By Veronique Bergeron
Hello, my hungry hippos. It’s time for another exciting episode of “Yeah, so what if I didn’t study abroad? You gonna judge me for it??” This week, we stake out a real gem of an international dining experience: the magnificent Saigon, located just east of Dale at University Avenue. Don’t let the joint’s shady exterior dissuade you, I have a year-long relationship going with the Saigon staff, and they’ve never let me down once. Plus, after one meal, you’ll fancy yourself a Vietnamese food expert, without the cost of airfare or frivolous use of an oh-so-pretentious hiking backpack.Let’s start with dcor: The Saigon is located in a baby-blue shack that formerly housed a Long John Silver’s. The windows are like portals in a big boat, and the light up fast-food sign behind the counter still advertises a shrimp basket special. The twenty odd tables are always packed, but you rarely have to wait more than three minutes for a table. The clientele is refreshingly mixed: Vietnamese families, construction workers off University, college kids and a lot of regulars, whom the staff knows by name. I’m waiting for them to learn mine. It’s like Ver-o-neek. Vronique. Mkay?Fancy beverages are a must at any Southeast Asian resto, and Saigon is no exception. The entire last page of the menu is dedicated to quenching your thirst. The avocado milk shake is a meal in itself: sweet, thick, icy cold, and pukey green. The limeade sodas are refreshing and a nice accompaniment to the big hot soups, or your big hot date. The past few times I’ve been there, they’ve run out of soda water somehow, but the non-carbonated limeade is just as good. For a traditionalist, the first pot of hot tea is free. Refills are less then a dollar. And for the daring I’d recommend an egg soda: a raw egg topped with an inch and a half of sweetened condensed milk and soda water or sprite. Mix it up at the table and enjoy, it’s surprisingly good and will bring you back to your granny’s days of egg crmes and malts. Only far better and served by a really nice Vietnamese woman with enormous biceps.As for the appetizers, besides the usual spring and egg rolls, Saigon boasts some of the best Vietnamese sandwiches. Colonialism? Bad. Colonialist food infusion? Mmm, mmm, good. The French may have extracted every natural resource the Vietnamese ever had, leaving their economy and infrastructure a shambles and creating one of the bloodiest wars in their wake, but the French had the good graces to pass along the art of Baguette making. And the Vietnamese had the good sense to fill mini-baguettes with pork, cilantro, pickled veg, mayo and jalapenos. Saigon serves it up, cut in half just the way me and my little num-nums like it. The B11 (Saigon Special) is loaded with meatball, pork loaf, pate, grilled pork, and red roast pork. L’Chaim. Entrees provide several forks in this Vietnamese gluttony road. There’s the noodle salads: Lettuce and mint, topped with cooled vermicelli noodles, pickled carrots and daikon, cilantro, meat, and sometimes even chopped-up egg rolls. Top it off with the fish sauce/lime juice/chili pepper sauce. Or you could always do Pho, the Vietnamese raison d’tre: a beef-broth soup with rice noodles and various beef cuts into which you get to dunk Thai basil, bean sprouts, jalapenos, and lime. It also comes in three sizes: large, extra-large, and Saigon (The size of a baby pool. No joke). There are other soups, too. Without fail, I order the C9, an egg noodle soup with shrimp wontons and veg. Ask for grilled pork in it, it’s delish. A few things to remember about Saigon. First, your food will arrive well before your drinks, as in, 30 seconds after you order. Be not dissuaded, this place has a high enough turn-over rate to work that kind of cooking-en-masse. I promise, there’s not a red fast-food light on the entire property. Second, I once saw a man order a fried egg and bacon. And he was served, no questions asked, point being that the Saigon servers are flexible, wonderful, compassionate people, deserving of 20 percent tips. Third, Saigon shares a parking lot with the St. Paul police, so make sure your headlights work. Or whatevs. And lastly, try something new. You never know where it will take you.