Miss Saigon's Vegan Pho

Miss Saigon's location shifted north a few blocks from its former spot on Fifth Street and Washington Avenue about a year ago, but the element that gave the Vietnamese restaurant its character has remained. That's the owner, Hali Nguien. The garrulous and diplomatic lady of the house can still be found making the rounds between the kitchen (which guests can peep through a quirky little rectangular window next to the bar) and the dining room. All the while, she brags about the bistro's food ("It doesn't leave the kitchen unless it's perfect!") or asks guests about their experience, while they take in her eccentric pop art inspired outfits and strong personality.

Like most Vietnamese restaurants, a good number of the dishes here contain some sort of animal product: beef stock, fish sauce, chicken and shrimp are common ingredients, for example. But Miss Saigon also offers vegetable, tofu, and even seitan dishes and gives diners the option to request vegetarian broth for their pho. I've dined there a few times and have always left the table totally stuffed (with yummy vegetables) and happy. Here's a look at my favorite veg-friendly dish on the menu: Miss Saigon's vegan pho, which Ms. Nguien herself continually assures me is "only vegetables, just for you."

Vegan or not, Vietnamese pho (pronounced "fuh") is really a pretty simple dish. Its key ingredients are broth (traditionally beef or chicken) and rice noodles. Chefs then usually add meat and/or vegetables to the broth. Spices like cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, anise and cloves are also common elements of the soup. Strangely enough, in Vietnam, pho is commonly eaten for breakfast.

As a new twist on the old serving style at Miss Saigon, customers are now given laminated menus and dry erase markers so they can circle their choices. It may not scream class, but hell, it does the trick. If you're going for the vegan-style pho, don't forget to circle the "vegetarian broth" option or you'll end up with a bunch of vegetables in a bowl of beef stew.

At Miss Saigon, the vegetable pho with tofu, or the "full Buddha" ($12.95) is served with a heaping plate of basil, lime wedges, and sliced jalapeños on the side. I would recommend going heavy on the lime and basil and very light on the jalapenos; when one particularly hot pepper found its way to my spoon, it nearly ruined my entire evening, sending me into intense sweats and driving a numbing and fiery pain all over my mouth and up my forehead. That said, the rest of the vegan pho experience was pretty good.

As far as I can tell, the dish is oil-free -- a big plus in my book. The vegetables were cooked to just the right firmness - especially the broccoli. Said broccoli was a perky green and had sucked up just enough of the broth to give it a juicy flavor. I was looking for more once I'd eaten it all up. The carrots and celery were good, and the rice noodles just tender enough. The one thing I don't understand is why the chef uses canned mushrooms in the pho (my friend found them in his pad Thai, too). I mean, most fresh mushrooms are relatively inexpensive, and the sight of the rubbery old fungi really cheapened the appearance of the otherwise pretty bowl.

That said, the restaurant sure did not skimp on tofu. I ordered the large pho, and in a single bowl was probably enough bean curd for two tofu salad sandwiches and an order of tofu scrambler to boot. That's a lot of soy, which is great if you're looking to boost your plant protein intake, but not so good if you're ambivalent about phytoestrogens. But no one said you had to try and eat the whole thing (like I did).

On the whole, Nguien is extremely accommodating -- so much so that I bet she would attempt to make a vegan adaptation of any dish on menu if you asked nicely. But the restaurant has several choices that would require little negotiation: the edamame ($6.95), house salad, and seaweed salad are all vegan, and there seven different seitan dishes as well (seitan is a tasty meat supplement derived from wheat -- also known as "wheat meat"), including a lemongrass seitan and a seitan and mixed vegetable plate ($18.95). All these options make Miss Saigon a good choice when you want to dine on the beach with mixed company (meaning vegans and non-vegans) without any hassle.

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