Saigon Bangkok has been serving Thai and Vietnamese dishes from its Niagara Falls Boulevard location for nearly 20 years now, making it one of the longest-running Asian restaurants in town. (A second store opened about five years ago on Transit Road in Amherst.)
I've explored both sides of the original Tonawanda menu in previous visits. The selection hasn't changed much in recent years, still featuring the "best hits" of both cuisines, with characteristic soups, stir-fries and noodle dishes.
On a recent visit, we were guided by hunger, not cuisine, and picked Thai dishes. We asked for chicken satay ($6.95) and tom kha gai ($4.25), chicken soup with coconut milk and lime.
Cat opted for the dinner special ($21.11) with soup, an appetizer, entree and dessert. She chose tom yum, a sour-and-spicy broth-based soup, a spring roll, mango chicken curry and flan.
I asked for yum nua ($10.95), grilled steak salad in spicy Thai dressing, and pad see ew ($9.95), wide pasta stir-fried with vegetables and a protein. I chose pork.
The chicken satay was three large chicken tenders, tender and moist inside. They were enjoyable with the accompanying peanut sauce, but the coconut-based marinade needed more time to work its flavor into the meat.
Tom kha gai is my favorite Thai soup, broth enriched with creamy coconut milk and punched up with lime, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf and spicy chile. Good versions balance the four classic Thai flavors -- spicy, sour, salty and sweet -- with intoxicating subtlety.
Sweet led the way when I tasted Saigon Bangkok's version. The other three flavors were present -- lime's sourness, the salty funk of fish sauce, chile heat -- but they were muted. Searching my bowl, I found cubes of chicken breast, mushrooms, scallion and cilantro, but no kaffir lime leaves or their characteristic flavor.
Cat's tom yum was notably sweet as well, the after-impression more like pineapple juice than a bracing spicy tang. It packed more cubed chicken breast, not the usual sliced chicken.
My other dishes were more pleasing, excellent examples of the values the menu offers. The beefsteak in the yum nua was medium-rare as requested, sliced very thin with a welcome hint of char around the edges. The meat was served in a tangle of shredded scallions, cucumber and Thai basil, with its licorice undertones.
The tangy, salty dressing added brightness and heat to the combination, leading me to pile it onto white rice so I didn't waste a drop.
The pad see ew, my stir-fried noodles, smelled like savory caramel. It was a reassuring sign they had met high temperatures in the wok, and their flavor confirmed it. Vegetables with the tender slices of pork included broccoli, shredded carrot, zucchini, scallions, yellow squash and baby corn.
Cat's bowl of mango curry featured sliced chicken, summer squash and zucchini, small pieces of soft mango that almost melted into the gravy. Cat compared it favorably to her favorite Indian curry, shahi korma. I thought it too sweet, again, with the mango flavor hard to find unless you singled out a piece.
Cat's flan, arriving in a bittersweet pool of thin caramel, was paradoxically not as sweet as Cat expected. "It almost reminds you of espresso," she said of the sauce. (I thought the cool custard ably offset the inky brown sauce.)
Saigon Bangkok made Thai and Vietnamese safe for suburbanites but risks resting on its laurels. The usual suspects among the restaurant's Thai repertoire remain excellent values. But now that the restaurant world has caught up, hopefully this standard-setter can freshen up its offerings.
Saigon Bangkok - 7 plates (out of 10)
Description: Pioneer of suburban Thai-Vietnamese dining plays it safe but still offers solid values
Where: 512 Niagara Falls Blvd., Tonawanda (837-2115)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and Sunday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Price range: Appetizers and soups, $3.95-$9.95. Entrees $8.95-$14.95.
Wheelchair access: Yes.