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."
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.
The patron at the next table had been temporarily subdued by his soup -- at least he'd stopped shouting. So we took a page from his book and ordered hu tieu nam vang ($10.95), a salty-sour fish broth laden with noodles, shrimp, pale ovals of chewy squid, honeycomb tripe, and a soft-pressed fish cake, served in a big porcelain bowl. Our enthusiastic waiter had named this his favorite dish, and he tried to steer us clear of any other entrées ("Very filling!") He was right; it's a serious bowl of soup even for two people. Since most of the soup's elements are pretty bland, it really needs that fish cake -- which tastes slightly astringent, like the smell of an Asian market -- to sharpen things up. I liked it. My dining partner didn't. It may be an acquired taste.
But we did agree on a spectacular grilled pork chop ($9.95), marinated to a tangy tenderness. A little nest of shredded pork skin coated in gritty, nutty, browned rice flour came with this, plus a rich and soothing egg cake (similar to a crustless quiche) filled with wood-ear mushrooms, clear tapioca noodles, and ground pork. Main courses, as in Vietnam, are served at room temperature. We also loved the bun thit heo nurong ($7.95), tender marinated pork strips served over thin vermicelli noodles and topped with minced peanuts. You scatter heaps of lettuce, cilantro, mint, and cucumber on top, then douse it all with nuoc cham. The whole thing comes together like a complicated piece of music, bracing up the noodles, drawing out the pork's smokiness, shaping the piquant notes of mint and cilantro into a lovely, nimble dish.
Our waiter, so solicitous over the main courses, never offered us dessert (we had already eaten "too much!") But we insisted. We were charmed by the che Saigon ($3), a parfait of jackfruit, gelatin, coconut meat, and red beans -- silky, strange, and satisfying. The French exert influence in the strawberry ice cream, the avocado smoothies, and the sinful coffee with condensed milk served hot or on ice.
Nguyen and new partner Surachai Wienmanapun have filled the menu with specialty dishes he hopes will appeal to American palates -- the steaming pots of beef pho, grilled meats, noodles -- but he's gradually been adding the kind of "everyday" fare Vietnamese tend to cook at home: whole steamed fish in caramel sauce, shrimp with tomatoes, fried fish with tamarind, sweet and sour soup. The food he serves is faultless, and you can't blame him for playing it a little safe with the menu, even if you long for the kitchen to take an occasional great leap of faith (Curried frogs legs! Roast quail!). As long as he polishes up the service of that enthusiastic waiter and rounds up enough regular customers to justify some riskier culinary business, this little piece of paradise ought to have just the right stuff for a long-term run. It seems like a guy who made it all the way from the beach at Nha Trang to the beach at Boynton ought to be able to steer a true course just about anywhere.