Here's a link to the story: http://www.argusleader.com/article/20090212/ENT02/902120337
Today's review, by Dorene Weinstein, is about Sai Gon Panda, which is a quaint little Asian place in Village Square on East 26th Street. To Dorene's credit, she got that right. The rest of the one-page article describes the meal she and a friend shared (typical AL dining review formula), using such adjectives as "piping hot" and "yummy" to describe a meal consisting of stereotypical "Chinese" fare: won ton soup, egg rolls, fried wontons, chicken and vegetables (including the little ears of corn and water chestnuts) and fried rice (also standard AL formula). Dorene then goes on to report on her internet research on the difference between Szechuan, Hunan, and Cantonese cuisine. Here's the topper, though: One sentence, count it one sentence, of the article is devoted to the concept of Vietnamese food. All that sentence does is to describe it as the "light cusine" of Asia incorporating herbs and grilled well seasoned meats served over rice or noodles.
No kidding, you had to use the internet to figure that out instead of looking at the menu and actually ordering some?
How a person can go to Sai Gon Panda and not recognize that the place is, first and foremost, a Vietnamese restaurant, is simply beyond my comprehension. The place is called SAI GON Panda for crying out loud. I know Jay Leno could probably locate a few of them on one of his Jay Walking segments, but does anyone of reasonable intelligence around here not associate Sai Gon with Vietnam? As if that weren't enough, there is a whole page of Vietnamese entrees and beverages on the menu.
Sai Gon Panda has a pretty good offering of Vietnamese fare, especially pho and "noodle bowls." This is exactly what the real Asian people in the restaurant are eating. (That's another hint.)
Pho is one of the great foods of the world. It's a bowl of thin rice noodles served in about a quart of beef broth that has been augmented with fish sauce, ginger, cinnamon and star anise. You can order it with meat such as thin sliced beef, beef tendon, or tripe. On the side are slices of fresh jalapenos, fresh basil, fresh bean sprouts, hot sauce and hoisin. The stuff is harder than hell to eat, but I swear it can cure the common cold. You stir a little hot sauce and hoisin into the broth, tear up the basil and toss that in with the jalapenos. Top it off with the sprouts and then go to work on it with a pair of chopsticks the size of knitting needles and one of those Asian style soup spoons. Good Vietnamese cuisine is a perfect balance between salty, spicy, sour, and sweet and the pho at Sai Gon Panda hits the mark. The closer you get to the bottom of that huge bowl, the more concentrated and more spicy that broth is going to get.
Here's an advanced pho eating technique I learned from watching a young woman of Asian descent eating a bowl of pho. Use the chopsticks to pick up a few noodles. They are only like a yard long, so three or four of them are going to make for a good mouthful. Lift those up and let them wind back into the spoon that you will hold with your non-dominant hand. This technique will keep you from slurping about a quarter mile of noodles up and might help keep your clothes a little cleaner.
If you don't want to deal with liquids, go for the noodle bowls. A nice big serving of rice vermicelli noodles with grilled meats or fried egg rolls served on top. You get a nice sweet-acidic sauce to pour over it and nestled at the bottom you'll find some thinly sliced cabbage and carrots and some fresh cilantro.
My only complaint with the place is that I want a Bahn Mi. A sandwich served on a French roll that usually has some pate, other meat like chicken and fresh vegetables topped with a light pungent sauce. Sound odd? This is where your history lessons come in handy. Remember, before the United States paid a visit to the country from about 1960 to 1975, the French had given it a go. Vietnamese was the original East-West fusion food.
Look, I am not suggesting for a minute that Chinese food, even the ubiquitous Americanized Chinese food like the General's Chicken, and even Sweet and Sour Chicken, served up with a mess of fried rice doesn't have its place. And, by all means, to each his own. But for the love of Pete, if you visit a Vietnamese restaurant to write about the offerings, get the Vietnamese food.
Vietnamese food is wonderful. If you go to Sai Gon Panda, let the Argus reporter and his or her dining shill eat the ubiquitous stir fried chicken veggie delight with fried rice and hot tea. Go for a big bowl of pho and, what the hell, get the tendons or even the tripe in it and wash it down with a funky beverage or at least a Singha beer.
Trust me, you'll be glad you did.