Crispy fried whole fish is something I could really get into. The way the fish is served, its flanks deftly sliced, the meat on the verge of falling-apart-suppleness — stop staring at the maraschino cherry eyes. Go ahead, dig in with your chopsticks. You won’t ever look back.
At Saigon Grill, the location adjacent to Union Square, the ca chien, a crispy, 1 1/2 pound sea bass, is served Vietnamese style, swimming (pun intended) in traditional sweet and sour sauce that’s just a touch spicy and loaded with slices of mild, white onion, and red and green bell peppers.
I’m already envisioning a crispy whole fish streak: How many Asian cultures have their own variation? (It’s meant to be a rhetorical question, folks.)
I recall having a Thai version at Thai Angel, my former local Thai spot in Soho, and a Japanese version involving a whole fried blowfish at The Fish Joint in Oceanside, Ca. an only-in-So-Cal Japanese restaurant run by a couple of redheaded brothers equally serious about their restaurant, surfing and punk rock. (I have photo evidence of this blowfish — will track it down.)
Not to be overshadowed by the excellence of the whole fried fish, Saigon Grill is generally known to be a legitimate spot for Vietnamese food, and I can attest that the fried crab claw appetizer (pictured) was like a crab meat fritter hybrid, oh so good, and the summer rolls (not pictured) were among some of the best I’ve had in the city — which is sort of a big deal.
Summer rolls have almost reached that status of something I’ve stopped ordering, because too often they’re done all wrong: the rice paper is gummy, or too thick; the shrimp inside are bland, probably pre-cooked, previously frozen; the fresh herbs either lacking entirely or just not vibrant. There’s nothing more disappointing than a summer roll that is but a sad, bland vehicle for sauce.
Not the case at Saigon Grill.