620 Amsterdam Avenue
New York, NY 10024
(212) 875-9072

I'm always on the lookout for a new restaurant. And the more famous the restaurant, the more likely it is that someone will actually bother to read this digital rag. So along comes Mr. Dogz with Saigon Grill. While some places, like Lucky Cheng's, are famous for their sexuality, vibe and kitch, and others, like Per Se, are famous for their food, ludicrous prices and celebrity clientele, Saigon Grill is famous for (allegedly) treating its employees like something scraped off a zookeeper's shoe. But hey, fame is fame, right? Didn't a celebrity once say "speak ill of me, but speak of me" in reference to her tabloid-fodder life?

The Upper West Side is replete with affordable dining options. They tend to be less trendy and more casual. Less about the presentation and more about the food. More inexpensive than the average bear. So Saigon Grill, on Amsterdam Avenue, was just what the wallet ordered. It was not, I regret to say, the most satisfying prescription.

Saigon Grill is something of an odd duck. On the one hand, it looks like it used to be an old fashioned steakhouse. The room is dark, lit only by dimly glowing globes hanging from the ceiling. The molding on the walls are a dark wood, as are the tables and booths. Some of the walls that separate the dining areas are glass. But on the other hand, it's a diner. A Vietnamese diner the same way that Jackson Diner is an Indian one. The chairs are cheap, the napkins are paper, the service is brusk, and there are those sugar packet organizer thingies on the table.

Like I said, the service needs some improvement. The place is massive and it was packed. It easily has 100 tables spanning three or four dining areas. Divide about three waiters amongst the crowd, and about a dozen servers whose sole function is to pour water and clear tables (who speak zero English), and there brewed a bit of frustration within me. When our dishes were being delivered, they were delivered one at a time and a few minutes apart. We thought that they'd forgotten our order. We'd sit and stare at this one lonely plate on the table, hoping that its friend would arrive so we could dig in. Very sloppy.

But what were those orders?

Mr. Dogz had the Goi Cuon Tom, a shrimp summer roll. It's a cold vegetarian roll, filled with all sorts of goodies in a lettuce wrap and served with a plum sauce. This was great. In the summer, I can see this as the perfect meal starter on a hot day. Food critic that I pretend to be, I could simply not resist the Appetizer Platter for One. I'll break it down into the four appetizers I'd have had should I have everything piecemeal. Cha Gio, a crispy fried spring roll with a pork, shrimp, mushroom puree. I wasn't expecting the puree texture inside, but it worked and was very tasty. I'd order this again. Up next was the also very good Cha Gio Chay, a vegetarian spring roll. This was a completely different taste than the first spring roll was but was equally as good. This appetizer came with two dipping sauces, a sweet one and a peanut one. Both were excellently complimentary of this dish. The third appetizer on the plate was Chao Tom, a shrimp and a stick of sugar cane coated in batter and deep fried. I liked it. I was very different and I don't think I'd make a steady diet of it, especially with the sugar cane being so chewy, but I'd certainly recommend it and I'd certainly order it again. Up next are two standards that everyone who wants to try Vietnamese food orders so they can say they ate it but didn't have to stray too far from their American palate. The Bo Nuong Sate (grilled beef on a skewer with peanuts and a peanut sauce) and the Ga Nuong Sate (grilled chicken on a skewer with peanuts abd a peanut sauce). They were fine. But not more than fine. I wasn't drooling for more when I finished. Oh yeah, the appetizer also came with a little side salad.

The entrees we ordered, as I said, came numerous minutes apart for some reason. Once they did come, neither were especially impressive. Given the little red chili pepper picture next to each of our entrees on the menu, there was the implication that they were hot and spicy. In fact they weren't remotely so. I feel lied to. Had they not had that pepper symbol, I'd have ordered something else. Curry Bo was my dish. As implied by the name, it's a curry dish. I love curry. If I see curry on a menu, I always put it on the short list of things to pick. Hell, I ordered curry at Lounge 47, and that was a bar. But here, the taste was completely two dimensional. Dogz ordered the Basil Beef, which was better, but not by much. This dish was essentially beef with vegetables in a basil sauce. Both it and mine needed more flavor and felt like something that could have been spooned out a trough at a lunchtime hot salad bar buffet. One nice thing that the staff did was allow me to substitute the standard white or brown rice for the Coconut Sticky Rice at no charge. The best coconut sticky rice I've ever had was at a great place in the East Village called Blue Velvet 1929. It sadly went out of business a few years ago. This rice did not compare.

I may be alone here in my opinion about Saigon Grill. Mr. Dogz suggested the place and he said he usually likes what he gets. The people on Yelp seem to gravitate towards the good over the bad. Maybe if I lived nearby and wanted something that wasn't too expensive, but with the Upper West Side being such a trek for me, I can't legitimately see myself going out of my way again.

A beer, a sake, two appetizers, two entrees, and free tea at every table, plus tax and tip, rolled in at $58.75.

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