The idea behind this series is fairly simple: My girlfriend and I will go out to eat at a Chattanooga-area restaurant and then describe our dining experience there. Keep in mind that this is not a food review per se, but instead an attempt to relate to readers our single, one-time experience at a restaurant. It just is what it is, as they say. There will also be pictures. Lots of pictures.
I am a 30-year-old voracious eater of anything weird, while my girlfriend, age 24, is the complete opposite. This makes dining for us a strange affair. I enjoy a tremendous amount of flavor and complexity, but her M.O. is “simple, no frills.” These dining adventures will test both of us at various restaurants around Chattanooga. This week, we visited Old Saigon in Red Bank for a quiet dinner in the pouring rain.
Where: 2601 Dayton Blvd.
Hours: Wednesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.- 2:30 p.m. (closed Monday-Tuesday)
Old Saigon is one of the only places in Chattanooga where you can try authentic Vietnamese cuisine at a decent price. Located on Dayton Boulevard—near Mr. Trophy—Old Saigon is not flashy, elegant or even decorated much on the inside. You’ll find typical restaurant booths, a few tables and a mixture of traditional Vietnamese decor (nón lá, or “leaf hats,” on the walls) and images of the Virgin Mary. Despite the lack of “stuff,” the room still had a nice ambience to it. I enjoy restaurants that lack a cohesive theme. It suggests that the focus is more on the cuisine than a marketing theme. We were one of three tables being served by the only server in the house. The menu features authentic Vietnamese cuisine like pho (noodle soup), spring rolls and a variety of seafood mixtures. They also offer more traditional pan-Asian dishes like fried rice, sautéed pork with vegetables, etc.
Mrs. Rosa was our favorite aspect of Old Saigon. Her grandmotherly demeanor instantly made us feel like we were guests in her household. She took the time to answer my questions, and you could tell that she loved working the front of the house. Mrs. Rosa was the only person working at Old Saigon this evening. This made the initial taking of our order slow, though the food was prepared and delivered quickly. I wanted to hug Mrs. Rosa around the neck at the end of our meal, but Lauren thought that might not be appropriate.
Lauren drank water, and I tried a traditional Vietnamese coffee. The coffee is served in a large mug and “pressed” at the table by a special filtering device. I’m not sure how “traditional” it is, but this coffee was extremely bold and sweet. It was mixed with enough sugar and condensed milk to make my eyes bulge. Mrs. Rosa said she drinks one of these every day. It’s no wonder she’s so perky! This was good coffee, but I wish it hadn't been so sweet.
Lauren ordered wonton soup, and I tried my Asian staple, egg drop soup. You can tell that everything at Old Saigon is homemade. My egg drop soup was much thicker in consistency than other variations around town. It was salty, savory and hearty like a good egg drop should be. Lauren’s wonton soup was even better. The noodles were fresh and had that melt-in-your-mouth feel that only comes from homemade pasta. Most of your generic wonton soup varieties are overwhelmingly salty. However, this version was perfect. The soups were served with what I thought were packaging peanuts but turned out to be shrimp-flavored rice cakes. The cakes crackled and popped like Rice Krispies when you dipped them in the hot soups. How fun is that?
I’ve been searching for a decent pho option in Chattanooga for years, so I ordered the “vo vien” option with balls of beef and a side of mixing options: lime, basil leaves and sprouts. Lauren ordered the chicken fried rice, which is her staple at most Asian restaurants. Mrs. Rosa came to us before she delivered the meal and asked if Lauren would “mind having beef instead” because the cook messed up. Typically, she would’ve turned the table over and threw somebody through a window or something, but this time, she was fine with the change. Pho is great because it’s cheap and healthy, plus you get enough of it to make at least two more meals. I always douse my pho with Sriracha sauce and feel the burn. This was excellent pho, by the way. Lauren’s "chicken" fried rice was a little too salty for both of us. She said that if we came back, she wouldn’t order the dish again.
Mrs. Rosa suggested we try her homemade almond butter pie, which she suggested would be a “nice and light” complement to our meal. The pie was very tasty but had the density of a neutron star. The pie was all almond, and we couldn’t finish half of it. I think we’d go for the sweet rice pudding or mango sticky rice next time.
Would we go back?
Both Lauren and I agree that though this meal wasn’t an out-of-the-park home run, the food was great. Mrs. Rosa has an obvious passion for what she does, and it shows in the quality and presentation of the food. I don’t crave pho often, but when I do, I’ll definitely return to Old Saigon.
Can you believe I got through that entire review without making the pho-nomenal pun?