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East Is East 

Miss Saigon

Wednesday, May 10 2000
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When I was your basic bomb-beshadowed neurotic kid growing up in the stressful '60s, I couldn't decide which would be worse: being a girl and having babies, or being a guy and heading for Vietnam. The latter scenario seemed as inevitable to me as the former might have been to my distaff classmates. The war was there every night like the cigar-smoking gorilla, glittering out of the living room cathode tube. When a local girl wandered up and down the streets of the neighborhood, wailing and sobbing, we knew what was in the letter clutched in her hand. Despite my older brother's satisfactorily high lottery number, the possibility of a similar escape for me seemed slim indeed. So ensconced was this grammar-school worldview, it never occurred to me that the war -- a constant for as long as I could remember, a Cronkite-narrated backdrop to an otherwise average kidhood of Batman, Beatles, and Beverly Cleary -- might somehow, sometime, come to an end.

As it happened, my number never came up at all. Twenty-five years ago, Ho Chi Minh City, né Saigon, fell to the Communist forces of the north (or was liberated by 'em -- perspective is everything), and, like that, the war was over. Of course, one result of the whole Southeast Asian mishegoss was a widespread Western influx of Vietnamese refugees, and a corresponding increase in the number of Vietnamese restaurants, a silver lining to the cloud of the war if ever there was one. Like the Chinese, Russian, French, and Italian restaurants that arrived here in the wake of the Gold Rush's overnight melting pot, these Vietnamese venues have brought a delicious new aspect to the local dining scene. So in appropriate if self-serving observance of the war's conclusion a quarter-century ago, we headed to Oakland's Miss Saigon restaurant on April 30, the day the tanks crashed the gates of Independence Palace.

We were the ideal group for this particular foray. Two members had traveled the breadth of Southeast Asia, American-sized appetites always at the ready. Another's family has business dealings in the new, high-tech Vietnam, with a corresponding necessity for purely investigatory luncheons of the Saigon variety. And the final member of our group not only shared my wartime angst from the adjacent desks of the Mill Valley School District, a few years ago his then-girlfriend took me to a production of Miss Saigon itself, which I had to try very hard not to mock, the tickets costing in the neighborhood of $50 and all.

Miss Saigon (the restaurant) is located along a wonderful stretch of Oakland real estate just north of Lake Merritt. The Grand Lake movie theater, down on the corner, is as dazzling in its own way as the Paramount a mile to the west, and the block or two up wide, sunny Grand Avenue features wonderful coffeehouses, bookstores, restaurants of several different nationalities, and bars with names like Smitty's, The Alley, and Kingman's Lucky Lounge. On a nice evening -- April 30, 2000, for instance -- the avenue is abuzz with lounging locals at sidewalk tables sipping espresso, reading the paper, appreciating the passing parade, or digging into a bowl of rice noodle soup with beef tendon and brisket.

Which is just what we were doing, along with digging into several of the other 241 dishes on Miss Saigon's menu. It's a pleasant place for a cheerful, family-style banquet: tiny, just 11 tables, with floor-to-ceiling windows affording good street-scene vistas and sunshine, and paper flowers, brush paintings, and objets d'art creating a cozy, convivial ambience. The sort of a place where you fork food off of each other's plates, clutter the table with beer bottles, engage in three different conversations, and reach across your neighbor's sweet and sour calamari for one sauce or condiment or another.

There was a lot of the latter going around, because despite the restaurant's friendly demeanor and good spirits, the food is often dense and bland, more miss than hit. Vietnamese food is, by nature, a palette of lively, sparkling, spicy contrasts -- fresh and cooked, crunchy and silken, chilled and steaming -- that make each bite an exciting experience in itself. These contrasts are often extant at Miss Saigon -- the chow fun with chicken and vegetables ($7.50) sets a brightly verdant array of al dente vegetables inside a potato-chip-crisp bird's nest of fried noodles -- but the tropical zest of Southeast Asia and its signature spices are largely absent.

The spring rolls ($3.95), for instance, were comprised more of blandly steamed rice than pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts, although the fresh mint added a very vernal accent, and the rolls' accompanying peanut sauce, while overly sweet, was pleasantly spiky. The egg rolls ($4.25), crisp and hot though they were, were also unexciting. The aforementioned special beef noodle soup ($5.50), a combination of both rare and well-done beef cuts (brisket, flank, and tendon among them), featured a good if overly subtle confluence of flavors best brought forward by the table's half-dozen bottled sauces. And the vermicelli with grilled shrimp and pork ($7.50) had a nice vinegary bite to the noodles, but the protein was singularly dull.

Some of the dishes overcame the venue's lack of culinary vim. The beef dancing ($6.50), quickly seared beef cubes with vegetables, had a clean, smoky taste nicely accented with onions, lettuce, and tomatoes, like a good Midwestern steak 'n' salad. The clay pot snapper ($3.75) boasted a layered, complex sauce to go with its crisp, moist fillets of bracingly fresh fish. And the lemon beef ($6.75) starred beef that had been "cooked," seviche-style, in a citrus marinade, then served with chili peppers and cilantro. The result was supple and spicy and crunchy with peanuts, the ideally inclusive Vietnamese taste treat.

Dessert brought the best dish of the night: a whipped cream-topped avocado shake ($3) so subtly sweet, so rich in flavor, so wonderfully unusual in concept, it should be served wherever taste buds are suffering from ennui. (The jackfruit shake ($3), fructus exoticus notwithstanding, wasn't nearly as good.) Another dessert drink, this one made with egg, seltzer, and condensed milk ($2), was almost unbearably sweet. But there's a rich, tasty chocolate mousse cake ($3) on the menu as well, just in case you feel the need for a little meal-closing inauthenticity.

We tried three kinds of Vietnamese beer -- Hue, Tiger, and Saigon ($3 each) -- the first two of which are ideally suited to a tropical climate but which seemed too light and watery for our fog-shrouded coordinates. The Saigon, however, has body and a bite. The best dinner drink, though, is the salty plum ($1.75), a wonderfully refreshing libation with the snap of a slightly salty lemonade, just as good hereabouts as it is down 'round the equator.

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Matthew Stafford

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