We were saddened to hear that Mai's Garden, which blazed the trail for Vietnamese food easily accessible by residents of Webster Groves, Affton, Shrewsbury and far southwest St. Louis city, was closing its doors after about a four-year run. But soon thereafter came news of a change of ownership and name but a continuation of the availability of goi cuon, ga xao xa ot, pho and all the other yummies we'd grown to love.
Just in time for the curtain call at the Fox Theatre of the megamusical of the same name, the new place reopened as Miss Saigon under the supervision of husband-and-wife team Si and Nga Vo -- he in the kitchen, she out front -- ably supported by an enthusiastic and amusing serving staff. The pair is well acquainted with the restaurant biz, with Si's sister owning the oldest Vietnamese place in town, Mai Lee, and Nga's sister an owner of Pho Grand, another longtime Vietnamese spot here.
Miss Saigon retains the reasonably minimalist motif of decor of its predecessor, with stylized photographs of women in Vietnamese dress on one wall, a Buddha and a plate of fresh fruit on the counter and geometric-shaped mirrors on the opposite wall. (Given the frequency with which they've been appearing in strip-mall restaurants, the geometric-shaped-mirror man must be doing a land-office business this year.) Green-trimmed tables and black-vinyl chairs lend the place a clean simplicity.
The menu, too, is minimalist by local Vietnamese-restaurant standards, although it grew even during the week between our two visits. Only 33 items are featured on the main menu, with the six on the special menu (supplemented by six more by the time we returned). But also in keeping with Vietnamese-restaurant standards, most of the items -- full-meal soups, noodle dishes, rice plates and beef, chicken, shrimp and vegetarian entrees -- are dirt-cheap but huge, topping out at just $6.95 for the shrimp dishes.
The specials are a bit higher but still nowhere near pricey, generally running $6-$12, and the portion sizes are larger and designed to be shared. And it was here that we found an enticing signature dish, eagerly promoted to us by our waitress, with the slightly misleading title of "catfish in caramel sauce."
The so-called caramel sauce did, in fact, have just a hint of sweetness, but it was actually a black-pepper reduction that also mixed in hints of tang and saltiness as well. It arrived in a clay pot suitable for a miniaturized first act of Macbeth. The thick brown sauce roiled over the edges of four pieces of catfish divided into steaks and side quarters, served with an inverted dome of white rice. Be careful -- this preparation retains the bones, so significant dexterity is required to fillet off the flesh, but you're rewarded by moist, tender fish with a full body that easily stands up to the multiflavored sauce.
Another interesting special, which we adapted into an appetizer, was the sautéed water spinach, not really spinach at all but rather a water-grown plant that tastes a whole lot like spinach but also has a crisp, tubular stem that sucks in sauce like a straw. In this case, the very large portion -- enough for two of us to share -- carried mild garlic overtones but also had touches of black pepper and was mixed in with fresh raw cilantro.
A third special, Vietnamese bird's nest -- so called because of a base of a "nest" of fried, narrow-gauge noodles rather than the actual use of a bird's nest, as in the Chinese-soup delicacy -- was OK, with another large portion, this time of chicken, beef, shrimp and fake crab, along with crinkle-cut carrots, snow peas and bok choy, all served within the "nest" atop a bed of fresh lettuce. One minor disappointment, though, came because the waitress had touted how well Miss Saigon does squid, and squid was listed among the ingredients, but apparently the squid chef had stepped out briefly when our order was finalized.
From the main menu, we sampled all three of the available appetizers, with the fried egg roll -- cha gio -- pretty standard but the goi cuon and bi cuon (shrimp and pork and shredded pork, respectively, rolled in rice paper with fresh vegetables) both outstanding, just bounding with textures and fresh flavors. We also were very impressed with the tom rang muoi, four "salty" (but not very) shelled-to-the-tail jumbo shrimp served in a tantalizing scallion, egg and garlic mixture with fresh cucumbers and tomatoes, as well as the hoahn thahn mi, a big bowl of egg-noodle soup with about a half-dozen slices of roast pork and three boiled pork-and-shrimp wontons, as well as a side plate full of sprouts accompanied by fresh cilantro, a lime and a hot red chile pepper.
The byzantine world of liquor regulation meant that, as of a few weeks ago at least, Miss Saigon was not yet able to serve the beers and house wines on its menu, so we settled on one visit for the Vietnamese iced coffee, dark-roast coffee dripped freshly into your glass atop sweetened condensed milk, and on another for the supercharged Vietnamese style of lemonade (twice as tart, twice as sweet). No desserts were yet offered, but the sweetened iced coffee was also recommended as a final course, although I wouldn't recommend it unless you're planning to stay up most of the night.
On both of our trips, we were visited by virtually the entire staff, from our own server to anyone else working the room to boss lady Nga, and our waiter profusely but needlessly apologized when he left us alone for just a few minutes at the end of our meal. They're really putting in the extra effort at Miss Saigon, and the combination of bargain-priced everyday items and adventurous specials makes me think the restaurant is for a long run.
MISS SAIGON, 7435 Watson Rd. (Kenrick Plaza, Shrewsbury), 314-918-7411. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun., Mon., Wed. &Thu.; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri. & Sat. Entrees: $3.95-$12.