4455 El Cajon Boulevard, North Park
619-284-4215 or 619-284-4288
There are restaurants more specialized in pho, the traditional meal-in-a-soup dish, but the Saigon gets the balance right: atmosphere, families, airiness, and delicious pho. Pho is generally a beef noodle soup, the "Vietnamese hamburger." Dark liquid fills it, but it's thatched like a healthy marsh with all sorts of growth: bean sprouts, rice noodles, different kinds of vegetables and herbs like scallions, cilantro, mint, and, of course, slices of beef, placed there raw. They cook in the hot juices. Add a little soy sauce. A little Sriracha hot chili sauce to add zip. The bonus here is that the whole place feels Vietnamese: The high-ceilinged hall is painted white, with giant chocolate-colored wooden beams and long forest and beach murals evoking Vietnam. Go Sunday, when three or four generations gather. You feel part of the general buzz: people scraping chairs, going over to other tables to greet relatives, the music, the noodly smells.