Since my first sip of pho (Vietnamese noodle-and-meat soup served with basil, lime, and bean sprouts) a decade ago, Iíve been hooked on its blend of nourishing simplicity and typically low cost. No matter where I ate Vietnamese food, I rarely changed my order, adding only fresh spring rolls for variety. But recently, in Maldenís welcoming Saigon Noodle, Iíve begun to venture slightly further afield, with happy results.
Saigon Noodle announces its good cheer with purple-silk orchids, yellow plastic chopsticks, and a fake palm strung with Christmas lights, followed by warmth from the servers. For an equally bright flavor, start with one of the goi, Vietnamese salads ($6.25). With shredded vegetables tossed in a vinegary dressing, complemented by shrimp or chicken and dotted with mint, basil, and peanuts, itís the Asian answer to coleslaw, but with a more invigorating tang.
Choosing from the com phan portion of the menu, dedicated to the most traditional dishes, I rise above my aversion to pineapple in savory foods by ordering canh chua tom, a hot-and-sour shrimp soup ($7.95). Amid chunks of tomato and a jubilee of shrimp and bean sprouts, cubed pineapple bobs in a spicy broth. Caramelized a bit by the heat, the pineappleís sweetness is mellowed by its chili-infused surroundings.
If that doesnít sound like your cup of soup, fear not: Saigon Noodle doesnít require an adventurous palate. For newbies, or those not quite ready to give up their pho addictions, you can order any beef or chicken pho, or the seafood equivalents (hu tieu mi), and be assured of an excellent dish for seriously cheap prices: from $4.50 for the small to the $5.95 extra-large (which comes in a bowl big enough to bathe an infant in). Nothing costs more than $8.95, and the appetizers start at $3.
The price and quality have attracted Maldenís sizable Asian community, making the place especially buzzy on Saturday mornings, when the twentysomething set flocks in (meaning you might have to wait for a table). Weeknights, the room is quieter ó for now. But hurry; word is getting out.
Saigon Noodle, located at 381 Main Street, in Malden, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Call (781) 397-1473.