Saigon is one of those restaurants that satisfies a very specific kind of craving for me. There is no other place in town quite like it in terms of atmosphere or menu. For people who aren’t familiar with Vietnamese food, or the south side of Fort Wayne, it can be an acquired taste. I know that was the case for me when I was first taken there. However, thanks to its grittiness and the unusual food, it is now one of my favorite places to eat.
I was introduced to Saigon by my co-workers at my first job in advertising. One of the more senior guys suggested it for lunch one day and asked who wanted to go. I noticed people either became very excited about going, or shuddered slightly and declined. Everyone told me they had some kind of soup there called “Pho” I had to try. Keep in mind, back then the extent of my knowledge on Asian food was limited to what the crummy take-away places served in styrofoam packages. A thin broth of noodles and seafood didn’t sound that great to me, but I went along anyway.
I walked in and immediately knew I was in over my head. Not only was it located in what seemed to be a sketchy part of town, the place was dimly lit, dingy, and smelled of stale cigarettes and chlorine. We sat in the back room which had uneven floors, dark walls, and few pieces of dusty, Asian-themed art haphazardly hung on the walls. Everything on the table had the filmy appearance of having been handled hundreds of times by countless sticky fingers.
The pages of the menu were stained and the edges were as brittle as ancient manuscripts. The menu items were written in Vietnamese with English subtitles that mostly made sense. I remembered hearing my Virginia relatives talk of “Bible Tripe”, but until that day, I had never actually seen it on a menu. I also figured out that “beef tender” was not a typo for tender beef; rather, beef tendon. It was beyond me why you would want to eat the parts of the cow that held it together instead of the actual cow, but whatever.
Since I could barely read the menu, I made my decision based on my co-worker’s recommendations, “I’ll have the Pho tai,” I said, with no small amount of trepidation. I could feel the food poisoning bubbling in my stomach even though I hadn’t taken a single bite. When my Pho arrived, and I tasted it, my apprehensions evaporated in the column of steam that rose off the most glorious bowl of food I had ever seen or tasted.
Saigon is easy to miss as you drive south on Calhoun Street from downtown Fort Wayne. Watch for a humble brick facade, faded blue awning, and their ancient street sign. The paint is flaking, and the neon is long gone, but it’s age is testament to the fact that they have been here forever and they know what they are doing. Be sure to notice the wonderful block lettering on the front window; a fading and plain-spoken advertisement for what’s awaits inside.
Passing through the two entry doors you are in a world faded beige wallpaper patterend with red and gold leafs, red vinyl chairs, and chipped linoleum tables. There is a simple aluminum and linoleum lunch counter to the left, behind which are stacked vast numbers of plates, cups, mugs, and bowls. Saigon is so small only a handful of overhead lamps are needed to light the place. Looming over all of this, is a hulking, brutal looking heater. I can attest that it keeps out the driving midwest winter, but it looks like it is straight out of Terry Gilliam’s, Brazil.
Take any table that is open and a waitress will be over in a flash with menus. Each table comes pre-stocked with Sriracha, soy sauce, a garlic chili oil, and a chili tomato sauce. The ketchup and mustard bottles, are actually ketchup and mustard. Saigon serves an American-style breakfast. When the waitress reappeared to take our order, Danielle settled on Pho tai, a noodle soup with slices of round steak. I decided to try the Mi thap kam kho, special sauce over egg noodle with shrimp, pork, and crab.
Shortly thereafter, our small plate of condiments arrived. Freshly picked cilantro and thai basil, accompanied bean sprouts, slices of jalapeño, and wedges of lime. The bright greens and their combination of aromas were enough to have me salivating like a dog for the main event. You can eat Pho tai without any of these accessories, but making it your own with the the right mix is half the fun.
Danielle’s Pho came ready to eat, but with her asbestos-lined stomach, generous scoops of garlic chili oil and ribbons of Sriracha needed to be added. It’s shocking the first time you see it. By the time she was through, her bowl looked and tasted like a lake of lava. My Mi thap kam kho, or “The #8”, as I like to call it, required some assembly. The noodles and meat came in one bowl and the broth was served separately. Once that was mixed with a few sprigs of basil, lime juice, and tomato chili sauce it was time to get down to business.
They have a full menu of other Vietnamese food, and all the Chinese favorites, but the noodle soups and Pho tais are the real reason to go here. They are immensely satisfying and filling, and there are dozens of combinations to try. It might be a little adventurous in terms of taste and texture, and the place itself is a little worn at the edges, but don’t let that keep you from trying Saigon. If you’ve never had Pho tai, it’s the place in town to try it. Lunch is the best time for a visit since they close early in the evening through the week, and be sure to bring cash, as they don’t take credit cards or checks.
2006 S. Calhoun St., Fort Wayne, IN 468025
Monday - Sunday: 10:00am - 7:00pm