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Mar 10, 2008 08:21 PM

Saigon Restaurant (San Diego)

Went to dinner here tonight with kare_raisu and epicureous eggplant, and came away thinking this is the best Vietnamese food of this style I've had so far in San Diego.

We had four things and the worst of them was excellent, while one (to me, anyway) was transcendent.

We got summer rolls with egg, chili paste and chinese sausage; sauteed catfish; grilled beef with caul fat; and round rice noodle with char-grilled ground pork meatballs and shrimp paste.

First dish out was the sauteed catfish, which came in a stoneware bowl, bubbling vigorously. Here's a photo:

The sauce was a dark brown, made with a caramel sauce. There were a lot of bones, and the fish was incredibly tender and juicy. I'd never had this combination of flavors before, but I liked it a lot.

Next out was the round rice noodle. This was served in a manner really similar to bun, with a bowl of coconut milk in addition to the fish sauce. This was an awesome dish. The texture of the noodles was amazing, and the flavor of the noodles with the charred pork and coconut milk was sublime.

Lastly they brought out the grilled beef and the summer rolls. The summer rolls were delicious, with a really interesting fermented flavor throughout that we speculated might have been rice wine dressing the raw veggies.

But for me the real star of the evening was the grilled beef in caul fat. I've had this a couple of other times, at Convoy Noodle House and Pho Pasteur, but this completely blew those versions away. The beef is ground and seasoned, formed into small finger-like shapes. The caul fat melts during the grilling, leaving the beef very juicy and moist, and generating a lot of smoke that seasons the beef. These were indescribably great. They come with a platter of lettuce leaves, mint sprigs, pineapple, pickled daikon, and cucumbers, as well as softened rice paper for wrapping.

Photo of the beef:

The menu at Saigon is huge, and judging by how good our food was, it's hard to imagine anything being less than good. We asked our server how their pho was, and he described it as "beautiful", going on to explain that based on where pho restaurants are located can give you an indication of how the broth is going to be. We cajoled one of the waiters into bringing us a small bowl of the broth so we could sample it, and it was delicious. I'll definitely be going back to sample the pho here.

Another intriguing thing on their menu that I've seen at Pho Pasteur is fresh crab. I've never once ordered it at Pho Pasteur because the water in the tank is extremely murky. The tanks at Saigon were extremely clean, however, and you could clearly see the crabs. I will be trying these at some point as well.


This is a great spot. Definitely worth checking out if you haven't already been.

Saigon Restaurant
4455 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, CA 92115

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  1. Sounds awesome Josh, thanks for the report.

    1. Hey Josh... how about a Chowdown at Saigon?

      Was the round rice noodle a patty? Not a woven noodle mat, right? I love banh beo... a place that does it pretty well is Pho Tu Do, which is a bit underrated, I think.

      The catfish was a staple at home growing up. I can't get enough of that sauce on white rice. Yum.

      Sounds like a great meal!

      9 Replies
      1. re: geekyfoodie

        Chowdown sounds like a good idea - are you on the SDChow mailing list? I'd love to go with someone familiar with the cuisine who can steer me to some good, new choices.

        And yes, it was the larger round rice noodles (like fat spaghetti), not the woven noodle mat.

        1. re: Josh

          Hey, Josh, I sent you an email directly (not thru the listserv), so hopefully we can put something together in the next month or so.

          Count me in for not being a fan of pre-moistened banh trang. I usually give up on trying to peel one at a time and just take 2-3 for at thicker roll.

          What was in the summer roll? When I hear "summer roll", I always think of chain restaurants that are trying to be edgy. :)

          1. re: geekyfoodie

            It was a little different than some I've had. There didn't seem to be many, if any, rice noodles inside. It was packed with cucumber, carrot, and daikon, which was dressed in something that tasted like it may have included rice wine. It also had eggs, hot chilies and chinese sausage. It wasn't called a summer roll on the menu, but I don't recall the actual name.

            1. re: Josh

              I am still thinking that it was the Chinese sausage that had that fermented wine-y flavor....haunting & addicting.

              1. re: Josh

                Ooooh, that sounds good. I don't want to know what's in Chinese sausage, but I love the stuff. I've had a roll like that before at Luong Hai Ky on Convoy. Good stuff.

                1. re: Josh

                  Sounds like Bo Bia? It is one of the items that I think Saigon does well(other than rolling the darn thing too tight), and if I have to go to Phuong Trang, it's what I order there as well. It used to be on the menu at Phuong Trang as "vegetable rolls" which used to freak people out when they saw the Lap Xuong in it.
                  I dunno if you noticed, but the menu says "Authentic Chinese Cuisine" and "Authentic Vietnamese Cuisine". Much like Quoc Te, Saigon pulls from a Chinese influence. You'll notice this in the claypot and soups.

                  1. re: KirkK

                    Yes, Bo Bia. I didn't notice the mention of Chinese cuisine, but that is interesting. On one of my visits to Pho Saigon Star, after chatting with one of the employees about the food he brought me a plate of one of their stir-fried soft noodle dishes. It was wide flat rice noodles, with Chinese broccoli, beef, and tofu, with fresh cilantro sprigs. I also thought I detected fish sauce as a seasoning, though I'm not certain. He was explaining to me how there's a really strong Chinese influence in a lot of Viet cooking.

                    1. re: Josh

                      Your noodle dish is a variant of the Cantonese beef chow fun. Except the Chinese version doesn't have tofu in it.

            2. re: geekyfoodie

              Ye, yes! That sauce with good!


            3. Nice photos Josh.... the choice of dishes sounds vaguely familiar.....

              I think Saigon is a good bang for the buck place...though both times I had the Banh Tam(silk worm noodle) it was hard and brittle. And they tend to overwrap the Goi Cuon, and sometimes double wrap them so it's really hard and tough, they really do stuff them, though. They also serve the Banh Trang(rice paper wrappers) pre-moistened so it tends toward the hard, tough, and sticky side, rather than dry with a bowl of warm water to be moistened at the table.
              I don't care for the Pho at usually has too much of a strong anise flavor that sometimes overwhelms everything else.
              That said, the portion sizes are large, and the prices reasonable. Most of my Vietnamese friends go to Saigon mainly for the seafood, can't beat the prices. My wife likes the Bi at Saigon.

              1 Reply
              1. re: KirkK

                I too dislike the pre-moistened rice paper. It's nearly impossible to work with them. The sample of broth we had didn't have an especially strong anise flavor to me, I wonder if it varies day-to-day?

              2. This meal was an epiphany for me. I couldn't get over the fact that not one dish was 'meh.' I was perhaps stuck most by the Vietnamese sensibility with their ingredients. They understand contrasts and are able to exploit them without overthinking it. The results are so intrinsically beautiful that I find myself confounded as to why I had wasted years not taking part in this cuisine.

                I liked that we each ordered a dish that characterized different cooking styles:
                - my luscious swarthy & buttery caramel casserole of catfish bubbling away as if to signal it is glory
                - EE's light round rice noodles set in between refreshing salad and grilled pork meatballs and fried shrimp paste loaf to which we drizzled sweet fish sauce fortified coconut milk and hot sauce over
                - and Josh's perfectly grilled caul fat wrapped ground beef is not worthy of my words. It just makes me happy. =)

                Our amazement at our feast prompted Josh to ask for a broth sample of the Pho. This is healing meat tea! The literally golden soup stroked all notes on the palette, yet not one flavor was dominating. I wish more pho's I had in the past tasted even slightly like this one.

                i had a great time. I wish more chowhounds were with us to share in the enjoyment. Thanks to Josh for answering the text message I sent him informing him that I wanted "Crazy good vietnamese food tonite" with Saigon - it was crazy good

                2 Replies
                1. re: kare_raisu

                  Oh Alex, you have years and years to explore so many cuisines! Isn't it exciting? Vietnamese is definitely one of my favorites, and one I can't wait to learn more about. I love all the contrasting flavors, and the fresh greens and vegetables that accompany so many dishes. I also get a kick out of the way the French influence pops up here and there. If you ask me, it's one of the most - if not the most - sophisticated cuisines on the planet.

                  1. re: Alice Q

                    Absolutely, Alice. :) I think I like Vietnamese for the same reasons. You are right about the French influence too! We were talking about this last night - I mean grape leaf and caul fat beef stuffed rolls, charcuterie, french bread with the viet curry etc! I even read or heard on Npr, that the word 'Pho' is actually a derivative of 'Feu' from Pot-au-feu. Interesting!

                2. Thanks Josh for posting Saigon better than I could have and thanks Kare for having me along. I'm CRAVING for my dish, with the coconut milk, and the slightly crunchy vegetables, and the crushed peanuts, and the silky noodles, and the pork meatballs. I was quiet yesterday, because I was happily content with my meal.

                  I'm going later this week, maybe I'll see you guys there ;)