. But we couldn't distinguish this broth from hot water, despite the slices of pork and pink shrimp curled in its depths. A nested base of rice noodles and side garnishes of bean sprouts, saw-toothed ngo gai (a type of coriander) leaves, and lime wedges were pleasant, but what this soup really needed was a sinus-clearing dose of chilies or chili oil.

In fact, spice seemed to be absent in just about everything we ordered -- appetizers, soup, and main courses alike. Fried tofu in particular was greaseless but bland, cubes of bean curd served on a bed of iceberg lettuce and requiring nuoc cham to entice at all. The salt-and-pepper sauce that dressed a squid dish had more body thanks to garlic and more nuoc mam, but the squid rings were so chewy as to be inedible. Another mouthful for the discreet napkin. Blue crabs sauteed in black bean sauce sounded and looked delicious, the hacked crab halves and claws glistening under a perfumed blanket of fermented soybeans afloat in a garlicky brown sauce. The sauce, though, proved to be the best part; the tiny crabs were overcooked and practically hollow, devoid of meat.

Neither Vietnamese nor Chinese, Singapore noodles seem to show up at every Asian restaurant, regardless of nationality. Little Saigon's version was a heaping serving, thin egg noodles (called vermicelli on the menu) wound through with strips of pork and shreds of snow peas, onions, and scallions. But the yellow curry that coated the ingredients tasted pre-prepared, like the shortcut ones you see on an Asian grocery's shelf. The result was pasty, the noodles curling aridly.

Beef with mustard greens was a late arrival, brought to the table well after everything else. Perhaps for that reason it was the most alluring. Or maybe it was because the slices of tender beef had been stir-fried with mustard greens and bits of Chinese broccoli, the latter adding a nice touch of bitterness to the mild, soy-salty brown sauce.

I'm a pessimist by nature, yet I'm an optimist when it comes to restaurants. The next one is always around the corner, always better than the last. In this case, that might well prove true: Dozens of Asian eateries abound in North Miami Beach, and I'll soon have another chance in this area. Of my two bosses, though, I couldn't tell who was more let down and who felt more responsible. But I can tell them this: With all due respect, next time I pick the place.

Little Saigon
16752 N Miami Ave, North Miami Beach; 653-3377. Open Monday -- Friday from noon to 1:00 a.m., Saturday from 5:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m., and Sunday from noon to 11:00 p.m.

Cha gio
$3.00
Hu tieu nam vang
$5.95
Blue crabs in black bean sauce
$9.95
Beef with mustard greens
$7.95

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