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East Meets West 

Vietnamese restaurant is an American dream

Owning a restaurant is a 24/7 operation. The ability to create a business makes owning a restaurant a common American dream among immigrants. For many, this enterprise infects the blood and the rush of a crowd becomes a daily fix.

Such is the case for the Nguyen family. Olivia Nguyen moved to Charlotte from Dayton, OH, where Luan Nguyen, her father and a cook, owned a "successful" Vietnamese restaurant, she reports. Luan Nguyen sold his restaurant in Ohio and moved south to rejoin his children. Then last September, Nguyen and her brother Sonny Nguyen opened Saigon Bistro on Sharon Amity near Albemarle Road -- the stretch of property, with its collection of restaurants, that has yet to reach the total saturation point that Central has reached where it seems every third storefront is an eatery.

"We are family run," states Olivia. "My brother owns it and I help out. I'm a hair stylist, but I love to meet people. My sister helps, too, and the food is authentic traditional Vietnamese, but creative."

The modest 85-seat interior, now harmoniously warmed with reds and browns, has been significantly refurbished since its Tarboosh days, though on one wall are the same hand-hewn, uncomfortable wooden booths which line the wall beneath the expanse of windows overlooking the 35-seat half-covered patio area containing a lengthy water feature. Other glass-covered linen square tables dot the room, and a round table set for seven awaits diners in one corner.

The family, originally from Saigon, designed the menu to use much of southern Vietnamese cuisine, although several phos, a traditional northern Vietnamese soup, are offered. The kitchen is manned by Luan Nguyen, whose first career was as a medic in Saigon. Herbs give Vietnamese food its special character that makes it different from the other Asian cuisines, yet history has also left its indelible mark. China ruled for 1,000 years, and the French arrived in the 16th century. Vietnamese food depends on the freshness of ingredients, and this freshness is evident here.

Saigon Bistro aims to please and has a fluent wait staff that is brimming with information and recommendations. At some tables, a bilingual conversational hum, punctuated with laughter, can be overheard. At others, diners ask questions about the menu and the answers are delightfully informative. Appetizers, such as the splayed, thinly cut, meaty and sticky barbecued beef ribs and the marinated skewered chicken, are terrific. In fact, all of the appetizers here are as unforced and appealing as the staff that recommends them. Indeed, the uncomplicated salad of papaya and thinly sliced pork and shrimp is minimally dressed and proved a cooling refresher.

The 16-item Chef Specials list runs the gamut from stir fried noodles to the overwhelming House Special Fondue. Ethnic restaurants sometimes provoke an uneasy feeling due to the aura of secrecy surrounding the preparation of your meal, but with this latter dish, the diner cooks. A large warmer is brought to the table; the cook top would be better situated on a side cart so the danger of spilling a boiling broth or the leaping gas flames would not present a danger. The interior of the large pot is divided and filled with a bubbling chicken broth. Two large plates accompany the cook top: One is filled with thinly sliced Asian vegetables, the other with shrimp, mock crab, thinly sliced beef, scallops and pork back (which reminds me of Styrofoam when cooked). This fondue would be impossible for two, maybe three, to finish; heck, this dish would prove a challenge for a table of four.

Less impressive was the steamed duck entree, which lacked oomph or herbs or both. Charred fat is one thing, steamed duck fat is quite another.

The best desserts are the beverages. Saigon Bistro specializes in frothy tropical fruit shakes, like a smoothie, and the jackfruit shake is so good you'll need to get two: one to share with the table and one to drink. Another good finale is the rich Vietnamese coffee, the French influence, served with a glass of ice.

The dinner menu is gently priced to turn the curious into regulars. Soups range from $2.90 for a clear chicken noodle soup -- a side dish -- to $6.50 for a meal-sized seafood noodle soup. Entree prices range from $6.50 to $18.95 for the house fondue (for two). Most entrees are below $10.

The Nyugen family hopes to add to the eating fun this strip of land once radiated. Remember Chelsea's?

"It's changing slowly," Olivia Nyugen remarked. Charlotteans can thank the hard work of families like hers if it is.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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