Sunday, December 30, 2012

How Many Restaurants...

can fit into one block-long strip mall?

This is easier to answer than the age old question “How many angels can dance (or sit) on the head of a pin.” The shopping center (name unknown) at 10450 Friars Road houses at least twelve. What has brought us here is Gaglione Brothers, home of the best Philly Cheesesteak outside of Philadelphia and which just might best many in a blind taste test. But you can also eat at Troy's Authentic Greek, Ra Ka de Ka Thai, San Diego Brewing Co., Einstein’s Bagels, Carl’s Jr. (burgers), Rubio’s (fish tacos), Starbucks, Pizza Hut, Fiji Yogurt, Jump Tokyo, and the subject of today’s blog—Pho Saigon Star.

I spotted this place when leaving Gagliones one day and thought that it might be new. Au contraire. It has been open for about six years. In the past I had only one focus—cheesesteaks—and never bothered to notice anything else.
But I went home and did a quick “Google” search and found numerous reviews like this one posted by Sophia W. on “This place is a hidden gem!!! So yummy! I loved the way it was set up. I honestly was not expecting such an awesome atmosphere in this part of town. The service was prompt and friendly…. The prices were reasonable…. They also have a cute deli bar in the back…”

The interior is divided by bamboo into two sections. One section had what Sophia W. described as the deli bar, and which I thought was the “to go” pick-up station; and above the bar were chalkboards listing the available beers and wines.
On one wall hung a large “mosaic” (I don’t know how else to describe it) made with smoothed pebbles.

Most of the on-line reviewers raved about the pho and bun, but I have learned that I am fonder of Asian noodle dishes than is Chuck. So we decided to order two appetizers and share one entrée—if we could find one on which we could agree.

Our first appetizer was the Crispy Wontons stuffed with a mixture of ground pork, chicken, and shrimp and accompanied by a sweet chile dipping sauce.
Were these authentic Vietnamese? I don’t know. All I know is that they were delicious and would have made a great cocktail party appetizer.

And whenever we see calamari on a menu we feel compelled to order it, so the Salt & Pepper Calamari became our second appetizer choice. This was similar to the preparation served at the Red Lotus in Santee (CA) with one major difference. Instead of the thinly sliced jalapeno peppers used at Red Lotus, Saigon Star’s included browned garlic bits.

If you, like me, have ever turned your back on garlic browning in olive oil only to find that it has turned into a nasty pan of bitter dark bits, then you know how hard it is to achieve the toasty crunchy effect that they accomplished here. While I still prefer Red Lotus’ version with the hot peppers, I do have to give Saigon Star props for a very tasty dish.

Now we have to agree to an entrée. Chuck didn’t want a noodle dish. I didn’t want a rice dish. Finally we agreed on the Sizzling Fish Fillet Skillet—not entirely knowing what we were going to get.

What we got was an adventure.

The dish came in three parts. Part Number One was a sizzling skillet of lightly battered and flakey fish fillets with onions and scallions. Think of this as a Vietnamese fish fajita.

The second part was a platter of condiments—lettuce, mint, vermicelli noodles, sesame crackers, peanuts, pickled carrots and daikon, and a garlic vinegar shrimp sauce.

And third was a container of warm water and six dry rice paper wrappers.

First, you dip a wrapper into the water (notice the half circle shape of the water holder) until the wrapper is pliable, but not soaking wet.

Then you begin piling on the components. Maybe some lettuce. Maybe some noodles.

Maybe some daikon and carrot and peanut.

Finally, the beautiful fish with some onion.

And then you wrap all this into a neat and tidy bundle. What? You don’t see a neat and tidy bundle? Well, neither did we. You have never seen two people more inept in rolling these wrappers. I am sure that all of the Asian diners (of which there were quite a few that day) were looking at us and snickering as the ingredients came cascading out the ends of our rolls.

Go ahead and laugh. Even though our rolls were far from perfect in form they were perfect in flavor and texture.

In addition to the many online reviewers praising Saigon Star’s food, many also faulted the service, which they deemed inattentive at best and rude at worst. We found that our experience was more like the former. Trying to get our servers attention to get a refill on water proved to be a challenge and reduced what would have been a 5.0 Addie rating to a 4.5 one.

To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.

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