When I was just starting to develop an appetite for exploring Asian cuisines, the most popular outlets were a type of full-service Chinese restaurant that has since faded from prominence. The standard free opener of fried noodles with sweet sauce set the tone for the meal to follow. There were more exotic choices on the menu, but most popular were fried and sweet, Chinese cuisine tailored for reliable sales in a nation that leads the world in sugar consumption.
As those places faded, undercut by $5-lunch-with-fried-rice takeout joints, where can the fried-and-sweet fans find their fix in pleasant setting, with attentive servers and a wine list? Thai restaurants have taken up the mantle. That realization came after dinner at Saigon Bangkok's Transit Road location. In a mostly satisfying meal of Thai and Vietnamese dishes, sweetness was a recurring sour note.
The restaurant has occupied the corner of a plaza at Transit Road and for nearly a decade. It's a stable, professional operation that had some service bobbles the night I visited, but its cuisine has not varied much in the years I've eaten there. That's partly due to the hands-on ownership team of Tom Truong and his wife, My Trinh, who cook as well as manage. Other branches of the Truong family run the original Saigon Bangkok in Tonawanda, and the new branch that opened a few months ago in Hamburg.
The Transit Road location was nearly full when we arrived for Saturday dinner. Banquettes line one wall of the dining room, which sports white tablecloths and comfortable chairs.
Between its Vietnamese and Thai lineups, Saigon Bangkok's menu covers a lot of ground. A vegetarian section includes tempura-fried eggplant in panang Thai curry ($10.95) and vegetables stir-fried with pineapple and Thai basil in ginger tamarind sauce.
A pair of vegetarian rolls ($3.95) with tofu, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots and licorice-inflected Thai basil wrapped in soft rice paper was a light opener, dipped in peanut hoisin sauce.
Three skewers of chicken satay ($7.95) offered tenders well-marinated in curry-tinged coconut and grilled. Peanut sauce and quick-pickled daikon radish, carrot, red onion and cucumber added dimensions to the medium-well poultry.
Calamari ($8.95) was crunchy and engaging dipped in sweet-and-sour tamarind sauce, but left a floury taste.
My revelation of the evening was the banh xeo ($10.95), a plate-sized Vietnamese savory crepe folded over a filling of bean sprouts, onions, sliced pork and shrimp. Made with coconut milk and golden with turmeric, it's torn off in hunks, augmented with auxiliary fresh herbs and dunked in funky-sweet fish sauce before devouring.
It can no more be eaten without getting your hands dirty than chicken wings, but this one was worth it. The crackling-edged crepe didn't seem greasy in the least. Most local versions drip oil like a car with a blown gasket.
Tom kha, chicken coconut soup ($4.25), was flavorsome, with plenty of mushrooms and sliced chicken breast, but its sweetness put me off. I had the same observation about the panang curry with pork ($10.95), otherwise gently spiced coconut gravy loaded with sliced pork, bell peppers, peas and basil.
Sugar is certainly part of Thai cuisine and part of the sour, spicy, salty and sweet balancing act giving my favorite Thai food a beguiling kaleidoscope of sensations. Except for dipping sauces and desserts, I prefer the sweet to come last and least, soothing the burn.
A Thai steak salad ($11.95) brought a modest amount of rosy sliced beef, medium rare as requested, tossed with cucumber, red onion, sweet bell pepper and tomato in a bracing but balanced sauce powered by fresh lime juice. A dusting of toasted rice powder added texture.
Mango salmon ($16.95) was a perfectly grilled salmon filet surrounded with ripe mango, pineapple, red and green bell pepper, in a brick-red sauce with a lingering trail of chile heat. Juicy fruit, aromatic ginger and lush salmon drew ahs, while I wished for more sourness.
Dancing seafood ($17.95) brought shrimp, calamari, scallops, mussels and fried haddock together with red and green bell peppers in a lemongrass chile sauce. Calamari and fried fish were chewy, and sweetness led the way in the sauce.
Sizzling duck ($16.95), diced duck breast served on an iron platter with mushrooms and onions, was tasty despite being cooked past requested medium rare to medium, with a hint of caramel char.
Bun nem nuong ($10.95) was a Vietnamese noodle bowl topped with a pair of grilled pork skewers. Vermicelli was joined by shredded lettuce and cucumber, for a refreshing summer dinner salad.
By meal's end my sugar-seeking had ebbed. But among desserts, favorites included mango sticky rice ($4.95) perfumed with dead-ripe mange, fried cheesecake ($6.95) browned up inside an egg roll shell, and coconut ice cream ($4.95) with finger-sized fried banana rolls.
Service was friendly, but a little off. Some drinkers got their wine while others waited for five minutes. I asked for white rice and got brown.
My dinner at Saigon Bangkok was competent, its pleasure sometimes dimmed by sweetness, like so much area Thai.
Judging from the crowds, Saigon Bangkok is dialed-in to what its customers want. I wouldn't expect its approach to change, just because I'd rather save my sugar ration for dessert.
Saigon Bangkok – 7 plates (out of 10)
Where: 8080 Transit Road, Amherst (632-8884)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Price range: Appetizers, $3.95-$8.95; soups, $3.95-$9.95; entrees, $9.95-$19.95
Wheelchair access: Yes
Gluten-free: Many dishes across the menu can be.