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  • The Combo Fresh Noodle with pork, chicken, beef and shrimp at Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant on South Calhoun Street.

  • People mill around during the dinner rush at Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant on South Calhoun Street.

  • Seafood pho with ground shrimp and fresh tomatoes at Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant on South Calhoun Street.

  • The sliced pork and shrimp spring rolls at Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant on South Calhoun Street include a tasty peanut sauce.

  • Crab rangoon at Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant on South Calhoun Street.

  • Fresh spring rolls; shredded pork on the left and shrimp and sliced pork on the right, at Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant on South Calhoun Street.

  • A rice plate with pork chops and a pork-infused egg cake at Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant on South Calhoun Street.

  • Sauteed noodles with sliced pork at Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant on South Calhoun Street.

  • Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant on South Calhoun Street.

  • Beef pho with sliced steak and meatballs at Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant on South Calhoun Street.

  • The spring rolls at Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant on South Calhoun Street are packed with fresh greens.

  • The stainless steel-backed counter is just one of the retro details at Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant on South Calhoun Street.

Sunday, December 04, 2016 10:09 pm

Top broth in the city, pho sure

Ryan DuVall | Restaurant critic

On the heels of Thanksgiving, I give you the restaurant I am most thankful for in Fort Wayne.

It is a place where, this time of year especially, I can get a big bowl of steaming hot soup that not only satisfies my hunger pangs, but that I also believe has a medicinal quality to help cure my sniffles.

The pho at Saigon Vietnamese restaurant is by far the best in the area. And its beauty lies in the broth, which has that unique spice profile that separates pho from normal soups. The anise, cinnamon, ginger, a little soy, maybe some fish sauce, it all creates magic.

The beef broth is the most complex and makes pretty much any beef pho a fine option.

I jump around the menu when it comes to pho. This time I had it with beef meatballs and round steak – the No. 20 Pho Tái Bò Vien – while other times I opt for brisket and/or "soft tender," which is basically unidentifiable bits of cartilage and such.

The fresh basil, lime, jalapeño slices and mung bean sprouts that accompany it are must-adds, as is a little of the house-made hot pepper. The steak is added nearly, if not completely, raw so it cooks in the boiling broth. It was tender, the noodles were perfectly cooked and plentiful, as were the sliced white onions and cilantro already swimming in the broth when it arrived.

There is no shame in picking up your bowl and drinking from it to get every ounce of broth, either. And as longtime server Ashley will tell you, some even use straws to get every drop.

Ashley – actually the American name she goes by instead of her given name, Chanthaly – makes Saigon great as much as the food. She hails from Laos and is not related to the owners – most assume she is – but has been a fixture at the restaurant for 13 years.

I hear from readers frequently who don’t know how to take Ashley’s no-nonsense approach and mistake it for rudeness. She is just always busy and doesn’t beat around the bush. She also has a stern and loud tone when she takes orders that is not a reflection of her mood as much as it is a necessity in a restaurant that is always busy and often noisy. But she is anything but rude.

Add in that she’s almost always covering the dining room alone, and you will know why she doesn’t have time for small talk. I also cannot think of a time when she has gotten my order wrong or failed to provide solid answers to any questions, some of which I had before trying the No. 23 Bún Riêu for the first time.

This vermicelli noodle soup had "grounded shrimp" in it, along with chunks of imitation crab and tomatoes. The ground shrimp was in sort of cake form that broke up and flavored the broth, giving it an intense seafood flavor. The tomatoes added an acidic punch and the herbs and sprouts did their thing to make it a great bowl of soup.

My No. 31 Combo Fresh Noodle was made with fresh, not dried, noodles – ramen in this case – that are more tender and soak up more broth. The combo included shrimp, beef, pork and chicken in the restaurant’s chicken broth with vegetables – onions, carrots, cabbage, mushrooms and broccoli.

There were three large shrimp and plenty of the other meats. The broth was rich in chicken flavor and there was just a little cilantro and raw onion sprinkled on top of it – no sprouts or basil on the side this time.

Before the soup arrives, an egg roll or two is a must at Saigon. They make some of the best in the city. Packed with well-seasoned pork, they are wrapped tightly in thin layers of rice paper that crunch and flake apart with each bite.

The cold, raw spring rolls are also solid appetizers. The sliced pork and shrimp are better than the shredded pork, though both have plenty of fresh lettuce and basil, along with carrot strips and sprouts. The spot-on peanut sauce topped with crunchy ground peanuts that accompanies the shrimp ones is also far better than the clear vinaigrette that comes with the shredded pork.

If soup is not your thing, Saigon has plenty more to offer, including some staple Chinese dishes.

The No. 18 sautéed ramen noodles with pork and vegetables was a winner. The sliced pork had a mild sweetness to it and the stir-fried noodles had perfect texture. It had big slices of white onion, spears of celery, mushrooms, sprouts and a lot of cabbage. It was all nicely seasoned with soy and satisfied completely.

You also would be hard pressed to find a better Asian pork chop than the one I had in the No. 13 rice plate, Com Suòn Bì Chá. It included a rib chop with a sweet-and-sour marinade, shredded cold pork and a pork-infused egg cake over rice.

The chop was nicely browned on the outside to be a little crisp and was super juicy. The egg cake was outstanding with black pepper-heavy ground pork and some Asian mushrooms mixed in what was basically a 2-inch-thick omelet about the size of an egg roll. The shredded pork had a distinct funkiness I loved and which was tamed by the sweet clear vinaigrette that came with it.

The only item I did not find excellent was the crab rangoon. Its filling was too sweet and I could not find any bits of imitation crab in it. So just go with the egg rolls.

But do go to Saigon. People often ask about it saying, "I drive by it all the time and wondered if it is any good." It is and don’t let its dated looks sway you.

It is right out of the ’50s, from the big aluminum sign out front to the stainless-steel backed counter to the funky chandeliers that light the place up. And it shows its age with a little paint or wallpaper peeling here and there, but that doesn’t take away from the cool vintage vibe it puts off. It is the kind of place you want to eat a big bowl of pho in.

And it is a place I hope never goes away.

Restaurant: Saigon

Address: 2006 S. Calhoun St.

Phone: 456-8550

Hours: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Vietnamese

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: None

Credit cards: No, cash only

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Egg rolls ($1.25), spring rolls ($7 for 2), crab rangoon ($3 for 2), Pho Tái Bò Vien ($7), Bún Riêu ($7), combo fresh noodle ($8.50), Com Suòn Bì Chá ($8),

Rating breakdown: Food: *** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.