Saigon Seafood: You Don’t Know What You’re Missing
Vanessa Wolf is a former head chef. She offers her frank assessments in the interests of honesty and improving Maui’s culinary scene.
By Vanessa Wolf
Let’s set the scene, shall we?
It’s early November. You’re not in a good head space.
You want to stay in bed but you’ve made a commitment to meet with a celebrity chef to discuss a potential project.
Your mind a whirl, you don’t notice many details as said chef drives you to a little hole in the wall Asian joint and orders a few dishes to go.
Later, the food is on the table and you’re fantasizing about sneaking off.
This unbelievable green papaya salad hits your taste buds like Sugar Ray Robinson.
Here comes a wide noodle dish with an anchor punch that would make Muhammad Ali jealous.
Catapulted out of your fugue, life has meaning again, but the chef soon leaves the island and you can’t quite remember where the heck that restaurant was, seeing as you were all messed up in your head and such.
You will spend the next five months describing these dishes to anyone that will listen in the hopes someone can help you figure out where they came from.
You almost start to believe you imagined it, until one day in mid-April, you walk into Saigon Seafood and angels sing.
Being reunited with the Flat Rice Noodle with Seafood ($12.95) never felt so good.
It’s the Chinese food flavor profile you can never find on this island: those rich, smoky tones only a well-seasoned wok can impart. The noodles are bathed in a light, clear sauce and muddled up with carrots, broccoli, won bok, baby choy sum, three shrimp, some calamari, and what some folks call “krabb.”
Eating it is like spending time with a friend you hadn’t even realized how much you’d missed until you saw them again.
Similarly, it turns out the Green Papaya Salad ($8.95) is even better on the return visit.
Commonly associated with Thai food, the Vietnamese version isn’t as spicy. The salad hits every flavor profile – hot, sour, salt, sweet, and even umami thanks to the addition of fish sauce. The Saigon Seafood version arrives with shrimp on top (not noted on the menu, so vegetarians and vegans: you’ve been warned.) and is stellar.
The Eggplant and Chicken ($9.95) features thick sautéed slices of green eggplant, chicken, carrots, and bell peppers and is accompanied by a generous portion of slightly gummy jasmine rice. The flavors are reminiscent of what we typically think of as Chinese, but the Thai basil sprinkled on top makes the whole dish brighter.
It’s a Vietnamese restaurant, so ordering the Rare Steak Pho ($9.95) was a necessity.
The broth is richer and more complex than often seen on Maui, but also arrives in a smaller portion. Those not super into noodles might not care as the beef portion is comparable. It’s well done, but not worth making a special trip for.
The Rare Lemon Beef Salad ($16.95), however?
WUT?! It’s rare beef cooked in lemon juice and arrives with romaine lettuce, daikon, carrot, ground unicorn horns and presumably heroin because you wake up hours later in a cold sweat wanting more.
It’s carpaccio, Vietnam style, and a true flavor carnival.
The sole waiter was the same every visit. He’s shy and often watching TV, but scurries like one of Pavlov’s dogs when he hears the little bell ring out from the kitchen alerting him that it’s time to shine. Nice hustle, son.
After so much consistent goodness, we started to get cocky and go off-script.
The Crispy Egg Noodle with Meat ($11.95) was mehppetizing. (Yep. We’re making up words. The English language is a Darwinian dream, baby.)
The noodles are thin and crunchy and there’s a rich, savory flavor to the sauce, but all in all nothing to write home about. If you’re going for noodles, stick with the flat rice ones.
The menu is huge and lacks any explanations beyond the dish name.
It goes without saying there are probably some real land mines hidden in there, but if you’re looking for a slam dunk green papaya salad, rare lemon beef, or flat rice noodle, this is the place.
We welcome your feedback. Please let us know if you hear of any new restaurants opening or reopening, total menu overhauls, or simply know of a hidden treasure you want to share. Have a restaurant you want reviewed (or re-reviewed)? Drop us a line – Vanessa(@mauinow.com)