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Restaurants | Counter Intelligence

Recalling the Days of an Old Cafe Society

Ms. Saigon fuses traditional dishes with French cuisine in a very L.A. setting.

September 07, 2000|LINDA BURUM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ms. Saigon's business card reads "More than Pho--Vietnamese-French Fusion Restaurant," but its food is nothing like the stylized creations dreamed up by contemporary fusion chefs. It's a colonial-era combination of traditional Vietnamese and French dishes.

Filet mignon Saint Armant in Champagne sauce and escargots en cocotte forestiere recall the cafes of Saigon in the last days of French Indochina--those places where ex-pats tossed back thick black coffees and the garcons were appropriately grouchy. It was only when you walked into the street that the cacophony of rickshaw drivers and noodle soup vendors would remind you that this was not France.

Ms. Saigon's dishes may have that bicultural legacy, but this Gardena restaurant is otherwise very L.A. There are no walls musty with tropical decay; the immaculate glassed-in dining room has a freshly scrubbed quality. Rosemary Clooney or Patti Page may be crooning oldies on the sound system.

And there are no surly garcons. Instead, you are cheerfully attended by co-owners Ted Chu and Jean Chen.

In the four months it's been open, the restaurant has won a following. On my last visit I saw a customer pull a rumpled takeout menu from his pocket and make enthusiastic recommendations to three friends. As the food arrived, he knowingly demonstrated the technique for eating a spring roll: Tear leaves of fresh basil and mint from the garnish platter, wrap them in lettuce with a chunk of spring roll, dip the packet into a garlicky sauce. On other visits, complete strangers have unhesitatingly shared dining tips--solicited or not.

The menu lists lunch, dinner and snacks, so you can have anything you want, from a bowl of noodles in soup to a full formal meal, at any time.

The incredibly low prices of the appetizers belie their impressive quality. Muc rang muoi, translated as "calamari with pepper and salt" on the menu, is a generous heap of perfectly fried calamari; it's $2.95. Another marvel, Vietnamese chicken salad with fresh mint ($3.95), is sweet-tart and permeated with garlic and a hint of chile. Shrimp and crab spring rolls, densely packed with seafood, had crackly fried rice paper wrappers as thin as thousand-layer pastry flakes.

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The French entrees sound as if they come from a time warp. In fact, they show the informal sort of fusion that takes place when Vietnamese cooks make French onion soup to suit their taste (less oily, with a clean onion flavor, a bit sweet from long, slow stewing), or modify a classic recipe to create perfectly fried frog legs in a crisp, tempura-like batter sprinkled with lemon grass, garlic, chile and herbs.

In the American fashion, entree servings are generous and include soup or salad. A slab of salmon, still springy at its center, comes bathed in gingery broth spiked with sweet rice vinegar. Likewise, the house specialty filet mignon, a beautiful piece of meat, sits on a glossy veneer of intense beef reduction crowded with coarsely ground black pepper. But the kitchen loses a few points for mixing frozen carrot pieces with the steamed fresh vegetable garnish and for cooking its game hen a little too long.

Of the rice or noodle plates--basically, one-dish a la carte meals--my choices would be the charbroiled pork chop on rice, the fried half Cornish game hen served with tomato-infused red rice and a slice of bi cha (a loaf of ground meat, tree-ear mushrooms and cellophane noodles) or banh hoi (No. 53 on the menu). Banh hoi is rice angel hair swirled into doily-like mats for picking up food--in this case, still-sizzling pieces of ground shrimp patty wrapped with crispy tofu sheets, plus accompanying spring roll slices.

For dessert, banana beignets dribbled with condensed milk offer just the right touch of sweetness, and they're easy to share. But since there are only a few dessert offerings, you may want to have a sweet drink instead--say, a whole coconut with its water, the immature coconut drink or one of the best ever French-Vietnamese fusions: dark roast iced coffee with sweet condensed milk.

BE THERE

Ms. Saigon Cafe, 18537 S. Western Ave., Gardena, (310) 532-0999. Lunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., and dinner, 5-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday. No alcohol. Parking lot. Visa and MasterCard. Dinner for two, food only, $8.50 to $44.

What to Get: banh hoi, house special filet mignon, calamari with pepper and salt, Cornish game hen with red rice and bi cha, Vietnamese chicken salad with mint, fresh coconut.

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