Beat the heat 

Cool off with spicy, refreshing flavors at Saigon Grill

click to enlarge Saigon Caf: where the spice is nice. - 2006 BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • 2006 Bruce Elliott
  • Saigon Caf: where the spice is nice.

It's been hot. Damn hot. Hot enough to fry an egg on the hood of a car, hot enough to make blacktop weep, hot enough to ruin an eating man's appetite. Seriously. But there's an alternative to getting mad at the heat: getting even.

Just like "fighting fire with fire," I recommend fighting heat with heat. And when the mercury surges past the 90-degree mark, I go to Saigon Grill, where a bevy of Vietnamese dishes can rekindle my hunger and my spirits.

Loading up on spicy food during a sweltering day may seem like folly, but most equatorial locales consume chile-laden dishes. It's no accident. Spicy food triggers perspiration, the body's natural cooling system. To the spice, Vietnamese cooks add crunchy vegetables that release cool water when bitten, refreshing the palate and replenishing some lost fluid.

Saigon Grill nicely represents these traditions in Vietnamese cooking. It offers a mosaic of flavors in a big airy space, with open ceilings, pale walls and pleasant lighting. Residual faux-finished areas exposing imaginary bricks and scenes of a European bakery provide their own intriguing contrast with the water features, painted wood panels and live, potted bamboo commonly found at Asian restaurants.

Friendly, energetic and fiercely independent, owner Hue Jo wears many hats. Jo Jo, as she's affectionately called, seats customers, waits tables and keeps the kitchen on task, all with a smile and tremendous efficiency.

She'll also willingly recommend her favorite dishes, like xao xa ot. This masterpiece gets the sweat glands working by sauting a protein of choice shrimp, scallops, chicken, pork or tofu with onions, scallions and celery in a light brown sauce. Healthy doses of hot chile and lemongrass make for a clean, spicy finish that's hard to resist.

Another perfect choice for a hot day is the goi muc goi vit. Cool, crispy carrots, cucumber and cabbage counter soft chunks of warm duck; the lemongrass, lime, heat and vinegar form a tangy web around its sweetness. Mint, cilantro and minced peanuts add extra freshness.

Pale yellow and more savory than spicy, curry dishes are equally captivating. Different from both Thai and Indian curries, Saigon Grill's beef cari has a real earthiness, with a bit of curry tang lightened by typical Vietnamese flavors such as lemongrass and bay and kaffir lime leaves. In addition to thin, remarkably tender slivers of beef, quarter rounds of potato carry the flavor fully and add texture.

Standards such as pho, bun, and goi cuon, or summer rolls, also impress. The pho is excellent, expressing the delicate flavors and silky texture that made it Vietnam's most famous soup. Bun, a hearty, protein-topped noodle bowl, is cool and refreshing, especially when spiked with the tangy fish sauce.

Both arrive with a bounty of customary accoutrements, including bean threads, mint, cilantro and hot chile slices, allowing each bite to be customized and diners to play with their food.

Prices are reasonable, with most items listed between $8 and $10, and eating here is genuinely fun. With more than 100 dishes to choose from, every meal at Saigon Grill is a new adventure, sure to stimulate all the gustatory senses. And, when confronting another 90-degree day, a great place to beat the heat. capsule

Saigon Grill

3119 W. Colorado Ave., 635-0270 or 635-0336

Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m.


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