South-East Eats: Saigon (Houjie)

Welcome to “Saigon,” the former title of the city that Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh’s name was bestowed upon in 1976. The restaurant is situated on Houjie Avenue, adjacent to the ubiquitous “Vienna” hotel—which handily makes a good point of reference for taxi drivers. I’ve said it before, in my opinion the best way to initially judge a restaurant serving food from another country, is to see what beer they have. In this case there was no Saigon 333 or Hanoi beer—the two staples from the country. Tsingdao and Blue Girl were available for 28 RMB per bottle.

Onto the menu and the restaurant offers a portion of two small warm baguettes served with curry sauce for 10 RMB as a starter. Intrigued, I ordered this with a portion of Thai crackers while I deliberated on the main courses. “Thai crackers in a Vietnamese restaurant?” I hear you say. This was to be the prelude for discovering the restaurant is not based solely on Vietnamese food, but rather a mish-mash of South-East Asian cuisines.

The bread and crackers arrived swiftly, but to my disappointment the bread was slightly stale and the crackers soft. Naturally I complained to the waitress, to which a fresh set of both were brought out. Things got better from there. My friends and I ordered the combination platter consisting of spring rolls, samosas, satay skewers and chicken chunks in pandanus leaves. This was coupled with a small Tom Yum soup and a Malay beef curry, which all came to less than 200 RMB.

The soup was a touch spicier than I have been accustomed to, but for me the real surprise was the chicken in pandanus leaves from the platter. There is just something about this way of cooking that makes the chicken ultra-succulent, leaving one salivating at the memory. The clear, sweet sauce that accompanied the Vietnamese-style spring rolls was also very enjoyable.

While there were other traditional Vietnamese dishes on the menu, I was a bit dismayed to see the absence of one of my favorites from Vietnam, known as “Bun Cha.” The dish consisting of vermicelli noodles with diced beef and nettle leaves was nowhere to be found. I am aware “Saigon” has had its ups and downs over the years since it has been established, as many places do. If it just did a bit of fine-tuning it could be a fantastic restaurant, but as it stands, it is still the best place for South-East Asian food in Houjie.

Address: 1st floor of Vienna Hotel, No.19, Houjie Avenue