Perhaps more than it appears
Saigon Kitchen has been operating in Nanaimo for a long time. Despite that, this was somehow only our first visit. Further, one of us has a hangup about Vietnamese cuisine being “lunch food” and so we don’t often have it for dinner. One Monday evening, when almost everywhere else in town was closed, the stars aligned and we found ourselves there – for dinner no less!
Saigon Kitchen is a small restaurant located on Metral Drive, across the highway from Nanaimo North Town Centre. It’s not much to look at from the outside, being little more than a door in a wall. Frankly, it’s not too much to look at on the inside either, despite the attractive picture on their website. Like many places these days, the restaurant appears geared more toward its takeout business, with the dining room being secondary. While it was not uncomfortable, it could use updating and a good scrub.
The menu on the other hand is something to to be more upbeat about. It has all the usual suspects: pho, rice and vermicelli dishes, and curries, but also some more unusual items like their sizzling hot pans, and a few interesting specialty items. There were more seafood dishes available than we expected too.
We started our dinner the right way – with beer. In this case we had Tsingtao (yes it’s Chinese, not Vietnamese) for a fun alternative. Our dinner order included deep fried wontons for a starter, followed by the scallop hot pan for her and banh xeo (a stuffed crispy crepe) for him.
Our server was excellent. The young lad gave us exactly the kind of service we want. He was prompt without being intrusive. He was down to earth but still knowledgeable about the food. Most importantly, he volunteered his opinion and made recommendations. We love that. The hostess was also very cordial, and we observed multiple wholesome interactions between staff and other patrons while we were there. Major props to the restaurant for that.
Our food came out promptly, starting with the wontons. These were delightful little pork balls with crispy wonton tails, served with a sweet chili sauce. We happily gobbled them down, trying not to burn our mouths. This was a solid appy, pleasantly presented.
Our mains were out shortly after. First was the scallop hot pan. A surprisingly generous amount of scallops were mixed with onion, pepper, cauliflower, brocolli, and carrots, and sauteed together in oil. The pan was served still sizzling, along with a side of rice noodles to bulk it up. The dish was well cooked, with hot and crispy veg and tender scallops. We liked it a lot. Our server recommended adding chili oil/sauce to the dish and we definitely recommend it. It added a lot of oomph to an otherwise mild taste.
After our disappointment the last time we tried to order it, we were delighted to finally get to try ban xeo. We’d seen these crispy crepes in videos of Vietnamese street food and had always wanted to try one. Saigon Kitchen’s version is pictured above. The crepe is fried, then folded over and stuffed with bean sprouts, chicken meat, and a few big prawns. It’s really hearty! We were quite surprised at just how much the coconut flavour comes through the crepe batter. We also weren’t quite sure how to eat it. Eating with chopsticks was nigh-impossible, and picking up the whole thing like a taco would have been a bad idea too. Breaking it apart and eating with fingers was a bit messy, but it didn’t lend itself too well to a knife and fork either because it was so crispy. Oh well. It still tasted good.
Our bill for the mains, appy, beers, and a modest tip was $83. We consider this to be ok value.
We have mixed feelings about Saigon Kitchen. The restaurant’s décor is tired and beat up, but it has better-than-average options on its menu. The service was excellent and the food we had was good, but the price wasn’t anything to get excited about. You’re always only a hundred feet from a Vietnamese restaurant in Nanaimo and we can’t say that Saigon Kitchen completely differentiates itself from its competition. That said, we still recommend it for those looking for another option for dinner. We’ll certainly be back to explore some of the other menu items (very curious about the “Saigon Imperial”) and we hope to see you there!