Munch goes to Saigon 88
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According to the multitude of totally true things Munch has read on the Internet, the Bermuda Triangle is like a totally real thing in the Atlantic Ocean where boats disappear without explanation, where even the most seaworthy seamen are mysteriously sucked into a watery abyss. Like "Wexford" or "America's Team," it's not officially recognized by any authority. It probably doesn't even have its own post office.
So long story short, Munch and Deceptively Ravenous Friend of Munch (deceptive, because he's lithe like a gazelle, but with an elephantine appetite) encountered the Pittsburgh suburban version of the Bermuda Triangle while looking for Saigon 88, a recently opened Vietnamese restaurant in a sort of unlikely location: Upper St. Clair. Munch's newfangled smartphone -- which can play Angry Birds in addition to serving as a paperweight and a Naomi Campbell-style assault weapon -- directed them to a triangle of asphalt bordered by a sign-less North Highland Road and Abbeyville Road, where we spun circles in his old-fangled red sports car, a full 40 minutes and several wrong turns after setting out on this haunted voyage.
"It says we're here," Munch said, staring at a darkened strip mall. Tears were welling up in Munch's eyes. Munch hadn't eaten in like an hour.
Munch was growing desperate. Scurvy was setting in and the men below were growing restless, their eyes crazed. Rumors of mutiny floated about in the toxic sea air.
Wait. We're not on a boat. We're just hungry and severely lost in the suburbs.
Five minutes and a phone call to the restaurant later, we were further up the hill and found Saigon 88, a beacon of fluorescence, farther up on North Highland Road. DRFOM and Munch took a seat in a corner booth. The vast restaurant -- with an outdoor porch, bar and two dining areas with lovely views of Route 19 -- was nearly empty on a Sunday night.
On the brink of starvation -- having been lost for a full 40 minutes -- we were delighted when the waiter brought us a massive menu. In terms of literature, it was like the "War and Peace" of menus, dozens of items from several Asian cuisines and a handful of fusion-type-things. There was sushi, General Tso's chicken, Korean hot pots and, of course, Vietnamese specialties.
We started with the Sexy Phoenix sushi roll ($10.50), eel, cucumber and avocado wrapped in seaweed and topped with thin slices of avocado and a salty-sweet "eel sauce." It was nothing special, and hardly sexy given the pace we shoved them in our mouths. The real standout among the appetizers was the fresh spring rolls ($5): basil, shrimp noodles and other veggies stuffed in translucent rice paper and served with a syrupy sweet peanut sauce.
Next came the Vietnamese entrees: a piping hot bowl of beef pho ($10), banh xeo ($10) and com (rice) with short ribs ($14). The pho, a subtly flavored soup with rice noodles, herbs and thin slices of beef, was more expensive than its Pittsburgh-dwelling counterparts, but worth it. Munch is no expert, but it tasted like the real deal. It was not excessively salty, allowing the spices to shine through.
The banh xeo, or rice crepes, were eggy and fluffy, almost like a pancake, stuffed with shrimp and squid and served with a sweet and sour dressing. The short ribs came on a massive plate chock full of accouterments -- rice topped with a fried egg, lettuce, an herb salad and pork skin -- meant to be eaten together with a vinegar dressing. The ribs were scrumptious and tender, soaked through with a salty sweet marinade. For the frugal diner, it was enough food for two for lunch.
We packed up some of the food as leftovers so we'd have room for dessert: a banana roti ($5), a deep fried banana topped with cinnamon and chocolate and served on top of ice cream. It was an awesome finish to the meal.
With a diverse array of Asian cuisines, Saigon 88 serves dishes not found on many other restaurant menus in the city, so it might be worth the trek for city-dwellers. Just make sure you bring a map, a cool-headed captain and perhaps a satellite phone.
Saigon 88 is at 1778 North Highland Road in Upper St. Clair; 412-881-8828; http://saigon88.net/index.php .