Walking into Le Saigon, I smell the cool, watery green scent of cucumbers. And indeed, from my seat I can peek into the back of this tiny Vietnamese cafe and see, behind a bamboo screen, a man chopping cucumbers into fine julienned strips. He‘s chopping heaps of slivered cucumber, with steady rhythm and concentration. He chops the entire time I’m there for lunch, about an hour. I wouldn‘t be surprised if he kept at it all day long, considering the steady stream of food pouring out of the kitchen and the steady stream of customers pouring in the front door.
Le Saigon is a find that a good many people have already found: businessmen, couples, pals, moviegoers. Just a block from the Royal movie theater on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles, it’s a preferred spot for a quick bite before or after an art film. (Though there‘s been a line every time I’ve gone, the wait has never been long, and it‘s always been worth it.) I’ve consistently heard Vietnamese spoken at this or that neighboring table, and why not? Le Saigon serves some of the best Vietnamese food on the Westside.
Start with cha gio, or imperial roll, a fried, meat-filled tube that‘s served with lettuce, fresh basil and fish sauce. Wrap it in a lettuce leaf with some herb and a bit of shredded carrot, then dip in the sauce: The result is hot and cold, decadently deep-fried and virtuously fresh, meaty and saladlike, all in the same bite. I would wish for a more generous amount of lettuce leaves and fresh herbs to pack into the little rolls, but one happily makes do.
Spring rolls are delicious; I like the charbroiled pork roll with warm, seared, deeply flavorful pork tightly wrapped with lots of that juicy cucumber and vermicelli, then dipped in a plum sauce with peanuts. The pork-and-shrimp roll is a lighter and slightly blander version. Tofu spring rolls are also available.
Pho, that curative rice-noodle soup, is terrific here. The broth is the quintessential element, and this one is complex and deeply satisfying: Beefy and scented with fresh herbs, it’s earthy and rich without being a bit oily. One of the great virtues of Vietnamese food is its lightness -- others are its big flavors and its reliance on absolutely fresh ingredients. Each bowl of pho comes generously scattered with scallions and herbs; a side plate holds fresh lime and bean sprouts. If you want more spice, there are two hot sauces on the table, but taste before you doctor your soup; one of them is incendiary! Pho comes with a choice of beef -- meatballs or sliced, well-cooked or rare (I like the rare). Especially recommended for cold sufferers and comfort seekers is the chicken pho ga.
The bun, or rice-vermicelli dishes, are enormous bowls of white noodles topped with scallions, herbs, raw vegetables (cucumber, carrots) and your choice of meat, tofu, chicken or shrimp. You can‘t lose here. Dunk in the little dish of fish sauce and dig in: In a good bun, the flavors change with each bite. At the beginning, it may seem a little bland -- a bite of meat, a bite of noodle -- but as you get deeper and deeper into the bowl, the herbs and sauces and flavors blend and intensify. It’s a compelling dish, and again, I like the crispy-seared meatiness of the charbroiled pork. But you needn‘t limit yourself: Order bun Saigon dac biet, with meat, shrimp and imperial rolls, all in one bowl. There’s also the bun nem nuong cha gio, with tasty pork meatball and imperial roll.
Rice plates are simple meals of salad, rice and meat; the pork chops are just right: crisp, juicy, well-seasoned. Again, you can go whole hog and get pork chops, shrimp and imperial roll all on one plate.
Cafe sua da, or Saigon coffee, fresh-dripped and mixed with condensed milk, is unbelievably delicious hot or iced, and a profound pick-me-up. The dessert to try is che ba mau, a classic confection of sweet beans, Jell-O and sugar syrup.
The to-go menu reads: ”Le Saigon, a charming little Vietnamese cuisine.“ Exactly.
11611 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A.; (310) 312-2929. Open Tues.--Sun. for lunch and dinner. Entrees $5--$6.99. No alcohol. Takeout. Street parking. Cash only. Recommended dishes: charbroiled pork roll, pho, bun (rice vermicelli).