512 Niagara Falls Blvd, Tonawanda, NY 14223
Web: Saigon Bangkok
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Amherst Thai Tonawanda Vietnamese
"Our favorite dish from the Vietnamese menu is Mi Xao Don; we craved it even when we lived in California, where Vietnamese restaurants are easier to find than they are here."
It's possible, and in fact probable, that Saigon Bangkok on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst serves the area's best Vietnamese food, and the fact that it does an almost equally impressive job with Thai food may well explain its continued, well-deserved popularity. Packed from front to back almost every time we visit, Saigon Bangkok has continued to offer a virtually identical menu for 15 years - and that's a good thing. The front half includes Thai dishes such as satays, Tom Yum soups, spicy beef and papaya salads, and four different types of curries, while the back serves Vietnamese Pho noodle soup, crispy egg noodles called Mi Xao Don, and classic lemongrass meat and rice dishes. There are few places locally that basically guarantee satisfaction; with the rarest of exceptions, Saigon Bangkok is one of them.
The Story: Pan-Asian restaurants are, in a phrase, exceptionally difficult to properly pull off. They're almost always the product of a restauranteur who knows one cuisine - say, Chinese - and then tries to offer two or three others with mixed results. Fail to get any of them right and you wind up with an "Asian fusion" restaurant that does little more than offer items that vaguely resemble the originals; get them all right and you might just succeed at attracting twice or three times the customers of a place that only does one cuisine well. We've seen a triple Pan-Asian restaurant work only once, and not locally; Saigon Bangkok instead takes on the not trivial challenge of offering two cuisines authentically, and actually succeeds.
Highs: It's a tribute to the quality of the Saigon Bangkok menu that it's hard to point out any way in which either its Thai or Vietnamese halves is seriously deficient in options. Start with the Thai side, which offers not only most of the classics of this cuisine, but also a few surprises. The uniquely Thai spicy beef salad, Yum Nua ($10), is offered as a nice portion of sliced seared steak, onions, cucumbers, and tomatoes atop a bed of lettuce; strong basil, pepper, and lime flavors dominate the other ingredients in a consistently pleasing way. Another salad option, the fully vegetarian Papaya Salad ($8), is equally superb, leveraging more sweetness, the crisp texture of its thinly-sliced green papaya, and the soft crunch of ground peanuts to offer tastes that soothe as they fill.
Entrees run the gamut, including known quantities such as meats or seafood with garlic and cashew nuts, lemongrass, hot basil or sweet tamarind basil dishes, and ginger, mushroom, and pepper dishes, all for $9 with meat or tofu, $12 with shrimp or scallops. The more interesting options are Saigon Bangkok's six Thai curries; the spicy green is our favorite, while mango and jungle curry versions aren't as easy to find locally. Each can be blended with your choice of tofu ($9), meats ($9), seafood ($12), or duck ($14) as preferred. We've historically been partial to the seafood, but the pork and duck versions have come to be better picks as seafood prices have risen and portions have become more sparing.
The superstar of the Thai menu is, in our view, a long-standing specialty dish called Dancing Seafood ($15). It combines a spicy brown chili and lemongrass sauce with a collection of delicious types of sea fare: scallops, shrimp, crispy fish filets, and mussels are guaranteed to be in abundance and delicious. All that's missing is lobster tail, a treat that once accentuated this plate's value for the dollar, but by dropping lobster the price has remained reasonable given the quantity and quality of the other items found there.
All of the above would be enough to satisfy us even if there weren't any Vietnamese dishes on the menu, but the other half of Saigon Bangkok's list of choices is equally impressive. Whether you're into fresh or fried appetizers, you will enjoy the restaurant's choice of fried Spring Rolls ($3.50) - better than the Chinese version, thanks to a more balanced chicken and pork filling - or steamed rice paper Summer Rolls ($4), filled with shrimp, chicken, shredded lettuce, basil leaves, bean sprouts, and cucumbers. Each comes with a dipping sauce, the former a light sweet and sour, the latter heavy, brown Hoisin; they are both always delicious.
Those not looking for rolls should skip the Thai soups and go straight to the Vietnamese Hot and Sour Soup ($3.50), a bowl of intensely flavored broth with surprising sweet accents from pineapple, celery, and tomato bits, as well as your choice of chicken or shrimp. It's a guaranteed hit if you don't mind a little spice in your soup. We also really enjoy Saigon Bangkok's rendition of the classic soup Pho ($8), sliced beef, onions, and beef broth in a bowl that's large enough to serve as an entree, but we prefer the Hu Tieu Dac Biet ($8), a chicken broth version with both meat and seafood inside. Both come with generous portions of rice noodles; the Pho is this area's best, but could stand to be offered in more versions, as it is outside of Western New York.
Our favorite dish from the Vietnamese menu is Mi Xao Don, which we found ourselves craving even when we lived in Southern California, where Vietnamese restaurants are much easier to find than they are here. The dish is straightforward, and in other places, typically a little less expensive - it's a nest of crispy egg noodles with mixed vegetables and your choice of meats inside, drenched in a warm ginger sauce. However, Saigon Bangkok's black pepper-enhanced rendition, with its perfectly cooked meats ($9), shrimp or scallops ($12), is just plain better than the cheaper versions we've had; it now lacks only for the restaurant's previous options to mix both types of seafood, or all of the types of meat, together. Without question, these choices need to make a comeback.
Lows: With only one major exception, there isn't much to criticize on Saigon Bangkok's menu other than the slight creep-up in prices and a small issue with the yellow curry, which contains some unknown ingredient that even fans of the dish may find slightly off-putting.
The more major exception is Saigon Bangkok's rendition of Bun, pronounced "boon," a typically delicious Vietnamese super-thin vermicelli rice noodle dish served at room temperature with your choice of meats or egg rolls. Years ago, the restaurant's Bun was basically flawless - a heaping bowl served for $5.50 to $6.00, as it commonly is outside of Western New York. Unfortunately, someone has screwed the Bun up, boosting its prices to $8 (chicken, beef, pork, spring roll, or vegetarian) and $10 (shrimp), while surprisingly dropping its authenticity. Now the Bun is served in an almost flat dish, with thicker noodles and no improvement in the portion size; we found these changes screwed up the original's texture and arguably its delicate balance of flavors.
At other restaurants, the simplicity of Bun - just those room temperature thin noodles, topped with shredded lettuce, cucumbers, and mint leaves, then garnished with bean sprouts, roasted ground peanuts, and a light sweet and sour fish sauce - is offset by a wide variety of combination topping options, including pork chops or slices, mixes of cut spring rolls and meats or seafood, and so on. In fact, some places make Bun a major menu section in and of itself, due to all of the choices. Saigon Bangkok's original version offered nearly as much authenticity and diversity, but now it's more limited in options, and subsequently appeal. We would welcome, and strongly encourage, a change back.
Location would be the only other factor that we'd note as a low for Saigon Bangkok. Though the interior decor is nice enough to make you forget as much during your meal, the restaurant is located at the shabbier Tonawanda and Amherst far end of Niagara Falls Boulevard, close to the University's South Campus but far from the street's more thriving intersection with Maple. What's there? Jasmine Thai, which does its completely and larger Thai menu at least as well as Saigon Bangkok's. We'd very much like to see Saigon Bangkok available in Williamsville or East Amherst, where it would help diversify what's otherwise a very Chinese and Japanese heavy list of Asian options.
The Verdict: Having eaten at Saigon Bangkok perhaps a hundred or more times over the course of many years, it's hard to take issue with cooking and service that have been so consistently great that we always keep coming back for more. While there are intermittent service mistakes, and a couple of small concerns - increasing tendencies to restrict the patron's options, while slightly increasing prices - we find them generally forgivable given this restaurant's aggregate quality. Should Saigon Bangkok retreat further from the affordable, excellent Vietnamese and Thai options we've long enjoyed, we might change our minds, but for now, this is certainly one of the area's very best Asian restaurants, and very highly recommended.
Updated August, 2009: Saigon Bangkok now has a Williamsville location, and its Tonawanda/Amherst location has reopened with new decor following a kitchen fire in early 2009. Our rating of this location has slipped a quarter-star to 3.25 stars based on slightly diminished food quality on two occasions since the reopening; it still remains amongst the area's top Thai and Vietnamese options.