I've been coming to this restaurant since I was a kid, so I sort of have an unhealthy attachment to it. It's a small hidden gem, as it doesn't seem to be that well-known, tucked away in a side building just steps away from Chinatown's main street. I would say that many folks that do come here are regulars, since the owner (who is also the cook) will often step out from his kitchen during a lull to talk to some of the tables.
Sadly, I hadn't been back for a couple of years (even though I've been craving the food like crazy) so when my dad needed to drive my grandma to get her hair done at the hair salon next door, I jumped at the chance to have a father-daughter lunch date while we waited for her to be done.
Just like how you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, you shouldn't be turned off by the shady exterior or the peeling paint on the building facade. They've undergone renovations since the last time I've been here, so the inside is a lot brighter and cleaner than it used to be.
Their operating hours are also a bit odd and inconvenient, as they are only open from 10-5 on most days, and 10-3 on Tuesdays and Sundays. But try to make it work with your schedule. I promise it's worth it.
The restaurant is mainly known for two signature dishes: their Phnom Penh dry noodles and their "beef cubes," or bò lúc lắc (which from Vietnamese, translates to shaking beef -- in reference to how you shake the wok while cooking it). Regardless of how many times my family and I have come here, we seem to always order these two dishes (dry noodles for my parents, and beef cubes for my siblings and I). No, really. We haven't strayed from our regular orders... ever. So in actual fact, this review isn't all that comprehensive. Their other food could be disgusting and I wouldn't even know, but I'd still consider it as one of my favourite restaurants of all time.
Like I said earlier, my dad's fail safe order is always the Phnom Penh dry noodles (around the $10 mark). You can actually have your pick of what kind of noodles you want in the dish, chosen from a selection of six different types. They have pictures printed out and taped to all of the tables in the restaurant to differentiate them; they are: vermicelli, egg noodles (flat or thin), glass noodles, haw fun, and regular rice noodles. My dad always gets the flat egg noodles which come topped with ground pork, fried onions, shrimp, and chả lụa (which is a type of Vietnamese ham/sausage, very mild in flavour). You're meant to toss the noodles around, so that they get coated by the sauce at the bottom of the bowl. Along with the dish, they provide you with a small bowl of broth which you can drink on its own, or pour some over into the dish to make it a little more wet.
My dad had no complaints with his order. Although, he hardly ever complains when it comes to food. He's a simple guy.
As for my own dish, the infamous plate of beef cubes or bò lúc lắc. Depending on which type of carb you wish to have it served on, the prices vary. On simple rice, I believe the dish is $14.00. $15.00 if you want fried rice, and then $16.00 for pan fried haw fun with egg (which is what I usually get). They also serve it on top of flat egg noodles or chow mein for a similar price. On the side, they provide you with the same bowl of broth as the dry noodles, as well as a lemon pepper dipping sauce for the beef. I usually leave it and don't dip as I don't really like the tartness of the lemon, and in actual fact, the beef is already flavourful on its own.
Sometimes I order bò lúc lắc at other restaurants just hoping it would be similar to Saigon Garden but to no avail. Most other restaurants prepare bò lúc lắc as a dry dish with tiny cubes of beef sauteed with peppers and onion. The difference here is that the beef cubes are large and incredibly soft and tender. They are dressed in a hoisin/oyster-based sauce, and the meat is probably fried in a wok at such a high heat that the sauce almost becomes caramelized, just clinging to every nook and cranny.
They aren't skimpy on the portions either; you will receive a tiny mountain of beef cubes on top of your carb of choice. And once you have a taste of your first one, you will have every intention of conquering the mountain like it's your own personal Mt. Everest. As I'm sitting here and writing this post, it's 11:37 at night, and I'm literally drooling and reminiscing about this. The dish is that good. Do you think I can lick my computer screen or is that too weird?
The restaurant also sells homemade lao po beng (translated from Chinese to sweetheart cake, or wife cake), which is a flaky pastry usually filled with winter melon, almond paste, and sesame. My dad knows the owner somewhat well from just how many times we've been here in the past, so when he inquired about how much they cost (I think he said they're 4 for $20.00), the owner gave us one cut in half to try. If you haven't grown up on this stuff, you might think it tastes weird, but if you look past its starchy quality, it has a very mild sweetness to it. Nice ending to a delicious meal.
If Saigon Garden ever shuts down or the owner retires, I will cry and a little piece of my heart will break (it's happened in the past -- RIP Wok King). Because no matter how hard my mom tries, she can never replicate this beauty of a dish and I don't think I can live the rest of my life without it.
Soooo that was a little overdramatic, but hey, it's the truth.