Saigon Pearl Makes Vietnamese Food You’ve Never Seen Before

Good luck ordering it.

I'd warned my friends that I wasn't sure what we'd find at Saigon Pearl on MLK and Orcas. I'd stopped in at this Vietnamese restaurant just after it opened last winter and found an amazing banana-blossom salad, an empty room, and uncoordinated service. On my second visit, not much had changed. The room, the size of a junior-high gymnasium, was lit up like the party was already over and cleanup was under way. Were it not for the sky-colored walls (complete with clouds) and the lighted photo boxes affixed to them, the place would have looked entirely forlorn. The projection-screen television at the far end was rolled up, and the stage behind, still set with mikes and what appeared to be a keyboard, lay dark. Around the edges of the room, several groups of guys sipped Heinekens, too curious about our presence to hide it. The young waitress showed us to a black-marble table on a raised platform at the front of the room, next to a blown-up photo of a man in a conical hat crossing a log bridge, and handed us menus. I was immediately reminded why I'd returned to this unprepossessing place: esoteric dishes—like salad with fresh snails, deer or goat sautéed with lemongrass, and crispy quail—that you can't find at Tamarind Tree. Our waitress said she was studying English, but we still had to rely on the old fingertip system of communicating which dishes we wanted: a lotus-root salad, a sour tamarind soup with catfish, and boar with tapioca. She brought bottles of Heineken and glasses of ice to the table, then wandered back into the kitchen. "How do you think they keep all of these crazy ingredients on hand?" a friend asked. "Freezer," I prayed. There were a half-dozen diners in the room, at 8 on a Friday night, no less. I was wrong: They don't keep the ingredients in a freezer. They don't keep them on hand at all. After a few moments, the host came over to tell us she was out of the boar—and the deer and the goat. Beef la lot, not an uncommon dish in Seattle, required a second rush to the kitchen to confirm the cooks were out of la lot leaves to wrap the meat in. We eventually negotiated our way, through pointing and head shaking, to beef luc lac (often called "shaking beef" on American menus). And just as on my first exploratory visit, Saigon Pearl's food transcended its surroundings. With bright, sweet-sour notes, tropical ingredients, and more pronounced spiciness, the dishes clearly represented southern style——the difference between Hanoi and Saigon food is like Boston versus Miami. Served in a lacquered wooden boat, a pile of translucent pickled lotus rootlets, creamy white pork belly, and halved shrimp was covered in herbs and fried shallots. The clean, searingly hot lime-and-fish-sauce dressing that coated the salad made me begin to see the wisdom of pouring beer over ice. The beef luc lac, juicy cubes of steak marinated with a little soy and quickly stir-fried, cooled down as it was tossed with fresh lettuce; the dish didn't have much appeal until we squeezed some lime quarters into a side dish of white pepper and dipped the meat into the paste. Then it popped. Catfish stew, a famous Mekong Delta specialty, had a clear, tamarind-soured broth—not too sweet, not too spicy—packed with fresh tomatoes, pineapple chunks, bone-in catfish steaks, and slices of bac ha, a porous plant stem that sopped up the broth like a crunchy sponge. The electric aroma of the soup came from the green flecks coating the top of the bowl, a mix of cilantro and rice-paddy herb (ngo om). We ate, ordered another beer, finished as much as we could. When we looked up, the four men around us had multiplied into three dozen, including a few women, all dressed for a night out. Dishes and aluminum tubs filled with ice and Heineken bottles sat at the center of all the tables, and everyone was smoking, eating, and drinking in equal measure. Was the stage going to light up? We didn't wait around to see. A third visit. When the first half of my party arrived, one of the patrons stood up and yelled something in Vietnamese; cigarettes were quickly stubbed out. This was a Tuesday night, and the setup was the same: darkened stage, room lit so bright you could see who had and hadn't shaved. Same demographics: All men ages 20 to 40, all drinking, almost all wearing white shoes. There were about three parties this time, ranging from four to a dozen guys, and once 8 p.m. hit, the host was joined by two young women who clip-clopped back and forth across the room in high white heels to deliver rounds of drinks and beatific smiles. Again, we underwent the same negotiations about what was on the menu, which seemed to frustrate our host as much as it did us. Though the kitchen appears to stock all the components of its four- and six-person fixed-price dinners (a great deal, topping out at $50), it seems to be out of half of the more exotic ingredients at any one time. On this night we could get the mixed-seafood or the goat hot pot, the host told us, but not the one with "beef balls and benis." We could order a platter of beef to grill at the table and wrap in lettuce, vegetables, and rice paper, but not deer or boar. This time, for the first time, we ordered wrong, betrayed by a deep fryer. The cooks overfried the egg rolls (cha gio) so they came out greasy on the outside and mushy inside, then served the rolls without their normal complement of lettuce leaves, rice noodles, and herbs to wrap around them. Butter-coated chicken wings were bone-in, batter-on, and not up to the Colonel's standard. Salt-and-pepper prawns, dusted in flour and unshelled, were so dry and overcooked I couldn't eat more than one. OK, two. But once again, two dishes made the disjointed service, puzzling menu, and overlighted interior worthwhile: A salad of julienned green mango punctuated by little chunks of salted fish was tossed with slivered Thai basil and a sweet-tart fish-sauce mixture—like eating a bowl of fluorescent colors. Just the opposite, the goat hot pot, which I've been told before is a traditional drinking snack for men, was a tonic for a rainy day. The host brought out a burner and a pot of hot stock, and while it came to a simmer we shoveled raw greens into the pot, adding at the last minute a twirl of skinny egg noodles. The meat slipped off the bone at the touch, and red Chinese dates and dried wolfberries gave the broth a faint sweetness that wrapped itself around the musk of the meat. If that wasn't potent enough a health tonic, we could dip the meat into small saucers of yellow fermented-soybean paste (think tangier miso) and chili oil. Meanwhile, the party raged on among the dozen young men next to us. New guys came in, old guys left. Friends stood up and yelled at each other, then doubled over in laughter. It didn't take long for the cigarettes to come back out. A meteor belt of empty green Heineken bottles coalesced around an empty ice bucket. The stage, sadly, stayed dark.

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