Why on earth would a Chinese restaurant be named after a city in Vietnam? Upon asking, the short story is that it's a long story. The not-really-that-long story is that the owners grew up in Saigon.
Saigon Kitchen sits tucked away down the alley that is Temple Street, somehow surviving along with a few other restaurants with a woeful lack of visibility. Despite that, the restaurant seems to perfectly blend the guilty pleasure of Chinese takeout with the quality of a more expensive sit-down restaurant.
According to its website, the restaurant has been in downtown Hartford for nearly 30 years. It's still family run, with husband Nam Tao on the wok and matriarch Minh Tao handling the front of house.
Minh has a bit of a reputation with regulars for being, shall we say, somewhat abrupt on occasion. She goes by a few names, notably Boss Lady, which is to say she runs a tight ship and keeps things in order, even when those "things" are customers. But being curt should never be mistaken for being mean, especially at a busy restaurant during a lunch rush.
The thought of witnessing any real bossiness seems endearing. But on this visit, Minh welcomed several regular customers by name. My girlfriend and I, having met the Taos through a work event, are also greeted warmly.
"Have the sesame chicken!" she says. No complaints here. During the lunch rush (11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) food is lined up in steam pans for quick service. It was just into dinner hours, when dishes are made fresh to order. After ordering I realize my rookie mistake: Saigon Kitchen is cash only. An ATM the next block over makes quick work of the problem.
We sat with empty stomachs and eager anticipation. Saigon Kitchen's dining area is fairly spacious, with warm reds and blacks that match their logo colors. Traffic flows easily from the door, past menu screens and up to the counter.
Before long chicken chow mein ($6.99) fills our hungry bellies. The chunks of chicken and veggies in flavorful light gravy hits the spot so well that we forget about the accompanying fried noodles. Crab Rangoon ($5.25) pop with flavor that puts the more generic dumplings to shame. Burned mouths are worth the risk of devouring the still-hot treats.
The sesame chicken ($6.99) was doused in a deliciously sweet bright red sauce with a hint of tartness, and garnished with sesame seeds. The accompanying vegetable lo mein also stood out from "normal" Chinese food, with bursts of black pepper accompanying the soy's cloying saltiness.
Within minutes the plates were cleared and we spilled out into the summer sun, full and energized.
>>Saigon Kitchen, 40 Temple St., Hartford, is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. The restaurant accepts cash only. Information: 860-244-2511 and www.thesaigonkitchen.com.