By Michael Shapiro
Editor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience. We invite you to come along with our writers as they—informed, intelligent eaters like yourselves—have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do.
Housed in a spacious, high-ceilinged room on Mendocino Avenue, Saigon Bistro features an extensive menu of more than a hundred items, ranging from 10 types of pho to lotus root salad to "authentic" Vietnamese dishes such as clay pot prawns and hot-and-sour seafood soup. There's a kids' menu (barbecue pork with jasmine rice and a soda for $4.25) and 23 vegetarian selections.
On a recent weekday evening, a friend and I were greeted at the door by the Vietnamese owner, Kim. Fresh cut flowers and a little bowl of salted peanuts awaited us at the table; jazz played in the background. Our waitress was attentive, almost too attentive, asking us if we were ready to order just seconds after we got menus.
We started with a selection of four spring rolls—prawn, pork, lemongrass chicken and the vegetarian "Buddha" roll ($6.25). All were delightfully flavorful, especially the smoky lemongrass chicken, with rice noodles and crunchy lettuce. The rolls were plump, and the peanut sauce was tasty without being heavy, the ideal complement.
Next came the lotus root salad ($6.50), a perfect hot weather dish that cooled the palate with crisp shredded lotus root, cilantro, mint, daikon and thin strips of chicken, topped with roasted peanuts.
For the entrées we ordered shaking beef ($8.50), the cubes of filet mignon seared with garlic and onion. It was a mammoth plate of food, hearty and satisfying and more than enough for two people. The stir-fry noodles ($7.25) didn't quite live up to the other dishes. And the entrées came before we'd even finished our appetizers. I like prompt service but this was a bit too fast.
On another visit, I ordered the pho with steak and well-done brisket ($6.75), served with the traditional plate of basil, lime, hot pepper slices and bean sprouts. The aromatic broth hit the right notes, though it's not quite the equal of Pho Vietnam's. The beef was thinly sliced and tender, finishing its cooking in the soup. The regular size I ordered was more than enough for dinner; I can't imagine trying to finish the large (just 50 cents more).
In these days, when many restaurants are curtailing portions as food prices go up, it was refreshing to go to a restaurant where everything is abundant. Two appetizers and two entrées came to about $30 before tip, and there was plenty left over for dinner the following night.
With its superb location, welcoming atmosphere and down-to-earth food at reasonable prices, Saigon Bistro is a fine addition to Santa Rosa's downtown. I'll be back again soon.
Saigon Bistro, 420 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. Open Monday–Saturday from 11am to 9pm. 707.528.3866.
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