Saigon 88 in Bethel Park offers varied Pacific Rim fare
When John Ngo decided to open a second restaurant, he knew exactly where it should be.
Ngo and his wife, Kim, who own Pho Kim 88 in Castle Shannon, wanted to open a second location in a larger space that would be more accommodating for parties and larger groups.
Before opening Pho Kim 88, Ngo learned the restaurant business during a dozen years as a head chef for the Japanese restaurant chain Benihana.
A few years back, friends took him to dinner at Leonard's Living Room in Bethel Park, and at the time, he wished one day he and Kim could make it theirs.
When the restaurant closed, the Ngos got their wish.
"We changed everything to make a brand new look," Ngo says.
Saigon 88 has been open since June. Both locations feature large menus that offer Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese dishes. Each restaurant offers items not available at the other.
Vietnam's signature soup Pho is missing from the menu at Saigon 88. But there's a wider selection of Hot Pots ($15) and a bigger list of appetizers, many of which are not on the menu at Pho Kim 88.
Calling it Saigon 88 served two purposes, Ngo says.
He hoped using 88 in both restaurant names would help customers tie the two places together. Also, he adds, Asian people consider eight a lucky number and 88, which referred to the original restaurant's location on Route 88, also might bring a double helping of good luck to the venture.
Saigon 88 offers a variety of dining spaces and moods. Al fresco dining is available on a large awning-shaded wooden deck outfitted with patio tables and chairs and a scattering of palm trees. Mercifully, the high wooden railing obscures most of the view -- traffic working its way up Washington Boulevard or idling at the traffic light.
There's a more formal ambiance in the large main dining room, an attractive space with dramatic crimson walls.
Two more choices await in the bar that serves as the restaurant's entrance area. You can watch sushi masters slicing and assembling from atop tall stools at the combination bar and sushi counter. Alternately, as we were, you might be seated at one of the booths that rim the room, many of which offer a wide-angle view of suburban traffic, apartment buildings and commercial properties. The room's twin TV monitors were showing sports, but blessedly were silent. However, sound does carry easily enough that we learned far too much about the pets of the people in the adjacent booth.
Service is swift, friendly and willing, but waitstaff could be better informed about ingredients and how food is prepared.
When asked to describe what to expect from the Viet ham in the Banh-Mi sandwich ($12), neither our waitress nor the manager could offer an explanation.
The huge menu encompasses a large swath of Pacific Rim cuisines and can accommodate a wide variety of tastes and comfort levels.
One important note: Images of dishes are not necessarily positioned next to their descriptions so some confusion could result.
Adventurous diners can enjoy a starter of Snails in Coconut Sauce with Basil ($12) or an entree-sized Octopus Salad ($14), while the more timid can enjoy the relative familiarity of an Hibachi Steak dinner entree ($19) that includes choices of soup or salad, a trio of shrimp tempura or crispy chicken dumplings and steamed or chicken fried rice.
We took a middle course, beginning with a Saigon Wrap ($8), a crisply fried rice-paper wrap that encased strips of steak and omelet, sprigs of basil and cilantro, a sprinkling of sesame seeds held together by a sweet and sticky sauce with just a touch of fire. Filling and substantial, it certainly was big enough for two to share as an appetizer.
The lengthy list of sushi-roll options offered localized variations. In addition to the relatively widely received Pittsburgh Roll ($9.50) and Philadelphia Roll ($8.50), there's a Black/Gold Roll ($10.50), which is composed of New York strip steak, cucumber, crabmeat and lettuce.
We finally settled on Bluedevilicious ($10.50), eight larger-than-average sushi pieces filled with shrimp, crabmeat, cucumber and avocado wrapped round with rice and silky salmon. Each piece was topped with a sprinkling of neon red caviar and a thin slice of fresh jalapeno, a nice alternative to traditional wasabi.
We also ordered a Banh-Mi ($12), the signature Saigon sandwich that's filled with Vietnamese ingredients surrounded by a French baguette.
The mysterious ham we had inquired about turned out to be thin rounds of a white, mild, pork pate. We didn't much care for the chewy white bits in the other ham-like lunchmeat.
But the baguette was delightfully chewy and filled with crisp, fresh vegetables laced with a sweet but piquant sauce. A big pile of warm, really good french fries made a nice East/West contribution.
My dining companion opted for Banh Khot ($12), described as a Saigon Mini Crepe. Visions of shrimp, daikon, carrot pickle, lettuce, cucumber and basil rolled inside thin pancakes proved erroneous. What arrived was a collection of puffy, crisply pan-fried tiny yellow disks, each of which was topped with a plump, perfectly cooked shrimp. After we got over our confusion, we enjoyed this new-to-us taste treat and the sauce that came with it.
Accompanying the disks was a salad featuring attractively arranged vegetables, all were fresh and crunchy -- including under-ripe tomato slices.
There were three desserts on the menu. But only one -- Burnt Almond Torte ($6) -- was available. We asked for two forks to share one piece. It was a wise decision. The slice was so ridiculously large, we thought they had perhaps combined two servings onto one plate. Embellishing it with a ring of whipped cream and chocolate syrup created a sugar overload.
Although desserts are not made in-house, the Burnt Almond Torte was very good -- a sugary butter-cream icing covered four layers of light and tender cake without overwhelming it. The less than crisp almonds were a minor disappointment.
On a future visit, we hope to try the Banana Roti ($6) -- a puffy Indian-style pancake stuffed with banana and garnished with cinnamon, chocolate and fresh fruit.Additional Information:
Cuisine: Japanese, Thai and Saigonese cuisine
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays and 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Entree price range: $10-$23
Notes: Accepts reservations and most major credit cards. Outdoor deck, full bar, high chairs available. Beginning in October will offer live bands and karaoke on Saturday nights.
Location: 1778 N. Highland Road, Bethel Park
Details: 412-831-8828 or www.saigon88.net