Irvine is the "promised land" if you are a Vietnamese restauranteur. It's far enough from the frenzied competition of Little Saigon that you don't have to compete solely on price.
Coupled with that, the audience of diners here aren't as finicky. You're not dealing with those ardent old timers, who spend all day reminiscing about how food used to taste in the old country.
Nope. Here in Irvine, all you have to do is serve some decent pho, spring rolls, a few rice dishes, and charge just enough to cover the sky-high rent. If the stars align, you'll make a good profit catering to a market of affluent homeowners, the office-park lunch crowd, and discriminating college students.
If this sounds simple, it's not. Because for every success like Pho Bac Ky, there are casualties like Nam Viet.
Now a new contender enters the ring. Occupying a space that used to house a failed Asian eatery before it, Saigon Grille attempts to lure Irvine diners with an eclectic menu and a 20% discount off the total bill to mark its grand opening.
Their menu is stocked with big ticket items like baked catfish and crab noodle. These are ambitious dishes with prices to match. Perhaps they need to pay off the interior designer, who must have run up quite a tab, because the space elegantly evokes a time of French colonialism and opulence.
Sumptous red paint and intricate artwork decorate a room with open-backed wooden chairs and swooping ceiling fans. The centerpiece of the room is an angled window that looks into the kitchen where a fiery wok blazes, its flames licking the ceiling for maximum dramatic effect.
We started with the Grill Platter ($14.00), which are the Vietnamese equivalent to fajitas. Instead of tortillas, you are served a plate of cold, moistened rice paper, each sheet separated from the other with a plastic clam shell fan.
The objective is to take a round of the rice paper sheet, pile on a mound of cold fluffy bun (vermicelli noodle), some herbs like mint and cilantro, some pickled carrot, and finally, the grilled meats of shrimp, pork, and beef.
Then you wrap.
If you have great dexterity, you end up with a taut cigar-shaped object. But, if you're all thumbs like I am, you get something that resembles an exploded taco.
Then you dunk it into the bowl of tart nouc cham (sweetened fish sauce). Double dipping is allowed and necessary for every bite you take of your creation.
It's a fun, interactive experience which is relatively healthier than the ubiquitous Mexican restaurant staple it resembles. The cold noodles and herbs contrast the grilled meat making for a hearty dish that's also refreshing and light. The rubbery pull of the rice paper gives it a pleasant chew and bite.
The next dish was the Mien Xao Cua ($15.95) (Stir Fried Vermicelli Noodles with Crab Meat). We would have loved Saigon Grille's rendition more had we not already tried a far superior execution at Brodard a few weeks ago. While Brodard's Mien Xao Cua was bold, saucy, with jewel-like chunks of crabmeat, Saigon Grille's was muted and damp. The crabmeat was almost entirely invisible since it was overworked into thin, hairlike strands. Though the inclusion of almost raw pieces of finely julienned snow peas kept the dish interesting and fresh.
Although it remains to be seen whether these unorthodox dishes will be accepted by the Irvine crowds, Saigon Grille wisely offers the prequisite bowls of pho and com tam (Broken Rice with Meats) to please the city's demographic. In fact, the restaurant was bustling that night and just about everyone had steaming hot bowls of pho in front of them. This Irvinite will be back soon to try a bowl too.
14021 Jeffrey Rd
Irvine, CA 92620