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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Pho Real: Saigon in Williamstown.

I know I've only been doing this a little while, but I've already run into one factor that I've seen be an issue over and over again with reviews of any kind: what is the subject being compared to? If a movie is a schlocky, ludicrous action movie, but executes that genre perfectly, do you give it high marks for precisely hitting it's target, or low ones for not being particularly intellectual or artistic? How do you grade an album by a legendary artist if it is below their usual standards, but would be a great effort coming from someone else? Do you compare a restaurant to all the others of it's "genre" you've been to, the other restaurants in the area, or to some platonic ideal of restaurant-dom, the best of all possible eateries?

This last question was brought home to me when a new Vietnamese restaurant, Saigon, opened here in Williamstown, specifically on Spring Street,the only significant commercial drag near campus. For those who haven't been up to this distant corner of Massachusetts, there had previously been only two sit-down restaurants on Spring Street, one Indian and one Thai (a pub has also since opened, which I have yet to try), so I was really eager to have another option, especially as I happen to be rather fond of Vietnamese food.

Within a week of it opening, the posts about it on our student forum began. Most were not kind, and neither was the review in the campus paper. The general consensus seemed to be that the portions were too small, the prices too high, the menu too small and (what got me onto this topic) the quality was low as compared to places they'd been at home. Several posts had variations on "just go to New York for real Vietnamese food."

Somehow I don't think a 4.5 hour drive each way for dinner is terribly practical, but nonetheless I know where the sentiment is going. We're all proud of our hometowns, and all of us have our secret haunts where we long to take our friends--"wait till you come here, it'll blow your mind." Still, the comments seemed to cross over the line into snobbery--if it's not as good as the best I've ever had, then it's not worth my time.

Eden and I went to see for ourselves soon after I read those comments. A few of the critiques did seem at least somewhat fair--the menu was somewhat short, with about 8 kinds of pho, roughly the same number of other options, and a few appetizers. The prices were on the high side as compared to most small, casual Vietnamese restaurants--although they were right in line with the other Spring Street restaurants, where entrees tend to be in the $10-15 range. Finally, when we received our food the portions were smaller than at your average Vietnamese or Chinese place; her house Pho was in a large soup bowl, rather than the huge basins you often see, and my Vietnamese pancake was perhaps 5 inches end to end (though, at $7.50, it was also the cheapest entree). The quality, however, left nothing to be desired--her broth was rich and flavorful, with crisp vegetables, well-seasoned meat, and as good noodles as I have had in Pho. My pancake was crisp, the meat inside was nicely blackened, and the accompanying sauce was tremendous--slightly sweet, but with a bit of heat and plenty of well-rounded acidity from the rice vinegar. We weren't stuffed, but didn't leave hungry either. We had definitely decided to give it another shot; in part because the place was distressingly empty, and we wanted it to have a chance to improve further.

We've been back twice since, and it seemed as though they've read their critics--and responded with flying colors. The menu has doubled in length, and now boasts plenty of bright, glossy pictures. You are now brought a basket of warm shrimp chips when you arrive. The portions have grown dramatically--the rice dishes were ample, while the pho has become downright huge. Prices have dropped steeply; most entrees are now mostly in the $7-9 range, with only 1 or 2 above $12. The quality, meanwhile is stellar--Eden's Curry Pho was an intriguing mix of Vietnamese and Thai flavors, while my special fried rice was tremendous, bursting with pieces of chicken, small shrimp and bay scallops, and chunks of Chinese sausage. By any measure, Saigon is among the best Vietnamese restaurants I've been to.

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  1. Sounds wonderful, and rare: a place that can respond to critiques will get better and better over time. Are the campus critics changing their tune at all?

  2. SInce you don't have regular access to a kitchen at college, it's good to know there is tasty food to be had nearby. Sounds good!


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