Few openings in the recent history of Philadelphia restaurants have been as fraught as Saigon Cuisine’s in University City. The lack of a sprinkler system led the Department of Licenses & Inspections to shutter the doors until one was installed, halting the restaurant’s December 2012 opening just as it was getting off the ground. All of that has been taken care of now, and Saigon Cuisine is back in business.
It’s a promising space to have moved into, with a positive history to pull from. Before Saigon Cuisine, it was home to Nan, a charming, accomplished restaurant whose French-Thai dishes sang with a collective sonorousness that made it one of the better restaurants in University City—and certainly one of the best of its genre in Philadelphia.
Saigon Cuisine, on the other hand, plays it much closer to traditional—Vietnamese, in this case, aside from a number of forays toward China on the menu (lo mein, ho fun, shrimp with honey walnut and the like). From what I’ve tasted, it is a pleasant if not terribly challenging addition to the local scene, a restaurant with more hits than misses but still some fine-tuning to do.
Their pho, to begin, is excellent, built on a base of broth whose clarity and purity of flavor sets it apart. Unlike so many more deeply developed pho broths in the city, this one is unique for its lightness, delicacy and remarkable freshness. As such, it took exceptionally well to the traditional accompaniments of lime, basil, scallion, onion, sprouts and cilantro. Unfortunately, the beef balls marooned in this pristine lake, by contrast, seemed even more plodding than they already would have on their own: They were spongy and tough all at once, and not terribly flavorful—more a distraction than anything else. They, it turns out, are not made in-house, and it shows.
The tofu roll succeeded for a similar reason as that pho: With its fried batons of tofu all mushroom-y and earthy, this gently basil-perfumed appetizer was memorable for its freshness and clarity as well. Wrapped into translucent rice paper, it was all too easy to enjoy. The other side of that coin, though, was the scallion pancake appetizer, a mealy, uninspired disk devoid of much flavor at all.
This is what I experienced here, a majority of hits attenuated by enough misses to frustrate.
Shrimp stew arrived sizzling in a clay pot, and the music of its crackling procession to the table accurately heralded the treats tucked inside. The shrimp, all plump and generous, luxuriated in a sweet-tangy sauce that, by the time it had cooled off enough to taste, glazed the outside of each curled-up crustacean. Grilled sliced pork on rice belied the simplicity of its description: Each slice of meat was its own tender, char-edged universe, a sweetly evocative reminder—singing with honey, oyster sauce, ginger and more—of how utterly delicious well-prepared classics can be when conceived and tended to with care.
For all that, however, the stir-fried rice noodles, despite their black pepper sauce, remained frustratingly quiet: Each bite was followed by a wave of desire for more flavor, more salt, more assertiveness. The elegant little slices of chicken tucked throughout were as tender as you could hope, but they, too, seemed to be in need of more energy.
Still, I’m willing to give Saigon Cuisine the benefit of the doubt: Though no more major hiccups have marred their routine, the stop-start nature of the past few months cannot have done them any favors. The staff is friendly and welcoming, even if the occasional language barrier leads to some minor confusion when ordering.
With a little more muscle behind some of the flavors here, Saigon Cuisine promises to be a pleasant addition to the University City dining scene. It’s not much more than that quite yet, but with time, I expect it will be.
4000 Chestnut St. 215.222.9777.
Cuisine type: Vietnamese, with occasional forays to China.
Hours: Sun.-Thurs., 11am-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-10:30pm.
Price range: $3-$13.95.
Atmosphere: Clean-lined and simple.
Food: More hits than misses, with potential for improvement.
Service: Welcoming and pleasant.