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Due East of Eatin'

Saigon Palace
Robert Scheer

Woman Facing Southeast: Mai Lee, owner of Scotts Valley's Saigon Palace, proudly shows off an assortment of her restaurant's tasty, authentic Vietnamese culinary treats.

Saigon Palace delivers authentic Vietnamese cuisine in an appealing setting--fresh, vibrant flavors for incredibly low prices

By Christina Waters

RESTAURANTS SPECIALIZING in the flavors of Vietnamese cooking are rare in the Santa Cruz area. Those adept in preparing the seafood and vegetable classics of this French-influenced Southeast Asian cuisine are even rarer, which is why I knew I had to enlist Vince as my dining partner for my second visit to Saigon Palace. Having grown up with his Vietnamese mom's home cooking--featuring the prominent seasonings of lemon grass, cilantro, mint and coconut--Vince was an accomplished tour guide. And he loves to eat.

While Vince sipped his sweet refreshing Vietnamese iced tea (the touch of coconut milk provides the distinctive accent) and I quenched my thirst with a chilled Tsing Tao (a more assertive brew than the ephemeral Saigon Beer I'd had on my previous visit), we combed the menu.

The tropical mood of Saigon Palace makes a welcome contrast from the long architecturally eclectic strip that is Scotts Valley Drive. Lots of bamboo and bougainvillea blend to create thatched pavilions over each deep blue-padded booth. There are enormous plantings of jungle trees, and everything is playfully draped with twinkling white lights. The staff is friendly and helpful in explaining menu items that can be obscure in the way of explanation. The place is obviously popular, especially at lunchtime.

A lover of hands-on appetizers, I'd happily worked my way through a gorgeous presentation of the house Vietnamese egg rolls ($4.99)--crisp, miraculously greaseless creations stuffed with minced shrimp and chicken that arrive on a huge rattan tray mounded high with leaves of butter lettuce, mint, cilantro, daikon radish and long strips of carrot. Like many of the dishes we explored, this one allows you to wrap the central item up in lettuce, tuck in bits of fresh herbs and then dip each bite into either a peanut-based sauce or a sweet nam pla fish sauce, to which we added spoonfuls of fiery chili paste.

Vince and I did the same sort of custom flavor-building with our order of shrimp with pork rolls ($4.99). Only instead of being deep-fried, this blend of crisp lettuce, bean sprouts, pork and shrimp was tightly rolled into soft rice paper wrappers. The rolls ended up being much more satisfying than an order of flame-broiled pork meatballs ($6.99) we'd sampled that were completely without detectable flavor.

Our next order of Vietnamese-style crepe ($4.99) was one of Vince's childhood favorites. "The rice is soaked overnight," he explained, "and then puréed with eggs." The resulting batter is poured over shrimp and pork, cooked, then served in a huge wedge along with the ubiquitous cilantro, mint and greens for garnishing. The sweetness wedded to the shrimp is wonderfully exotic to Western palates, and each morsel acquired sparkle thanks to that haunting combination of cilantro and fresh mint.

Our main dishes showed off what the Saigon Palace kitchen could do with seasoned stir-fries and clay pot specialties. Having been disappointed by a previous encounter with an impeccably sauced but overcooked crab (seasonally priced), I was delighted by a clay pot of home-style curry chicken ($6.50) filled with chicken, carrots and potatoes bathed in curried coconut milk. "My mother probably wouldn't have added the potatoes," Vince teased.

As good as the curry stew was--served in a portion large enough for two people--I was entranced by a stir-fry of tofu and sweet/hot vegetables ($4.50), the only dish that came with its own interior firepower. Fat cubes of lightly fried tofu mingled with expertly sautéed baby bok choy, carrots, onions, straw mushrooms and baby corn. There was a glorious afterburner on this complex dish, which underscored my adage that hot food and cold beer go a long way toward making life worth living. Vince and I both agreed that the tofu sauté was a dish for which we'd come back.

Saigon Palace does a fine job with dishes like breast of chicken marinated in a rich lemon grass-intensive sauce and then perfectly grilled ($6.50). But it's worthwhile moving off the beaten track a bit with a dish like the catfish clay pot ($6.50), showcasing moist, plump filets of catfish crusted with black pepper, braised in a thick molassesy sauce very much like a Japanese unagi sauce. Served in its thick clay pot, it was a knockout with the perfect white rice that accompanied it.

If the unfinished dishes Vince took home from Saigon Palace last week weren't his mom's home cooking, they were a satisfying substitute.

Saigon Palace

Address: 5600 Scotts Valley Drive
Phone: 438-6888
Hours: Mon.­Fri. 10am­9pm, Sat.­Sun. 11:30am­9pm
Price: Inexpensive
Ambiance: ** Spacious, playful, unpretentious
Service: **1/2 Smart, swift, helpful
Cuisine: ** 1/2 Some terrific specialties, some inconsistencies
Overall: One of only two Vietnamese restaurants in our area, Saigon Palace offers a menu of freshly prepared, interactive dishes that combine authenticity and a light hand--plus, the price is right.

****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay

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From the March 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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