By Frank Sabatini Jr.
I can go an entire summer without craving pho for even a nanosecond. In San Diego that equates to a stretch of about seven months. Though come December, when early sunsets send a chill through my bones, I turn maniacal for the Vietnamese soup as though I haven’t eaten it in seven years.
Saigon Star Vietnam and China Bistro is where I took my first plunge this season into a moderate-size bowl of pho, which encompassed glassy rice noodles, thin slices of chicken breast, scallions and herbs. I traditionally gravitate to the beef varieties because the broth is laced with higher measures of rich bone marrow. This, however, didn’t let me down.
The house-made broth was crystal clear, making it hard to imagine such liquid could offer the depth of flavor it did. Imagine the most comforting, medicinal-tasting homemade chicken soup you’ve ever eaten, and this will likely match up with its semi-salty and herbaceous notes.
The noodles are made in-house as well. You’ll find them in various widths depending on your choice of pho, which come with such options as rare or well-done steak, meatballs made of marinated ground beef, vegetables with tofu, or shrimp.
For the chicken pho, the noodles were exactly the slimness I prefer — just a notch thinner than spaghetti, and in just the right amount. (Nothing ruins a bowl of pho more than scads of noodles crowding the bowl and inundating the precious broth with starch.)
Served alongside were the requisite garnishments: basil leaves (still on their branches), bean shoots, sliced jalapenos, and halved limes. Adding a little of each to the bowl goes a long way in terms of nudging the flavor to your liking. In my book, this was flawless pho.
From eight different types of spring rolls that include rib eye, pork, chicken, and grilled fish with ginger, I chose the sugarcane shrimp rolls. Served in pairs, they’re constructed with finely ground shrimp molded around handy stalks of sugarcane, which infuses the seafood with a tinge of sweetness. Similar to skewers, they’re tossed onto a grill and land on your table decently seared.
That same grilled essence came up a few notches in charred pork that was piled into a superior banh mi sandwich I ordered.
Starting with a melt-in-your-mouth baguette made by a local Vietnamese bakery, the crusty bread also captured sliced cucumber, shredded carrots and a faint smear of mayo. The curly pork pieces were deeply marinated in sweet Vietnamese barbecue sauce, making it one of the most lovable banh mi sandwiches I’ve had in years. In keeping with the traditional low cost of these French-inspired creations, the cost was an easy $5.75.
Prices across the menu are otherwise moderate. The spring rolls average about $5.50 per order. Appetizers such as salt and pepper calamari (or shrimp) cost $9.95, while stir fries such as spicy lemon grass with beef, or seafood fried rice are $10.50 each. On the highest end of the price scale are specialties like filet mignon served over fresh greens for $12.95, and sizzling fish fillet with turmeric and ginger for $15.
The menu also features several Chinese dishes such as orange chicken, kung pao chicken, and beef and broccoli for $10.50 per plate.
Saigon Star is located between a nail salon and dental office in the Friars Village plaza—a few doors away from San Diego Brewing Company. It’s been around for nearly 10 years, although it’s now under second ownership by a Vietnamese family whose members and employees are endearing and efficient.
Along with other customers filtering in during a fairly busy lunch hour, I was greeted warmly; my food arrived promptly; and the courses were properly staggered.
The clean, Zen-like dining room greets with dried branches and live greenery. Dark-wood booths and bamboo window shades further impart an earthy elegance you might not expect from a strip-plaza restaurant. Based on this single visit, Saigon Star gets a top-star rating for its delightful food, personable service and relaxing atmosphere.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.