Diversity enriches our lives. Particularly in the food department.
I can recall back in the 1980s when it was a big deal in Bakersfield when our first Vietnamese restaurant opened, a place called L'eau Vive located just west of the corner of Ming and Ashe in southwest Bakersfield. Frankly I was not well-versed in nuoc mam, a classic, clear sauce made with garlic, vinegar and sardines that was a specialty there, but I learned and the owners and staff were like teachers.
Times have changed, of course, and the diversity of what we can get any night in our fair city has made Bakersfield seem far more cosmopolitan. And most Asian cuisines, particularly Thai, are available all over town. But we were thrilled by our first impression at a new Vietnamese pho restaurant at the intersection of Stine Road and White Lane called Saigon Bento.
As at most restaurants nowadays, there's more of an Asian fusion take on the menu, far less focused on Vietnamese than what we found at L'eau Vive long ago, with a nice mix of specialty drinks like passion fruit limeade and Vietnamese sea salt coffee, bowls, soups and bento boxes.
On our visit, my companion ordered the chicken pho ($14.95) while I went for "Deluxe Box A" bento ($18.95), mostly to give me a chance to try a wide variety of what the kitchen was offering. Now some might think bento boxes are Japanese, and they do date back to the 12th century there, but if you visit Vietnam the restaurants there also offer those compartmentalized box trays that to me seemed to inspire the American TV dinners of the 1960s.
What Saigon Bento offers is solid, with a small green salad in upper left section (tossed with a light vinaigrette, and notable for rich and sweet, dark fresh tomato chunks and artfully carved cucumber bits). To the right of that were three panko-crusted fried shrimp that were straight as a pencil. The menu called them "torpedo shrimp." To the far right were four steamed wontons with a spicy red sauce that were so alluring my companion spooned some into her soup.
In the areas closest to me was a mix of grilled chicken, white and dark meat strips nicely caramelized and crowned with chopped green onion, a clear and slightly spicy nuoc mam in a protected area nearby and an ample portion of garlic noodles to the far left.
I devoured everything, and considering we'd not heard anything about this new restaurant from readers, it did exceed our expectations. If you prefer other ingredients, Box B subs shrimp spring rolls in for the torpedo shrimp and pork and shrimp fried egg rolls for the wontons, as well as charbroiled pork for the chicken.
My companion's pho was just as satisfying, with another mix of dark and white meat chicken, flat noodles, a decent broth that seemed so fresh, and a plate of garnishes that included sliced jalapeno, bean sprouts, mint and cilantro.
It is quite encouraging that we have no shortage of decent options for pho on the cold winter days we were experiencing when we visited, and you can add Saigon Bento to the list if you're always looking for that. The restaurant has three other varieties including spicy beef (which also includes pork) and Jurassic, which has steak, house-made beef balls and beef rib.
Though the dining room seems humble with metal frame chairs and booths, I loved all the emphasis on large, original art displayed on an orange wall, the art suggestive of Vietnam in some subtle ways — a hippo in the water, a woman on a motorbike delivering food while wearing a non la, that familiar conical hat that is a big part of the country's culture. There are sofas near the door to relax while waiting for a seat or takeout food.
Service was not lacking even though there were few employees working, and a man whose facial expression seemed to suggest he was the owner seemed to handle everything in the front of the house.
All in all, a humble place that I think will build a clientele if people try it out.
Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears in The Californian on Sundays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @pftittl.