Saigon 88, a new Vietnamese restaurant near South Hills Village, is kin to Pho Kim 88, a pleasant little restaurant on Route 88 in Castle Shannon. While Pho Kim 88 has a more limited culinary mandate than its newer cousin, our recollection of a meal we enjoyed there some years ago was the first factor in our experience of Saigon 88, leading us to anticipate the former's skill combined with the latter's broader Asian-cuisine outlook.
So we were a bit surprised to be handed two menus upon being seated: one the colorful, trifold menu from the restaurant's opening; the other a more utilitarian typewritten page, a temporary stand-in for the new menus being printed. The first menu included Chinese and other Asian dishes in addition to Vietnamese items and sushi. But our visit occurred while the owners were refining the menu, it seemed, toward a narrower range of options from their Vietnam homeland. While it can be disconcerting when a restaurant needs to retool, it can also signal a successful feedback loop between customer and kitchen. In the case of Saigon 88, we were pleased to see that many of the more unique Vietnamese dishes were still on the menu.
And like the new menu, we chose to focus on Japanese and Vietnamese fare, specifically sushi, bun (Vietnamese vermicelli) and some Southeast Asian-style dishes we'd never tried before. The sushi selection was quite impressive, considerably broader than at most venues that aren't exclusively Japanese; it included an imaginative list of rolls and gave us reason to expect nothing less than complete freshness. Red snapper and yellowtail nigiri were excellent, pliant and flavorful, and a Tuna Lover's roll lived up to its name by topping spicy tuna roll with alternating slices of red maguro and white hamachi. The effect was to cradle the spiciness of the sauced tuna filling in additional meatiness, without washing it away. The difference between the maguro and the hamachi was more than visual: Wrapped around identical rolls, the mineral meatiness of one and smooth mildness of the other became more apparent.
Seaweed salad also included an innovative ingredient: julienned cucumbers. But while the crunch of the cucumbers, intermingled with the almost chewy strands of seaweed, added textural interest, they may also have been the culprit for salad as a whole being too watery.
We told our server that we had no preference about the order in which dishes came out, but the speed with which they were served was an issue. We felt inundated as the table filled before we could finish the food we'd been served first, causing us to interrupt our tasting to rearrange dishes, glassware and, occasionally, food itself — scraping still-wanted scraps onto smaller plates to make room.
Each dish that arrived was attractively presented, at least. Our deep bowl of shrimp and pork bun featured plenty of vegetables and fresh green herbs alongside beautifully browned strips of tender pork, garnished with a crispy spring roll and, hidden among the noodles, rosy pink shrimp. The meats were cooked perfectly, and the roll was meaty without being heavy, but two factors kept this dish from reaching its full potential. One was the return of watery cucumber; the other was a dressing that was mild to a fault. As aficionados of Vietnamese cuisine know, bun is usually served with a bowl of mild, slightly sweet dressing that acts to unify and blend the dish's myriad components. But there's a fine line between mild and bland, and Saigon 88's dressing added very little to the dish.
Bland dressing also impeded our enjoyment of banh khot, translated on the menu as "Saigon mini-crepes." A new dish to us, this consisted of one meaty little shrimp apiece atop tiny, bowl-shaped crepes. These are combined with vegetables, such as cucumber, tomatoes, and pickled carrot and daikon (white radish), wrapped in lettuce leaves, and dipped in dressing; the entry is a bit like those increasingly common lettuce wraps. Unfortunately, a weak-flavored sauce again did little to enhance the other ingredients. Worse, the tomatoes were mealy and nearly flavorless — not surprising for this time of year. Worse still, the crepes themselves, although beautifully cooked to the eye, were mushy and lacking any distinct flavor of their own.
A crispy calamari salad countered these disappointments somewhat, offering strips of squid, sautéed in garlic and onion, on a bed of mixed spring greens, seaweed and other veggies, plus aromatic fresh cilantro and sesame seeds. This time, the ginger-citrus dressing had enough flavor to boost both cooked and raw ingredients. Unfortunately, the calamari was rubbery and too tough to bite into manageable pieces.
We wanted to enjoy our meal at Saigon 88 more than we did. Service was friendly, several items were very tasty, and we appreciated a menu that went beyond the most obvious pho and bun choices available at other Vietnamese venues. A few small tweaks, such as more assertive sauces and consistent attention to the textures of individual ingredients, would make the difference between a dissatisfying and an ultimately satisfying experience.