“Low carb, low fat, low cholesterol” reads the front of my menu as a friend and I take a seat in the busy dining room of Naples’ Miss Saigon Gourmet.
Dining out can be a serious diet buster. Salads come laden with creamy dressings, portions are two to three times larger than a suggested serving and a couple of cocktails can put the final licking on healthy eating efforts.
In one restaurant where I worked even the Brussels sprouts were sautéed in duck fat. They were delicious, of course, but low fat? No way.
At Miss Saigon, however, flavor and nutritional value aren’t mutually exclusive. The small restaurant located on Tamiami Trail south of Pine Ridge Road boasts a menu of well-prepared Vietnamese fare that won’t leave you groaning or penciling in two-a-days for the rest of the week.
When it opened in 2005 Miss Saigon was a tiny store front – just a handful of tables and a perpetually busy take out counter peopled with locals lining up for South Asian delicacies like fresh spring rolls, rice vermicelli with braised salmon and shredded chicken sandwiches with homemade mayo, cucumber, pickled carrots and cilantro.
Last January the hole in the wall expanded. Taking over the space next door, Miss Saigon converted its new real estate into a lovely dining room full of quirky details like a small bamboo tiki bar or walls accented with intricate thread paintings and framed displays of Vietnamese butterflies. In honor of the holiday season a midget-sized electronic singing Santa Claus now graces the doorway to the dining room.
Today, my friend and I start with the Miss Saigon spring rolls (two for $4.95), shrimp and shredded chicken with bean sprouts, cilantro, lettuce and vermicelli all wrapped in rice paper with a side of peanut sauce. The rolls are refreshing and crisp but fairly bland. Mostly I taste the thick peanut sauce and the dollop of tangy Sriracha hot sauce that I’m dipping them in.
In between bites I sip on a cup of hot ginger twist tea ($3.00/pot for one). Miss Saigon offers a variety of interesting teas available in two sizes. The ginger twist is a surprisingly bright daffodil color with a clean citrus flavor. Although the restaurant offers other exotic beverages like mango juice and Thai iced coffee, the tea is soothing on the beginnings of a sore throat.
For a main course I decide on pho (pronounced “fuh”), a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup served with thin strips of tender beef ($8.95, medium; $9.95, large). At Miss Saigon the soup comes in two separate dishes. A deep square bowl holds the body of the meal: delicate rice noodles, hunks of scallion and thin slices of beef that shed their pinkish tint as they finish cooking in the hot broth. A small side plate is piled with the contrasting textures of crunchy bean sprouts, sprigs of basil, a juicy lime wedge and a few slices of jalapeño. As in many Vietnamese dishes, the pho is only complete after you add the provided condiments to the soup along with a teaspoon of hoisin sauce and another dash of the ubiquitous bright red Sriracha.
Together the ingredients blend into a delicious amalgamation of spice, citrus, sweet herbs and meaty flavor. It is Vietnamese comfort food, and I feel content and cozy as I drag large heaps of noodles and beef into my mouth.
My friend has picked out one of the mid-week specials, a spiced beef stew with noodles that arrives in a large black bowl. While the basic ingredients of his lunch – rice noodles, beef and basil – are similar to mine, the flavors are completely unique.
The stew swims in a rich beef broth accented with hints of cloves, cinnamon or maybe nutmeg. Large chunks of carrot mingle with the beef and noodles and an orange slice floats in the large bowl. Its flavors are decidedly Asian, but there is something classically hearty about this unusual beef stew. We both agree that it’s an excellent choice.
While we eat a bamboo fountain in one corner of the restaurant sends the calming sound of water rippling through the room where it mingles with Vietnamese music and the low rumble of conversation.
The ambiance is tranquil, the food tasty and the prices utterly reasonable. Our whole meal comes to $29.50 before tip, and I’m relieved that I won’t need to spend an extra hour on the treadmill to work it off. I will, however, need to head back to Miss Saigon for another lunch soon. Next time, I’m trying the pan-fried fish with ginger.