All along the southern corridor of Federal Boulevard, it’s hardly possible to throw a stone without hitting one of the many pho restaurants, each one customarily named after a significant number. The neighborhood — known as Little Saigon — is home to an incredible density of outstanding Vietnamese cuisine. And while pho sits at the top of the totem pole, there are plenty of other restaurants specializing in dishes other than the famed soup. New Saigon first opened its doors in 1987 and has since developed a reputation for having some of the best representations of traditional and new-style dishes in the city.
The menu — clocking in at a whopping 21 pages of entrees, two pages of lunch specials, two of drinks, one of desserts and one for drinks — mostly represents Southern Vietnamese cooking. The dishes are spicier — a result of having been more greatly influenced by the heat often associated with neighboring Cambodia. “Food is medicine,” said Anh Nguyen, a server and informal spokesperson for the restaurant. “The cuisine is based on the five elements of the universe — water, fire, wood, metal and earth,” he continued.
Unlike American cooking trends, which appear to be moving more in the direction of the bacon-on-everything style, Vietnamese has long been founded on the principals of good health. Fresh herbs and vegetables adorn even the most meat-focused dishes, with rich spices and aromatics being used to produce balance. Chefs strive to make dishes that maintain equilibrium. Finding harmony, both in the colors that appear on the plate and through the use of sauce and spices, might be the most crucial tenet of a cook’s approach.
Three years ago the original owner Thai Nguyen sold the restaurant to brother and sister team Teressa and Bao Vu. The Vus have continued in the same line set forth by Nguyen — much of the menu still reflects the original list.
Pho is available, but so are almost 30 other soups that more broadly represent the rich tradition. The spicy beef noodle soup ($14.95) is a hearty stew of sausage, blood sausage, beef, thinly-sliced onions and a beautiful array of aromatics. The broth arrives steaming and blood red — the chili oil being in full effect. As with many of the soups, rice noodles still provide the foundation, so anyone schooled exclusively at the number-joints will have no trouble adapting.
Each section — of which there are many — is chock full of an astounding number of variations. Appetizers, sides, salads and soups are joined by crab, lobster tail, mussels, fish, snails, shrimp, pork, scallop, vegetarian and frog legs amongst others. The frog legs stir-fried with basil leaves ($17.95) are covered in chili oil, crunchy fried garlic and fresh and pan-seared basil. The adage that it tastes like chicken rings true here and while the frog legs have a slightly more amphibian funk on the nose, the texture and flavor are both exquisite. On the lighter side, the rare steak salad ($19.95) comes with a sturdy heap of meat and a blend of fresh lettuce, mint, cilantro and basil. One would be hard-pressed to find a more vibrant and nutritious way to consume so much red meat.
It would be hard to imagine anything but such a well-established kitchen attempting to tackle so many dishes, but New Saigon manages to deliver robust plates of remarkably fresh ingredients time after time. The harmony reflected on each plate is mirrored by the restaurant itself, where patrons can find an enclave of calm in an otherwise bustling section of town. The heavy tome that is the menu can be daunting — fortunately, the staff is knowledgeable both of the dishes themselves and of the history that birthed them. Exploring the unfamiliar is one of the greatest joys of eating. New Saigon will carefully take you on a guided tour, gently introducing the incredible variance at the kind of pace capable of turning the vaguely interested into experts and authorities.
New Saigon is located at 630 South Federal Blvd., Denver. It is open Tuesday – Sunday from 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
All photography by Alden Bonecutter.