Little Saigon, Celebrating 20 Years, Succeeds by Simply Being Itself

One of the state’s first Vietnamese restaurants stays true to its roots, no matter what the rest of the dining world is doing.

As a buddy of mine jokes, you don’t go to Little Saigon for fancy plating.

I’d add that you don’t go for fancy decor, white-glove service or a trendy drink list.

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You go with friends for a casual good time that doesn’t break the bank. You go there because the placemats are printed with the Chinese zodiac. You go there for something a little different.

And, for now, you can go to celebrate.

Little Saigon is in its 20th year in business. That’s a remarkable milestone for any restaurant, especially a modest mom-and-pop located, most definitely, off the beaten path.

In Little Saigon’s two decades, much has changed on the ethnic dining scene. I don’t mean the kind of ethnic food we’re so accustomed to—Italian, Mexican—that we take it for granted. I mean the more recently emergent Asian styles that have made some restaurants so popular and that have influenced the menus of so many American restaurants and fine dining places. (Yuzu glazed sea bass, anyone?)

Great restaurants of every kind have come and gone. Changes in ownership of the local ethnic pioneers have often diminished their quality or driven them out of business. Among the newer-wave favorites are contemporary, ethnic-ish places that, though delicious, appeal to a diner that is adventure-ish, but not ready or willing to dive deep into Bourdain territory. (You find items like jellyfish on some local Chinese menus, but you have to know that you can ask for it.) Anyone can have an authentically good experience, even if the place isn’t strictly authentic.

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A sampling of dishes at Little Saigon.//Photo by Javy Diaz

Mango chicken with young ginger.//Photo by Javy Diaz

In every way, Little Saigon is the counterpoint, and a bit of an enigma. Of the first three Vietnamese restaurants to set up in the state, it is the last, and it remains despite the opening of places that serve trendy fare such as banh mi and restaurants that specialize in pho, the traditional noodle soup. Little Saigon also shows the old French Colonial influence on the country’s cuisine, even as modern American tastes veer toward increasingly popular street fare.

Nor does Little Saigon share the contemporary design sense of newer restaurants—its mauve walls are decorated with a poster advertising Yellow Tail wine, a star-shaped mirror for Sapporo beer, prints for old art exhibitions and the like—and the placemats may make it feel more like the Chinese restaurants that seemed so exotic 40 years ago, but that’s why we like it.

We visited most recently early on a weeknight to find only one other couple there. As my guest struck up a conversation with the other gentleman about classic cars, others arrived. Still, it was so quiet at times, you could hear spatulas tinging on the flattop in the kitchen.

Fried calamari served with special sauce.//Photo by Javy Diaz

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We began with muc chien, or squid, which we could hear frying. It arrived as large batter-dipped rings that were slightly overcooked. No matter. The sweet-and-sour dipping sauce balanced flavors perfectly and finished with a delightful little kick.

The menu of about a dozen traditional soups included several versions of pho, but we were intrigued by the canh saigon shrimp soup for two. Such soups play a central role in any Vietnamese meal, so skipping the course would diminish the experience. Little Saigon’s features a straightforward consommé of fish with tamarind and tomato that made a perfect sweet-and-sour contrast. The chunks of pineapple were a bit cloying, but the shrimp were large, and there were several.

Hot & sour shrimp and mushroom in exotic lemon grass and lime flavor.//Photo by Javy Diaz

We continued with a sampler of appetizers, khai vi dac biet. The strips of grilled beef topped with grape leaves and crushed peanuts tasted of the grill. The three beef meatballs had the intriguing whiff of something like five spice. We were bowled over by balls of shrimp skewered with strips of sugar cane that lent a hint of sweetness to a meat that took plenty of smoke from the grill. The red and yellow dipping sauce was swirled into a yin and yang symbol that represented a fine balance of heat and sweetness.

Grilled meatballs served with lettuce, rice vermicelli and rice papers.//Photo by Javy Diaz

Little Saigon offers a range of rice and noodle dishes, and there are stir-fried entrées centered on everything from fowl (chicken and duck) to beef and pork to seafood to faux meats made of vegetable proteins. We opted for good beef with broccoli, peppers, onions and a bit of cubed pineapple, and for tom and ga xao dong co, shrimp and slices of chicken breast sautéed with black mushrooms and brown oyster sauce, with plenty of crinkle-cut carrots and crisp snow peas. It was earthy and delicious.

Not everyone will share my opinion. Though there are big fans on review sites such as Yelp, others have been uncharitable. But I think those reviewers miss the point. Little Saigon doesn’t bend toward the trends. It isn’t city slick. It is a humble restaurant just making its way in a world full of competition, as it has for longer than most. We’ll see how long the newer places last.

Little Saigon Restaurant
2938 Ogletown Road, Newark
Prices: Appetizers, $3.95–$14.95 (for shared dishes); entrées, $9.75–$18.50; desserts, $2.25–$3.75
Recommended: Shrimp soup for two, the deluxe appetizer for two, tom and ga xao dong co

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