The faded reviews and cheaply framed awards that circle the entrance to Miss Saigon in Georgetown remind me of a scene from Terms of Endearment. It’s that delightfully tense moment when Shirley MacLaine accuses retired astronaut Jack Nicholson of reducing tales of his space odysseys to mere flirtation devices, which he drunkenly deploys to bag tight young tarts. Jack simply shrugs and says, “Oh, come on. Everyone uses whatever they have.”
To which Miss Saigon would say: Exactly.
On the streets of Georgetown, where every window-shopper is a potential diner, a restaurant has to use whatever it has to fill tables—particularly when you’re a garden-variety Vietnamese outlet whose cuisine lost its exotic cachet years ago. These days, those Washingtonian-issued Best Bargain Restaurant certificates and that yellowing Phyllis C. Richman review around the entrance are the echoes of another era. They don’t speak with the same authority that they did back in the ’90s, which may explain why the Vietnamese family that runs Miss Saigon also feels the need to tie green and pink balloons to its doors to capture the attention of the loiterers and denizens of planet Lexus who pass its humble portal.
Foot traffic is critical to Miss Saigon’s bottom line. A manager says that business dropped 15 percent after 9/11, when vacationers and business travelers alike viewed D.C. as a hot zone. Today, tourists are apparently darkening the restaurant’s doorway again, but few appear to be picking up the telephone first. On a recent night, my dining companion and I were members of a critically endangered species at Miss Saigon: people with a reservation. I had reserved a table for 8:30 p.m.; when we arrived 15 minutes late, we were met not by a cross hostess but by a blasé waitress who ushered us to our table, no questions asked. We were seated under a fake palm tree with a pair of fake coconuts dangling over a vase of fake poppies, all part of the restaurant’s Tiki-bar ambience.
Miss Saigon’s dated poolside-lounge chic is another indication that it’s not a destination restaurant but merely a drive-by one. That is, Miss Saigon doesn’t have what it takes, either in the dining room or in the kitchen, to justify paying the extortion rates at the private parking lots or jostling with the cashmere-clad bourgeoisie who tramp through Georgetown.
The Viet combo for two, a sampling of five appetizers, amuses the eyes more than the mouth. The brownish marble of pork encased in the fried wonton flees its oily confines at first bite, bouncing along the table at breakneck speed. The shrimp toast—a thin, rubbery layer of minced crustaceans entombed in a deep-fried baguette—would have made a nice shoulder pad in the ’80s, if it weren’t for all the oil. Only the expertly fried spring rolls, dipped in a slightly sweet nuoc mam with carrot shavings, and the delicate, cilantro-spiked garden rolls, dipped in a complex and creamy peanut sauce, hold any pleasure.
The Saigon grilled beef comes on a plate of vermicelli, the final resting place for two absolutely blackened skewers of marinated tenderloin, cherry tomatoes, onions, and peppers. The grill cook must have nodded off. The tomatoes disintegrated into an acidic mush in my mouth, not unlike the sensation you’d expect if you ate a tomato left on the ground for a couple of days in the summer. By contrast, the beef had a wonderful, aromatic flavor, rich with fruity Burgundy wine and garlic. The only problem was textural—namely, large chunks of chewy, overcooked tenderloin. While your taste buds may be tantalized, your jaw will be taxed.
The caramel chicken with lemon grass is more successful; the bite-sized bits of bird expertly coated in a deeply tanned sauce first reveal its buttery sweetness, then tickle the tongue with pepper and aromatics. The best entree, by far, is the “Buddha’s noodle delight”—a nod to the Buddhists’ vegetarianism, still an influence on Vietnamese cooking centuries after the Chinese ruled the region. The dish’s curly fried noodles provide a crunchy counterpoint to the lightly stir-fried tofu and veggies.
The fact is, Miss Saigon’s menu holds few surprises. It features the same dishes—the standard-issue overview of northern, central, and southern Vietnamese cuisines—that you’d expect to find in just about every Vietnamese restaurant in the country: a vegetable stir fry, a seafood noodle soup, and a chicken curry. But asking for menu innovation from such a middle-of-the-road operation would be like asking Panda Express to be TenPenh. What you can ask for is execution, particularly when Miss Saigon wanders into the French-inspired cuisine that has influenced Vietnamese cooking since the mid-19th century.
Take, for example, Miss Saigon’s “golden crepe,” a yellow half-moon pancake made with rice flour and stuffed with chicken, shrimp, and bean sprouts. When spiked with cilantro leaves, wrapped in a mostly soggy romaine leaf, and dipped in nuoc mam, the crepe comes alive, layering flavors and textures and temperatures like the best Vietnamese food should. But here’s the thing: The embedded shrimp are served with shells and tails still intact. The only way to eat the crepe is to pry the sucker open, peel the shrimp, and insert it back into the pancake—perhaps traditional, but not convenient.
So why doesn’t Miss Saigon try harder? It simply doesn’t have to. If the restaurant were in a different location, it could not get away with this dull, plodding service and poor execution. Like too many other eateries in Georgetown, Miss Saigon relies more on its address than its attention to good food.
Miss Saigon, 3057 M St. NW, Georgetown, (202) 333-5545. —Tim Carman
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