This review was originally published in the Tiempo Dining Out section of the El Paso Times on November 8, 2013 as part of a series of monthly reviews that feature vegetarian friendly restaurants in the El Paso region.
With only a handful of Vietnamese restaurants sprinkled throughout El Paso, Saigon Taste has been a godsend for the past six years in West El Paso. The restaurant is deceptively larger than the front would indicate. A fish tank, simple décor, ample seating, and two televisions at each end of the long restaurant welcome you in.
The menu is so overwhelmingly extensive, you may want to order from the vegetarian menu just to help narrow down choices. Even so, it’s difficult to choose from more than 10 options. It’s best to start off with an appetizer, No. 69 goi cuon chay, to buy time to peruse the menu. Two spring rolls wrapped in rice paper are stuffed with fresh lettuce, bean sprouts, cucumber, rice vermicelli noodles and a large slice of fried tofu. Expertly rolled, the contents don’t spill out everywhere. The rolls come with a thick, house-made peanut sauce that adds much flavor to the fresh rolls.
Like most Vietnamese restaurants, pho (usually pronounced fu, like fun) is their signature and most popular dish. With so many pho options, it’s almost a blessing for vegetarians to be restricted to No. 60 pho chay, the veggie pho. Your server will ask if you want steamed or fried tofu and beef or veggie broth. The large bowl of steaming, fragrant soup is both daunting and comforting. Generous portions of rice noodles, blocks of tofu and fresh vegetables swim in the flavorful broth that has hints of star anise and chile heat. In the soup are carrot, broccoli, Napa cabbage, red bell pepper and scallions. The fun thing about pho is that you get to dress it with various fresh garnishes, chile paste, Sriracha or hoisin sauce. Garnishes consist of bean sprouts, cilantro, fresh jalapeño slices and onions. Sadly, Thai basil and other fresh herbs typically served at pho restaurants in other cities are missing here.
Many of the vegetarian dishes have similar ingredients but different sauces, which aren’t described on the menu. Two clay pot dishes differ in name and price, but not in size. The waitress convinced me that No. 66 was much more flavorful, with its spicy, teriyaki-like sauce. Steamed rice accompanied by lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, cilantro and, I think, shredded daikon arrived first. Shortly, a small pot arrived with sizzling cubes of tofu and caramelized white onions topped with green onions and fresh jalapeño slices. The dark, garlicky sweet soy sauce created a caramelized coating on the tofu that was really flavorful and not cloying. My only nitpick was that I thought I detected a slight taste of fish sauce or shrimp paste, but the waitress assured me there was none in the dish.
Other notable, recommended dishes: No. 61 stir fried rice vermicelli with tofu and vegetables, No. 65 coconut curry, and No. 68 Vietnamese crepe filled with tofu and vegetables, with house soy sauce. No. 67 is an especially intriguing dish with lemon grass vegetarian “chicken,” which is actually dried bean curd sheets, often referred to as tofu skin, rehydrated, cut up and stir-fried.
Vietnamese dessert options and boba teas are available, but I skipped them since service, while courteous, was somewhat slow and absent at times. Beer and wine are also available.
While pho in El Paso isn’t as cheap as other cities, Saigon Taste is a great getaway from the food norm and busyness of life. Don’t be surprised if you’re craving it on a daily or weekly basis.