Lost In Translation

Wise restaurateurs move into neighborhoods with a fair amount of competition. When the hot spots are too crowded for walk-up customers, diners will look for somewhere else nearby. It’s a good way for new places to attract patrons and impress them with their restaurant’s culinary skills.

Though in some cases, this tactic can create a problem. Such as when a new spot moves next to the city’s 2,000-pound gorilla of a restaurant (Lola), and does so with a “build it and they will come” attitude —and less-than-average service and food.

This appears to be what has happened with more than one restaurant on Cleveland’s block-long East Fourth Street. The newest of them, Saigon, is operated by the owners of #1 Pho, the well-liked Asiatown restaurant on East Superior Avenue.

Asian restaurants are big in Cleveland, especially those that come with a pedigree. Only unlike its sibling #1 Pho, Saigon was nearly empty during three different visits.

“With everything new, we had to get a few kinks out,” says A.C. Cerbelli, the restaurant’s manager.

And although the restaurant’s menu is 98 percent identical to #1 Pho, he adds, it doesn’t mean the food is prepared exactly the same. While #1 Pho has a large Asian clientele, Saigon has fewer Asian diners, he explains. Customers here tend to be businesspeople from the downtown area. Cerbelli says his diners tell him the food is delicious and adds that Saigon is packed daily during the lunchtime rush.

“People rave about the food, but I know I am not going to make everyone happy,” he says.

It didn’t take long to figure out why. The service and front of the house were frustrating during multiple visits.

Even though there were only a handful of dinner customers, the staff mostly ignored them, preferring instead to shyly hang by the entrance of the kitchen. Thus, plates were slow to be cleared, water glasses sat empty for 20 minutes and I practically had to stand up and wave my arms to get a server to the table.

Things began to look up though, once the food arrived. An order of salt-baked squid ($8 appetizer; $16 entree) came out piping hot. The squid, served on a bed of stir-fried vegetables was tender, salty and as good as any I have enjoyed in the city.

However, an order of two spring rolls ($5), which should have been served hot out of the fryer, were room temperature.

Pho, which is Vietnamese for soup, is the true specialty of Saigon. A hot Vietnamese rendition with rice noodles and slices of rare beef ($10) was a hit with my guest. An array of condiments comes with the soup, including lime, basil, bean sprouts, chile sauce, a sweet brown sauce similar to hoisin and slices of jalapeno peppers. It was a satisfying, filling dish.

The other dish, a bowl of Bun Saigon ($12), vermicelli noodles with charbroiled shrimp, pork, spring rolls, bean sprouts, carrots, cucumbers, radishes and crushed peanuts, was served cold. I topped it with lots of fish sauce, but it did not hit the spot.

Some of the best eats at Saigon are the appetizers. The aforementioned salted squid, crispy shrimp spring rolls, lettuce-wrapped chicken ($7), a Vietnamese crepe ($8) and chicken cabbage salad ($9) were favorites. The cabbage salad made for a great summer dish. Shredded chicken and cabbage are tossed with onions, cilantro, scallions and crushed peanuts and dressed with a vinegar-and-fish-sauce dressing.

There were no complaints with that dish, nor with the excellent crepe, stuffed with shrimp, pork, sprouts, lettuce, peppers and a sprinkle of fish sauce. The make-your-own lettuce rolls, filled with stir-fried chicken and vegetable mix, were another classic.

Much of the menu is a mirror image of #1 Pho’s. The exceptions are the numerous dinner entrees on the Saigon menu. The catfish ($15), simmered with garlic in a Vietnamese sauce, underwhelmed. The small portion had zero garlic flavor, and there was not a hint of flavor in the brown sauce that would lead anyone to think it was Vietnamese.

The crispy vegetarian noodles ($12) with stir-fried vegetables and “special sauce” also suffered from a lack of flavor, kind of like the cornstarch, water and brown soup that was a “classic sauce” in Asian restaurants during the 1950s. On the other hand, Bo xao xa ot ($15), lemongrass beef, with sauteed peppers, onions and carrots, was somewhat spicy and carried its distinctive lemongrass flavor well. And sadly, the chicken curry ($15) suffered from the same lack of flavor found in the vegetarian stir-fry and “garlic” catfish.

The good news here is that all of Saigon’s foibles could be remedied. If the front of the house were more active, and a sharp eye took note of whatisn’t happening in the dining room and whatis happening in the kitchen, things could turn around. People don’t go to Vietnamese and Thai places seeking bland food, they want what they order to sing big flavors.

With a little work, it should be easy.
Saigon, 2061 E. Fourth St., Cleveland, (216) 344-2020, Mon-Thu 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri and Sat 11 a.m. - midnight, Sun 5 - 10 p.m.; www.saigoncleveland.com.
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