In A Cook's Tour, Anthony Bourdain's global quest for the perfect meal, the sprawling narrative returns again and again to Vietnam. Finally, Bourdain admits, he's "gone goofy on Vietnam, fallen hopelessly, helplessly in love with the place." The dizzying descriptions of boat markets, bursting with scents and flavors, the swerve from the pungent durian fruit to bracing intoxication of a freshly made pho, the fruits, chiles and flowers all leave the usually cynical and acerbic Bourdain gushing, "In Vietnam everything is beautiful. Everyone is nice. Everything tastes good."
Well, damn, given that the world is a pretty big place, and beguiled by the rhapsodic, dazzling descriptions of bracing and flavorful fare, we went out in search of some authentic eats. Hope landed us at Miss Saigon's door.
Open for a bit more than a year, Miss Saigon sits in a little strip mall on the corner of Speedway and Campbell. Although it's at a highly visible location, this small venue has carved out a niche for itself largely by word of mouth. Pause at Miss Saigon's door, and the neat and friendly environment pulls you in. Although large food photographs are suspended above the main counter for a visual accompaniment to the menu, take the time to peruse the many options. The menu is divided into several different categories, mostly noodle dishes, soups and "broken rice" dishes.
One particularly satisfying way to start your meal is to visit several different types of appetizers at once with the Khai Vi Combo ($9.99). Six different types of hand rolls are featured, including grilled shrimp paste wrapped in rice paper or the delicate Vietnamese spring roll, chubby shrimp and broiled pork slivers wrapped in tender rice paper. The deftly wrapped charbroiled pork meatballs were exceptionally good. The Vietnamese eggroll, served with requisite lettuce leaf and mint, provide an excellent foil to the more subtle range of flavors found in the rice paper rolls. This platter easily pleases a crowd or provides an ample meal for a gluttonous party of one.
Although the menu appears ambitious, our server informed us that regrettably, many of the more complex chef specialties were not available. Apparently the whims of the crowd attending Miss Saigon have demanded simpler fare. This made us a little sad since some of those items looked tantalizingly good: lemon grass hot pot cooked tableside and served with rare beef, marinated shrimp grilled tableside, or halibut served with spicy mango sauce. Our waiter wasn't quite able to articulate why these items were discontinued. He waved his hand despairingly, indicating there simply wasn't the interest.
There is a refined sense of resignation about Miss Saigon, as if it had higher expectations of Tucson. The food is prepared with a sense of authenticity and pride. The bright flavors and combinations are available, as evidenced by the stand of condiments, oils and purées available on each table, but there is a restrained sense of frustration that comes from trying to please a limited audience. Perhaps with a more loyal following, these items might be restored. One can only hope.
Still, for the most part we were pleased with the meal we ordered. The grilled tiger prawns with a sweet and spicy coconut curry sauce provided a robust and friendly dish that was well received. Served with rice, this made a warming addition to the other dishes we sampled.
Our waiter encouraged us to order from the Com Tam section of the menu ("Broken Rice" plates), particularly the charbroiled pork, bean curd and wrapped shrimp ($6.50). This meal wasn't as adventurous as we'd imagined: A thin charbroiled pork chop, a scoop of rice and some bean curd rounded out the plate. The range of flavors wasn't nearly as explosive or colorful as we found in some of the other dishes we tried.
We were especially pleased with the selection of phos (beef noodle soups with beef broth). The Miss Saigon Special ($6.50) is a tureen of velvety beef broth swimming with noodles, served with the traditional plate of accompanying bean spouts, mint leaves and lemon. You can doctor and nudge your pho to accommodate your own tastes. There are plenty of chiles and oils to make it as incendiary or as mild as you choose.
Although there is no durian fruit here, you can indulge yourself in some otherworldly strangeness. If you haven't yet experienced the bubble and slurp of a drink with large tapioca balls in it, well, you have yet to discover another culinary horizon. Whether you order flavored milk tea, snow or slush, for a mere 50 cents you can add tapioca, jelly or coconut to any drink. These are popular enough to have their own machine that not only mixes and matches your flavors and textures, but also passes them through with a whirr and a snap, yielding a drink sealed for your own enjoyment, served with an extra wide straw. You slowly sip your drink while the large chewy bubbles of tapioca travel up the straw and then burst into your mouth.
At first slightly repulsive, this chewy combination of temperature and texture becomes strangely addictive. Try your tapioca balls with a green bean slush, or perhaps a tangerine snow. If you aren't feeling like too much texture, have them slipped into a taro milk or perhaps guava tea. It is not hard to imagine that in summer's fiery blast, this could become its own sustainable food group, a cultish beverage many would brave the heat for.
Miss Saigon offers up a friendly and refreshing option. There are some moments of revelation and discovery to be found here with carefully prepared, authentic Vietnamese fare. Just don't blame me if you become addicted to the pop and snap of those little tapioca balls.