MISS SAIGON (394 Spadina, at Nassau, 416-597-9333) Nothing to do with the tacky musical of the same name, this inviting Vietnamese venue goes beyond the expected pho. Go as a group, check the chalkboard for chef Simon Chau's specials, order lots and share! Complete meals for $18 per person ($9 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a bottomless glass of green tea. Open daily 11 am to 11 pm. Licensed. Access: two steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
As Spadina evolves from an avenue of Szechuan and Cantonese cantinas into Toronto's highest concentration of Saigon-style soup kitchens, it's sometimes difficult to keep track of the high culinary traffic. Now in its fifth year, Miss Saigon has somehow deflected local foodie radar. It deserves attention not just for its cheerful vibe - bright faux-finished yellow walls, an overgrown jungle of tropical plants, a large aquarium of koi adding the proper feng shui - but for chef Simon Chau's haute interpretations of classic Vietnamese fare as well. There's more here than pho, folks.
The lily-livered will steer clear of Miss Saigon's Sliced Pork Belly Vietnamese Tray ($11.95), but they'll be missing one of this charming spot's signature dishes. Said tender underbelly and its sweet melt-on-the-tongue layer of fat have been sliced paper-thin, then flash-fried in sesame-scented oil along with whole cloves of garlic, slivered green scallions, crushed black peppercorns, red bird chilies and the crunch of rough-chopped peanuts. Add leaf lettuce, Thai basil, rau ram coriander and Viet mint, wrap everything in translucent rice paper and dunk into sugary nuoc cham. Like everything on Chau's card, this sizable main - enough for two or more to share - comes sided with a tart daikon-carrot slaw and a colourful leaf of inedible decorative kale.
Let the food-phobic start with fabulously fresh broiled Pacific oysters ($3.25 each) heavily tossed with garlic, or minty cold salad rolls bursting with ripe mango ($4 for two). No one need be frightened by the chalkboard menu's special of barbecued lamb ($16.95), a half-dozen thick pink-centred, de-racked, coriander-dusted chops over a bed of rice noodles, a dish that wouldn't be out of place on a Don Mills Sunday dinner table.
Another chef specialty, a huge red snapper ($18.50) weighing an impressive 20 ounces - I always carry a scale - arrives at our glass-topped, linen-draped table complete with head, tail 'n' eyeballs. Because of its size, it's easily deboned, the fabulous flesh falling from the spine. Alongside, a heap of crisp unripe mango adds considerable contrast.
The chalkboard announces another special as Miss Saigon Classic Chicken ($11.95 half/$7.95 quarter, with soup and rice ), but we're not converted by randomly hacked yellow turmeric-tinged bird, somewhat sour from tamarind. Nor by the bones, gristle and skin.
And while it's admirable that Miss Saigon's lineup includes several vegetarian mains, some pale when compared to the competition's. Studded with sesame seeds, Vegetarian Glass Noodles laced with raw bean sprouts, Chinese mushrooms, shredded napa cabbage and hellacious red chilies recalls Café 668's contemporary spins on Southeast Asian vegetariana. A dish by any other name, Vegetarian Bangkok Delight Noodles (both $9.50) is pad thai to the rest of us and a bit pricy considering it's free of expensive chicken and shrimp. Good stuff, though.
While most of the lunch crowd stick with Miss Saigon's $5.50 combos - the likes of stir-fried veggies with deep-fried tofu or five-spice chicken paired with kitchen-sink soup, iceberg salad and steamed rice - we prefer her inclusive Com Tam rice plates. Garnished with strands of salty shredded pork, Com Bi Suon Cha Trung ($7.95) finds a thin grilled pork chop sided with a custardy slab of sensaysh quiche-like egg loaf. We like.
You might expect Banh Sau Rieng ($3.50), mislabelled as durian cake, to be a stinky terrine, but the offending fruit's presence is subdued in this sublime layered coconut parfait.
What better curtain call for Miss Saigon?