by Robert Bell
For several years, if you wanted Pho in Little Rock, you had a couple of options, namely Saigon on Cantrell Road or Van Lang on South University Avenue. A friend of mine took me to Saigon more than a decade ago and introduced me to Pho, the rich, savory Vietnamese noodle soup served with rare, thin-sliced steak, brisket, flank, sprouts, onions and basil.
I liked it, but kind of forgot about it for a while. However, during a stint in Texas in 2008 and 2009, I became … well, obsessed is a bit hyperbolic. Let’s just say I became very strongly interested in Pho, probably because in Central Texas you literally cannot throw a rock without it hitting a Vietnamese noodle shop, bouncing off and hitting another Vietnamese noodle shop before finally landing.
Flash forward to early 2010: I’m living in Little Rock, and when I got a Pho craving, I had only those two options. Van Lang was all right, but frankly, Saigon was very disappointing. After giving it many, many chances and getting bowl after bowl of subpar soup, often after a wait of a half-hour or longer, I just gave up. And then along came the excellent Pho Thanh My on Shackelford Road, which consistently serves some of the best Pho I’ve ever had anywhere.
At some point last year, I believe, Saigon moved. It was still on Cantrell Road, several miles to the west in a newer shopping center. I didn’t give the place a second thought, though, until recently. All this winding up is to say: I went to the new Saigon, ordered the Pho with steak, flank and soft tendon, and it was really good. And it came out in 15 minutes or so. The broth was rich and flavorful, the meat was plentiful and the portion was just right. All the accoutrements – sprouts, basil, lime and jalapeno – were lively and fresh.
The only knock I have — and I realize it probably doesn’t sound like it would be a big deal, but it is for me — is that I asked for no cilantro, and there was a small amount of cilantro in the soup. Not like a full heaping, more like some incidental cilantro. Still, for those of us who absolutely cannot tolerate this pungent, non-food – a so-called “herb” – any amount is too much. Ugh. Foul ruiner of meals, a pox upon you!
(Side note: before anybody starts in with the “What? What do you mean? It’s so fresh and minty tasting!” spiel, allow me to point out for the record: No, it most certainly is not fresh and minty tasting. Mint is fresh and minty tasting. Cilantro is a gag-inducing assault on the palate that tastes of an unholy synthesis of dish soap, metal and B.O. Also: I am not alone on this.)
Anyway, overall I was pleasantly surprised by the new Saigon, and if I get a hankering for noodle soup and I’m in the neighborhood, I’d go again without hesitation.
UPDATE: more info about Saigon, including hours and address, available here.