A Saigon Made Safe for Americans

In 1880 English land agent Charles C. Boycott was viciously ostracized in Ireland by those who, despite working on their native land, were required to pay taxes to him. Since that time, "boycott" has taken various meanings, including "the refusal to buy goods or services from." A tool more powerful than the petition and more accessible to the general public than lobbying, the boycott has achieved great social changes. One only has to recall the history lesson of the Boston tea party, an ocean-polluting version of the boycott, to recognize its effectiveness when well organized.

A boycott can also be personal and not so organized. Most of us, for example, have at one time or another disdained a tradesman's services. The dry cleaner cracks the buttons on your best dress and refuses to replace them, so you tell one or two friends not to patronize that business. Or you disagree with the production of a certain product -- Colombian coffee, for instance -- and vow never to buy it again. I've sworn off Domino's pizza (not a great struggle, I admit) because I disagree with owner Tom Monaghan's generous contributions to the pro-life camp. There's no great personal danger in this private blacklisting, and no lasting prejudice. Should Domino's be sold, I'll probably order their pizza again.

There is a more sinister side to boycotting, however. In times of war, boycotts begin as propaganda, a way of showing patriotism. Unfortunately this disapprobation often lingers long after the resolution of the conflict, especially when atrocities have been committed. Such is the case of Jews who, 50 years after the Holocaust, still won't buy German cars.

To a lesser extent, such is also the case with Vietnamese food. Whether it's conscious and willful, or more subliminal and reflexive, some people I know simply refuse to dine at a Vietnamese restaurant. In Dade County, this may not amount to much; only two establishments specialize in Vietnamese cuisine: Hy-Vong and Viet House. Those who, for their own reasons, choose to avoid Vietnamese restaurants in their own neighborhoods certainly would not drive -- as I did, happily -- to visit a place such as Saigon in Hollywood.

It's impossible to ignore the connotations of a name like Saigon. The restaurant's namesake, the city in the former South Vietnam, is known for its decadent black market, its jungle heat, and its eventual fall to Communism in 1975. To many of us it is an aching reminder of America's disastrous involvement in a much-disputed war. Thankfully the Hollywood version wasn't titled after the city's current appellation: Ho Chi Minh City.

Politics notwithstanding, Vietnam boasts a fascinating culinary history, due to its occupation by various foreign countries over the generations. China ruled for a thousand years, for instance, which accounts for Chinese specialties on many Vietnamese menus.

Saigon is no exception. A good half of the dinner items are of Mandarin and Cantonese origin, listed on the left side of the menu. (Vietnamese cooking also adapted itself to the Chinese tastes for hot, spiced oils and quickly cooked vegetables and fish.) We overlooked such standards as pepper steak with onion ($6.95), chicken egg foo young ($5.95), and shrimp with lobster sauce ($7.95) in favor of the Vietnamese lo mein ($6.95). The shrimp, chicken, and rice noodles were bland but remarkably not greasy. Despite its listing on the Vietnamese side of the menu, we found this dish to be a compromise to China.

We fared better with the fragrant Vietnamese original of spicy chicken with lemongrass ($6.95). With its tart perfume of citrus, this masterful blend was near perfect for us. The honor here goes not to lemons but to the grass family that includes Cymbopogon citratus, whose aromatic oils can be as subtle as poetry when properly applied, or as overwhelming as bombast when not. Lemongrass begins quietly and slowly grows louder.

The next country to invade the Vietnamese sanctum was France, which in 1859 captured Saigon and began a process of consolidation that 30 years later led to the establishment of French Indochina. The only contribution I could find on Saigon's menu that bespoke France, however, was the generic bottle of Beaujolais wine. It's not unusual to find French bread, which has remained as the major culinary donation, served alongside rice; connoisseurs claim the bread is crustier in Vietnam than it is in France.

I was looking forward to dunking it in the rich chicken curry I ordered ($6.95), a generously chunky stew that played tricks on me: the more I ate, the more it grew. (I have this same problem with party leftovers; they take on lives of their own, propagating at will.) A traditional yellow and simmered in an unsweetened coconut milk, the ca-ri (curry paste) used here was polished and fine, a smooth combination of the many spices that are ground for curry. Alas, Saigon does not serve French bread, and the accompaniment of white rice was a disappointment, though the familiar grain is far from an inauthentic side dish. French bread and rice share the same staple status.

We were also impressed by the shrimp and vegetables in "special sauce" ($9.95), meaty, medium-size prawns scattered over a mound of vegetables. Portions were inspirational, and despite our holiday goal of indulging in every available treat (as if eating were a race we were capable of winning), none of us could finish this dish. Generally, in fact, I couldn't stand up to the amount of food we ordered. Main courses were preceded by both wonton soup, a delicate affair between the dumplings and the flavorful chicken stock, and a crisp green salad with a mild ginger dressing. This three-course meal was sufficient without appetizers. But of course we didn't know that from the outset.

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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