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Back in 1980, Nguyen was standing on a beach at Nha Trang in Central Vietnam, waiting to board a rickety fishing boat with 82 other frantic passengers. He was 10 years old. His mother, Keim, had saved $3,000 in gold to ship out her son. Though the beat-up vessel didn't inspire confidence, Keim desperately wanted to give Tom a fresh start. The government was in shambles, and her husband was dead.
"Around the third day, we ran out of water," Nguyen remembers. "It didn't even matter that we didn't have food, because we were so dehydrated. I thought I was gonna die."
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Amazingly, the terrified passengers all survived two bad storms and eight nights at sea before they were picked up and packed off to refugee camps. Eventually, all seven of Keim's kids entered the U.S. and became engineers. Then, they brought their mom over in style.
Now, this modest, serious man in his early 30s is radically changing course. When he was laid off from his job as a computer engineer from Seiman Communications in Boca Raton six months ago, he decided to pursue a lifelong dream. With nothing more than a strong streak of perfectionism ("I'm very picky about food"), a couple of night school courses in Asian cooking and restaurant management, and the patience of a practicing Buddhist, Nguyen decided to open a restaurant serving family-style South Vietnamese dishes.
That's the history. But like they say, history repeats. Ironically, Nguyen recently opened Saigon in the exact spot where an earlier Vietnamese restaurant, Red Cyclo, had closed two years before.
It was 9 p.m. on a Wednesday night when we showed up for dinner. The few subdued couples and early-bird diners had cleared out. A slight, nervous server -- perpetually harried in spite of the night's lack of business -- was left with just two tables: a guy who wanted to regale the empty room with his Vietnam adventures ("I once rode a motorbike from Cambodia to South Vietnam!") -- and us.
The fact is, though, no night should be slow at Saigon, because there isn't a fried food anywhere that can compete with its appetizers. The egg rolls (cha gio banh moi, $3) come crackling straight from the fryer, stuffed with ground pork, dense wood-ear mushrooms, and tiny strips of carrot and taro root. The rolls have an airy crunch that dissolves midbite; you douse these with a sweet and spicy fish sauce called nuac cham. The pungent base of the sauce, nuoc mam,is made by fermenting translucent anchovies between layers of rock salt in wooden barrels for months; the smell of the stuff in its raw form could wake you from a dead faint. Diluted with vinegar, garlic, chiles, and sugar (or Coco Rico soda), it makes a savory dipping sauce. And you've got to pour it on: Nuoc cham is a wake-up call to dozing flavors.
Winter and spring rolls ($3 and $5, respectively) are an entirely different story. They're packaged in sheets of chewy, slightly clammy rice paper and served at room temperature (honestly, they look and feel a little like stuffed condoms). Once you get past the weird texture, they're delicious and aesthetic; the subtle colors of shrimp and vegetables peek through the wrapping. A spring roll bursting with cool shrimp, ground pork, and lettuce is spiked with perfumed nuances of cilantro; a winter roll offsets the delicately flavored Vietnamese sausage with crunchy carrots, tiny rice noodles, and velvety mint leaves. To prod these mellow flavors into exuberance: a creamy, chili-peanut sauce.
These take the edge off so you can chill out. And what a relaxing space this is. Nguyen refinished the room himself, putting up dark bamboo paneling, a fish tank emanating serene blue light, and a glittering, hand-built waterfall screen of bamboo and glass. He found some elegant café chairs painted with palm trees and added lots of silk plants. An ardent student of feng shui, he worked to balance elements of earth, wind, fire, and water.
Apparently the feng shui is calculated to work on the appetite too. In spite of our waiter's protestations -- "No, no! Is too much!" -- we kept ordering appetizers (there are well over a dozen on the menu). My favorite was the Vietnamese crepe (banh xeo, $7.95), a paper-thin, gently sweetened rice pancake filled with bean sprouts, salty grilled pork, and juicy, fat shrimp, a dish of exquisite contrasts. We also liked the exotic bahn cuon tay ho (steamed roll, $7.95), a dense, pillowy white noodle rolled around finely ground pork and diced mushrooms, nestled together with slices of pale sausage made from ground pork boiled in a banana leaf. Moist and delicately flavored, the sausage had an occasional peppery bang.
Nguyen told me later that he's been fascinated with the chemistry of food since he was a little boy experimenting in the family kitchen. Ask him how a dish is prepared and he's likely to launch into a scientific explanation of the way, say, high heat acts on the structure of proteins. But the technical meets the artistic here in delicate bowls of pho, a house specialty: beef noodle soup laced with cinnamon, cardamom, and star anise. Or in the many whimsical bun noodle dishes topped with heaps of vegetables, smoky grilled meats, and chopped egg rolls.