Early on, around when ES and I were first getting to know each other, he took me to have Vietnamese food in Denver. I'd been eating phở and bún at restaurants in New York City for years—plus similar meals in cities like Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco—but when I sat down with ES and his friends at New Saigon, they steered me away from the standards and deep into strange new territory.
I haven't looked back since.
So with my parents in town, I knew that a meal at New Saigon was definitely on the list. I wanted to share with them 1) the insane and amazing "salad" I'd been ordering every time since, a hefty pile of shrimp, pork, squid, snail, jelly fish, thinly sliced pig ear, red onion, lotus stem, and slivered carrot and daikon, all scattered with peanuts, tossed in a sweet, pungent, fish sauce dressing, and served with puffy fried shrimp chips on the side;
2) the dish we simply call "that appetizer," though the portion size is anything but: grilled pork, grilled beef, grilled shrimp, and a crunchy, lacy, deep-fried shrimp paste concoction all meant to be wrapped in rice paper with lettuce, cucumbers, bean sprouts, carrots, daikon, and herbs—and then dipped in nuoc mam for eating;
plus 3) canh chua cá hoặc tôm, a bubbling fire pot of bean sprouts, tomato slices, pineapple chunks, bạc hà, celery, and catfish fillets in a spicy-sour lemongrass broth, to be spooned over rice and consumed like some kind of sweet, tangy, fish-based porridge.
My parents loved their meal at New Saigon, just as I did when I'd first eaten there, and it wasn't long before I was back with ES and his friends again, this time valiantly trying to branch away from the dishes we were so used to ordering. So in addition to "that appetizer" we ordered thit bo luc lac, often known as "shaking beef,' plus a sweet curry with scallops, potatoes, and kabocha squash which tasted strangely like a thick pumpkin soup.
Better was our order of nghêu hấp, a dish both undescribed and untranslated on the menu, but which names a platter of large steamed clams dotted with fried shallots, scallions, and herbs, and served with a sweet and spicy nuoc cham sauce. The clams were chewier and brinier than I was expecting, but the bright Vietnamese flavor profile made every bite both surprising and delicious.
Since moving to Colorado, I've concluded that the Vietnamese food in Denver surpasses anything I've had in other American cities so far. New Saigon has long been considered one of this city's best, and it's dishes like these that make me understand why. Am I now spoiled? Am I now unenthused about a bowl of phở on Baxter Street in Manhattan's Chinatown? The answer to both questions is yes—and now you know the restaurant to blame.