Restaurant Review #111: Le Saigon: Adventures in Westside Vietnamese Cuisine, West LA

This is a re-post of an earlier review with updates from my most recent visit.

After my first visit to Le Saigon Cafe, I said that I would not go back, because the food just wasn't that compelling. Ten months later, I did go back, because it seemed like a better place to take my visiting friend than Phoreign or Pho 99. I think I was wrong there, but more on that in a minute.

LA Weekly's restaurant section describes Le Saigon Cafe as "(a)n itty-bitty, gloriously inexpensive Vietnamese café just west of the Royal movie theater. . . an ideal place to huddle over big bowls of pho or bun (rice noodles), charbroiled meats and glasses of sticky sweet café sua da (iced Saigon coffee). The tables are tiny, the turnover is swift, and the air is scented by grilling meat and freshly cut cucumbers."

The astute reader may notice that the above description makes no comment about the quality of the food. Well, there's a reason for that.

The charbroiled beef, featured in dishes including bun, rice plates, and do-it-yourself spring rolls doesn't have that glazy sweetness that is the whole purpose of eating charbroiled beef. It's just strips of meat, barely flavored. So disappointing. Perhaps it's healthier, but the restaurant doesn't brand itself as the healthy Vietnamese alternative, so I don't think that's their excuse. Phoreign, while their pho is terrible (such a mistake, given the name) does have decent charbroiled beef. Even better? Pho 99. It's not that the beef is bad. Just that it could be so much more.

Other dishes fare better. On my first visit, I orderd bun with tofu. The tofu was excellent. They use a tofu of medium firmness, which you can get fried or steamed. I orderd mine fried. I could have just eaten a big plate of that tofu. It was particularly good in the noodles with the crushed peanuts on top. The texture of the noodles was just right. Also included in the bun were the standard bean sprouts, cilantro, and shredded carrot, zuchinni, lettuce, and mint.

The spring rolls were interesting in that the tofu was warm and the veggies and wrapper were cool. I kind of liked this juxtaposition, unusual though it was, yet I also felt like it somehow prevented me from really tasting all the ingredients because I was distracted by the varying temperatures. The filling was heavy on the foliage and could have used some vermicelli, in my opinion. I also would have preferred cilantro instead of mint, largely because I don't care for the texture of mint leaves. I didn't eat my whole spring roll right away because my meal came at the same time-- perhaps due to generally super-fast service, or perhaps because we essentially arrived when the restaurant was closing and they wanted to get us out as quickly as possible. The delay in consumption allowed the roll's skin to become a bit dried out. I'm not sure if this is a design flaw inherent to fresh spring rolls and a spring roll has just never lasted that long in front of me before, or if it was the brand of rice paper or the restaurant's preparation. Either way, a thinner, chewier, moister wrapper would have been an improvement.

One of my personal gripes about the majority of Vietnamese restaurants is that I really like sweet and sour chili fish sauce (it was a house sauce at a Vietnamese place I frequented in St. Louis), especially for my spring rolls, and most places only have hot sauce, more hot sauce, and plum sauce (hoisin sauce). Le Saigon was no exception. Their house sauces weren't too exciting, either: the peanuty sauce that came with the spring rolls didn't have a very prnounced flavor, and neither did the fish sauce concoction that came with my noodles and also with the rice plate on my second visit. I almost wonder if it didn't have fish sauce in it.

Charbroiled beef

The menu is short and to-the-point, which is great if you're indecisive like me. The restaurant is somewhat vegetarian-friendly, but not enough to make my list. On my first visit, back in my almost vegetarian days, I was able to order both fresh spring rolls and bun with tofu. These were the only tofu options, but probably the ones I would have chosen regardless.

The restaurant makes some attempt at having atmosphere, with red lanterns hanging from the ceiling and nice ceiling fans, which is more than a lot of Vietnamese restaurants bother with.

The service was incredibly fast on both visits, making it a great place for two hungry late-night diners. Also, though they cleaned up the entire restaurant around us, they let us eat our food in peace although we were there past closing (oops, I hate doing that to people). Unfortunately, I could smell the cleaning supplies as I ate.

Though I have many criticisms of the food, as I often do, I still enjoyed both of my meals. Overall, it's faster than Phoreign and has more atmosphere than Pho 99, but isn't as tasty as either. My official position is that Pho 99 is the winner for Westside Vietnamese.

Le Saigon Cafe
11611 Santa Monica Blvd.
West Los Angeles
(310) 312-2929.
Tues.–Thur. and Sun. 11:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m.
Fri. and Sat. 11:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m.
No alcohol. Pretty easy street parking.
Entrées $5–$8. Vietnamese.
Cash Only!

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