It's clear that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn left something out when he said that art and literature are the only spiritual ambassadors between countries. If you attend the Church of Cuisine, my house of worship, eating the food of another country is a religious experience, even if some of the chapels are located in less-than-salubrious surroundings.
Two blocks of Larkin between Eddy and O'Farrell streets were recognized by the city as Little Saigon in 2004, with none of the recent animosity displayed in San Jose over naming a larger area either Little Saigon, Saigon Business District, or New Saigon. (The fact that Saigon itself is now officially named Ho Chi Minh City doesn't usually come up in these discussions.) The Little Saigon banners here reinforced the importance of cuisine, picturing a French Colonial food market constructed in Saigon in the early 20th century. The French, whose missionaries first arrived in Vietnam in the 17th century, had an enormous influence on Vietnam's food.
The gateway drug to both Vietnamese cooking and Little Saigon in San Francisco has long been the delicious and incredibly cheap banh mi sandwiches served at the renowned Saigon Sandwich Shop (560 Larkin, 474-5698), a combination inspired by baguettes (banh mi basically means bread) stuffed with charcuterie and mayonnaise, with Vietnamese cilantro, chiles, fish sauce, and rice-vinegar-pickled carrots and daikon. Long lines frequently spill out from the tiny slot of a shop, with people waiting patiently for a crack at the half-dozen or so kinds of banh mi available for just $2.75 to $3.25.
The Saigon Sandwich Shop packs up early at 6 p.m., but just a block north await several other rewarding Vietnamese eateries. Pagolac is a family-owned restaurant, whose menu is subtitled Mom's Vietnamese Kitchen in honor of the now-deceased matriarch who opened the place in 1991, inspiring a loyal following with her elegant specialties. A few years ago the location was remodeled in a minimalist but chic style, with pale curry-and-saffron-colored walls, candles in niches, and stylish redwood chairs. The long, two-sided menu lists appetizers, salads, sweet-and-sour soups, pho (noodle soups), noodle bowls, clay pots, and the familiar stir-fries (chicken, beef, shrimp, or tofu with assorted sauces and aromatics). Pagolac's house specials are well worth trying: Go for the bo 7 mon, aka seven flavors of beef; the banh hoi, roll-it-yourself wraps; or bo toms, cook-it-yourself assortments of beef, shrimp, and squid. (A caveat: This place is cash only.)
The bo 7 mon is a raging bargain at $16 a person (minimum two people), combining fun, theater, and good eating. A platter heaped with lettuce leaves, basil, mint, cilantro, and carrot and daikon slivers is brought to the table, along with stiff rice-paper crepes — they turn translucent while softening in a bowl of hot water — and fish sauce. The seven courses are lemony beef carpaccio with chopped mint and peanuts; raw thin-sliced beef that you cook in onion-and-vinegar-flavored broth at table over a fire; more raw beef to cook on a tiny round grill; sausages wrapped in wild pepper leaves; grilled beef wrapped around scallions; barbecue beef skewers; and a finale (by which time you will be quite stuffed) of soupy, milky Vietnamese rice porridge (much like Chinese jook) with ground beef, green onions, and cilantro. You wrap any or all of these dishes in the lettuce leaves, adding flavorings to make delightful crunchy little packages.
Equally delightful are the banh hoi, wherein you make similar wraps with chewy noodles and your choice of a main ingredient. Favorites include fat little grilled pork sausages, or minced shrimp rolled around sugar cane ($9). The fibrous cane can be chewed for extra sweetness, but it isn't meant to be eaten. The jellyfish, shrimp, and pork salad — mixed with chopped cabbage, pickled carrots, onions, daikon, cilantro, mint, and basil and topped with crushed peanuts — is chewy, acidic, and refreshing. Crispy tofu ($5.50), served with sweet soy sauce, is delicate and, under its crackling skin, a creamy textural contrast to all the crunch. From the traditional Southeast Asian taste profile of hot, sour, salty, and sweet, we found only the hot a little wanting; nothing brought a flush to the face.
The first course at Mangosteen, another stylishly turned out, family-run restaurant a block away, was hotter than anything we'd had at Pagolac, well deserving of the "(spicy)" designation on the menu. The banana-blossom baby clam salad ($7.95) contained a multitude of minced clams, carrot, cucumber, cilantro, and red onions in a pungent dressing.
The menu appears to be in transition, and we were disappointed to hear that some dishes that intrigued us (steamed chicken and mustard greens in ginger sauce, spicy simmered pork baby back ribs) were not on the new menu. I admired the bright decor — chartreuse walls, hanging silk lanterns, a witty contraption of three mechanical fans — more than the two poultry dishes we tried. The lemongrass chicken was grilled boneless thighs that hardly tasted of lemongrass, and the chunks of bird in the five-flavors duck were not redolent enough of the five-spice (cinnamon, cloves, ginger, star anise, anise seed) blend in its name. Both tasted a little tired. By contrast, the bo luc lac ($10.95; often called shaking beef, but not identified as such on Mangosteen's menu) was fresh and delicious: tender chunks of filet mignon cooked quickly in a tasty, sticky, peppery sauce with onions and the unusual but welcome touch of cubed potatoes, served with a tiny bowl of dipping salt. We preferred steamed rice to the unusually acrid garlic noodles as an accompaniment.
A more recent addition to Little Saigon's restaurant row is the bright and shiny Lee's Sandwiches, which is big enough to hold all three other places in this review. The Lee's on Larkin arrived a little more than a year ago, part of a chain started in San Jose in 2001, and looks as clean and sparkling as the day it opened. You order at a deli counter from a long and somewhat overwhelming menu featuring "European" sandwiches (including BLTs and ham-and-cheese) as well as a daunting number of banh mi in exotic combinations such as sliced jambon with headcheese, pork roll, and pâté ($2.75). The sandwiches are not quite as homey and good as those at Saigon Sandwich, but are equally large and very tasty. The refrigerated cases and shelves are lined with temptations both salty (crunchy packaged snacks) and sweet (tapioca drinks and madeleines). Check them out before the computerized voice summons you to pick up your order.
The in-house bakery at Lee's turns out rather soft baguettes as well as the house sandwich rolls and the highly recommended pâté chaud (small $1.25, large $2.50), puff pastry encasing a ball of excellent pork pâté. It will take many visits before you can exhaust all its possibilities, not unlike the many flavors of Little Saigon.