If the devil is in the details, Little Saigon is a church.
For years this North Miami Beacher has been one of the few bright lights in the local Asian dining scene, which is otherwise inhabited by mostly terrible Chinese restaurants, mediocre Thai eateries, and dozens of roll-by-numbers sushi joints. Little Saigon still does a decent job of dishing the seductive, sophisticated cuisine of Vietnam, at prices that would make your average South Beach restaurateur gag on his Cristal.
It's also still as charmless as ever, its run-down plainness almost refreshing next to the pretentious excess of its tonier SoBe brethren — although the funky bathrooms and funkier neighborhood, where gangsta wannabes in tattered hoodies practice giving the hairy eyeball to outsiders, only enhance the general air of decrepitude. And about those details:
16752 N Miami Ave, North Miami Beach; 305-653-3377. Open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., Sunday noon to 11 p.m.
Example 1: banh koo, a plate-size rice flour crêpe, tinted yellow with turmeric, lovely in its brittle crispiness, lovelier still folded over a delicately flavored mélange of diminutive shrimp, sliced pork, and bean sprouts, all made to be divided into strips, dipped in very fish-saucy nuoc cham, and eaten with lettuce, cilantro, and cucumber. Delicious, except the crêpe was charred black in spots, throwing off the fine-tuned balance of flavors that are the delight of Vietnamese cuisine.
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Example 2: house special pho, at its best the soup of the gods, blending the soulful comfort of clam chowder, the clean brilliance of consommé, and the beguiling layers and flavor of gumbo. Lots to recommend this one, too — plenty of fat, slippery rice noodles, thin slabs of flank steak, delectable beef meatballs, and chewy strands of tendon. But the broth is more assertively seasoned than savory, any meaty lushness overwhelmed by a blast of star anise.
Example 3: stir-fried chicken with lemongrass and tender nuggets of dark meat nicely browned and simply presented with the merest hint of sauce. Nicely done, but there's subtle and then there's bland. Guess which one this dish channeled.
Okay, so cha gio — what Chinese spring rolls want to be but rarely are — were great stuff, their rice paper jackets packed tightly and fried to golden crunchiness. The whole lettuce, cilantro, and nuoc cham thing kicks them up another notch. (Emeril. Arghhh!) And blue crabs in tamarind sauce, while an absurd waste of time to pick the minuscule shreds of crab out of the quartered, floured, and fried crustaceans, was no less delicious for the effort, even if the glazelike sauce seemed more sweet-gingery than the tart-tamarind-y of previous visits.
More details: Though we live in an age when anyone with a modem and a credit card can purchase a small country, Little Saigon accepts cash only, which is perhaps why the dudes in the hoodies eyeball arriving customers with the look of hungry sharks sizing up a surfer. If you want wine, you're out of luck, though you can bring your own. If you want sake, you might be out of luck, though it is on the menu. But a cold Tsingtao is reliable in flavor, availability, and appropriateness to the cuisine, which could be divine if not for those devilish details.