Miss Saigon offers quality Vietnamese food close to home

You’ve probably seen the Vietnamese restaurant Miss Saigon while walking through Georgetown. The strings of lights hung from the faux palm trees in the restaurant always seem to beckon you at night.

Miss Saigon is a Washington institution of sorts – it’s one of the few restaurants that has lasted ten years.

For those of you who have found Vietnamese food perhaps a little bit daunting, you’re not alone. Only half of my friends who went to the restaurant had ever tried Vietnamese food, but we had all heard those awful stereotypes.

Despite the rumors, Vietnamese food is one of the rising stars of Asian cuisine. It is traditional southeastern Asian food combined with the stylistic nuances of French cooking (the French occupied Vietnam for many years.) Of all the cuisine from Asia, Vietnamese food most closely resembles Western cooking.

To start off, Miss Saigon is always busy, and service is a little relaxed. A waiter may not come by for a few minutes. We started off with the Viet Combo, an assortment of many of the traditional Vietnamese appetizers offered: shrimp toast, garden rolls, spring rolls, fried wontons and beef-on-a-skewer. This appetizer is for the pork-lover. The spring rolls, a Vietnamese version of the egg roll, were a bit oily but otherwise appetizing. The garden rolls, though fragrant with cilantro, tasted rubbery and only the peanut sauce hides the fact that they may have been made much earlier that day.

The highlight of the dish was the beef-on-a-stick, which was artfully marinated, grilled and drizzled with a garnish of chopped peanuts. It was accompanied by fish sauce. Ideally, you would order your favorite appetizer individually, but the Viet Combo is a good starting point for inexperienced Vietnamese diners.

If you’re looking for the cheapest and heartiest meal you can find, you should go for one of the Vietnamese noodle soups offered. Pho, which is a Vietnamese specialty is a huge portion of beef broth served with noodles and greens, including the ever-present cilantro. You can add the famous Vietnamese red chile paste to give it a bit of a kick, but it constitutes a good meal on its own.

My party preferred grilled dishes, which are presented with the beauty and grace of French cooking. The grilled shrimp and scallop, a house specialty, was fairly basic – the advertised marinade was not strong enough to be noticeable. A bowl of dipping sauce provided the flavor for the dish. Our grilled lemon chicken was a bit more ambitious in its flavor, presenting an aroma of the fresh lemon that it was marinated in. Served on a bed of rice vermicelli, this dish is good if you are not looking for anything overly pungent (on a date, perhaps).

Our Hanoi Pork was a tangy concoction of thinly-sliced pork with fish sauce, which mingled well with the rice vermicelli. If you’re looking for a dish with less Western influence, the Caramel Shrimps with lemongrass are a good choice. Although the chilies are a little bit overpowering, the lemongrass and onion flavorings do manage to sink through to the shrimp, which is served in a clay pot. I recommend spooning rice, which is provided on the side, into the clay pot to mix with the delicious sauce.

Overall, our meal – which came to a total of $61 for four people including one drink, the appetizer and four main dishes – was pretty good. Adding in a selection from the eclectic selection of Asian beers may add a little bit to the cost, but you can easily stay under $15 a person.

To find truly excellent Vietnamese food you would be well advised to venture out to Virginia, where a large Vietnamese population gives visitors a plethora of choices.

For those trying Vietnamese food for the first time or just in need of a good Asian meal in the heart of Georgetown, Miss Saigon is a neat little starting point.

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