Walk into Saigon, Spring Street’s newest concession to globalization, and the dinginess is evident. The paint is peeling on the purple wainscoting, and the wooden tables, devoid of tablecloths, look scratched and faintly greasy. The pink walls and gray carpeting evoke a mixture of dorm room and hospital. Or the color of certain bodily fluids after a particularly unpleasant meal.
On this dreary New England afternoon, the lights were turned off, letting the remnants of sunlight filter through the dust motes. The bass from some high-energy pop, straight out of a 1980s Asian gangster film, played from a speaker attached to the cash register counter. We were handed wrinkled plastic-covered menus, where “Williamstown” is misspelled on the cover as “William Stown.”
Taking it in, we asked the server, whom we later discovered to be the owner, for recommendations. He told us to wait a moment while he ducked into the kitchen. Saigon’s specialties are numbers 11, 12, 39, and 50: Sai Gon pho (pho dae biet – $10.50); chicken pho (pho ga – $9.50); beef/Vietnamese shaking beef (bo luc lae – $13.50); and rice vermicelli (bun thit – $9.95). Pho dae biet is rice noodles in broth with various cuts of beef. Bo luc lae is cubed sirloin steaks, quickly seared, served over rice noodles.
The starter, beef sticks (bo lui – $8.95) arrived at the same time as our main dish, but without plates. The menu’s claim of “steak flank” seemed generous even in this age of triple-A-rated subprime mortgage-backed securities. We wondered if they meant glued-together pieces of gristle, toasted. As children add extra sprinkles to hide a particularly disastrous cake-baking incident, the beef sticks were liberally scattered with ground peanuts. The lazy way to evoke an Asian flavor is through garlic, lemongrass and sesame sauce, which were all employed to little effect on our sticks of gristle.
Dutifully, we ordered the owner’s recommendation, the pho ga – thin rice noodles in a light broth with “soft pulled chicken.” The total amount of chicken can be approximated by a large chicken nugget, with approximately the same texture. The dish is accompanied with a side plate of a handful of bean sprouts, a sprig of basil, four slivers of jalapeno peppers and half a slice of lime. Pho is difficult to fail miserably, and at best, this bowl induces apathy – until one considers the price.
Number 50, bun thit, is a dry rice noodle dish served with pork, cucumber, shredded lettuce, papaya and carrots. A few fragments of burnt pork egg rolls were haphazardly tossed in the mix. Despite this carcinogenic quality, the rolls managed to be as soggy as the insides of a bean sprout, although less ideally so.
We were uncertain what six spices were in the chicken six spices (ga xao lue vi – $11.50), described as “chicken breast, mixed with garlic soy sauce, black pepper, olive oil, water crest leaf.” The “water crest” escaped our attention, but we noticed that the bowl of white rice was breathtakingly stingy. The most that can be said of this dish is that it tastes like Sushi Thai Garden fare. But get this dish from Sushi Thai Garden.
The most palatable item of the meal was the mango bubble tea ($3.75), a drink originally from Taiwan. The vivid orange of the puréed mango rested upon a bed of mashed neon green tapioca, all slurped up through a wide straw. The color of the drink seemed out of place in the restaurant, like brand-new Play-Doh in the grubby hands of a toddler.
Relocated from a three-month stint in North Adams, Saigon is the newest venture of an eight-year resident of the Berkshires, John Le, who also owns a nail salon in North Adams. No doubt business, if unenthusiastic, will be forthcoming for this modest establishment. One must be realistic about Williamstown dining options, after all.