Saigon Love Boat is also designed for sharing. It's a seafood combination served in a glazed ceramic boat-shaped dish with a craning bird for a figurehead. Inside are shrimp, mussels, dried calamari (looking like baby corncobs), and tilapia, all wrapped inside banana leaves, then rewrapped in aluminum foil. The double "papillotes" keep the seafood tender in the oven. The sauce is pleasantly fishy, seasoned with Kaffir lime leaf and herbs. It took a bit of work to detect all the morsels in the dark sauce surrounded by layers of insulation -- the waitress helped us find the last of them before she cleared the plate: "There's a mussel -- you don't see it? And a shrimp here!"
"Fish of Hué is one of our most popular dishes," said the handsome waiter who served us at our first dinner. You have a choice between sea bass and salmon (we chose bass) that's been marinated in garlic, ginger, and lemon grass, then battered and pan-fried with red and green peppers and white onion in a light, sweet sauce. Popular, perhaps, but we didn't find it especially exciting.
Carrying the theme of sweetness to its ultimate, Tamarind Crab consists of a whole crab in its shell sautéed in a thick, sticky sauce of tamarind and honey, then chopped into large pieces for serving. Some pieces were overcooked, most were just right, but the sauce tastes like the standard universal rendition, whether you're eating in Hong Kong, Lampong, or Haiphong. "Every time I order this dish," said my partner, "I end up telling myself, 'I shoulda gotten the garlic crab (or the chili crab, or the black bean crab) instead.' Next time, remind me to order something else." It's also messy eating -- between the weighty sweetness and the sticky fingers, none of us managed to consume very much.
Bun -- spicy noodle salad -- is indeed a boon, a welcome palate-clearer after the crab, and also a perfect light dish to start a meal. (You'll find it listed on the last page of the menu, like an afterthought.) You get a pile of thin white rice vermicelli plus your protein of choice, surrounded by piles of mint, basil, bean sprouts, cucumber sticks, and tomato quarters. You toss it like a salad as best you can and dress it from a separate bowl of nuoc cham, the sweet-spicy light-red chili sauce. With its clean, healthy flavors, this seems more typical of classic Vietnamese cuisine than the heavily sweetened dishes here.
The theme that runs through the menu is honey, often combined with tamarind into a tropical sweet-sour. This is not a major flaw, but the sameness grows annoying. While most Vietnamese restaurants lack so pronounced a sweet tooth, these dishes aren't adapted so much to American tastes, says the owner, as to the tastes of the French colonials.
The restaurant offers just two desserts: coconut-fried banana and Vietnamese-French "flan" (crème caramel). We passed. Not only were we full, but we'd had our share of sweetness for an evening. Yet we were also content. The only other local Vietnamese restaurant that I know of to serve the cosmopolitan French-influenced dishes of South Vietnam is Le Bambou in Del Mar. At Saigon on Fifth, you can enjoy a distinctive version of this cuisine without a fraught passage through the I-5 "Merge of Death." As the Governator used to say, "I'll be back."
ABOUT THE OWNERS
Saigon-born Richard Hong Luu comes from a Vietnamese restaurant family. "My uncle owned a restaurant in Saigon that only the upper class could afford -- royalty, ambassadors, corporate businessmen. The food was a combination of Vietnamese and French, from the colonial era in the country. He had to charge a lot -- $20 per dish! -- because the food took a lot of labor and good ingredients."
Luu's mother is Vietnamese, his father is Chinese. "We've always had Chinese restaurants, but my mother wanted to do a Vietnamese restaurant -- more fresh." In San Diego, he's been operating restaurants for 20 years, including Taste of Szechwan and Thai Cafe in Kearny Mesa. "My mom used to cook for one of the royal families in Vietnam. Many of the dishes we do are royal dishes. She used to cook here almost full time, but now she's cut back to a few hours a week. She's always cooked for lots of people. Now she's thinking of teaching cooking and writing a Vietnamese cookbook to expose more people to our authentic flavors -- not the simple flavors, but the dishes from the colonial era, when the food became a combination of Vietnamese and French."