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Saigon Today in Canton offers great flavors of Vietnam

The halibut with dill, scallions, peanut and crispy garlic at Saigon Today in Canton.
The halibut with dill, scallions, peanut and crispy garlic at Saigon Today in Canton. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

Saigon Today bills itself as "Asian fusion" but, as the name suggests, it's really a Vietnamese spot — and that's just fine.

The restaurant, which opened last July in the former Yellow Dog Tavern space in Canton, is the latest in a string of Vietnamese spots to open around the city.

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While both the food and the service would be improved with a few tweaks, the kitchen's handle on flavor — and the staff's friendly attitude — have already made Saigon Today a hit with the local Canton crowd.

Scene & Decor Before moving into the Yellow Dog space, owner Susu Ha organized a complete renovation. The result is cozy, with a long bar downstairs and tables upstairs. With pretty gray walls and streamlined furniture, the space also feels just cool enough to draw attention.

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On a rainy Monday evening, Saigon Today's pretty second floor was sparsely populated, though on the main level, the bar filled up with pho lovers enjoying a steaming bowl of soup.

Appetizers Rau bach tuot rang muoi ($11.95) was a plate of chopped and fried octopus seasoned with spices, tossed with scallions, garlic, lime, cilantro and peppers and served over lettuce.

Before we took a bite, our waiter warned us that the dish was spicy. He wasn't lying. It had tons of flavor and the kind of heat that warms your whole body. The octopus, though, was tough, in the literal sense. It was clearly fresh, but needed more time simmering to combat the chewiness.

Entrees The bun cha ca la vong ($12.95), a light and lovely entree of halibut over vermicelli noodles and bean sprouts, was full of fresh flavor, thanks to a sprinkling of scallions, dill, garlic and peanuts. The fish was cooked carefully, lightly breaded and fried just until flaky.

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Served with mild fish sauce for dipping, the entree was both crunchy and soft — a great combination.

A similar dish with grilled beef, bun thit bo nuong ($9.25), was equally pleasing. The beef, pounded very thin, was soaked in a marinade with the tiniest bit of funk lurking behind a cover of sweetness. We loved it.

Pho, the do-it-yourself Vietnamese soup, has many varieties around Baltimore these days. Though Saigon Today doesn't offer as many pho options as some other local spots, its beefy broth ranked among our favorites.

In the soup, a mix of rare steak, brisket and beef ball ($9.75) added to the liquid's rich flavor, though even on its own, it was powerfully meaty. With a sprinkle of Thai basil, a squeeze of lime and a squirt of Sriracha, the soup was satisfying and hearty. We didn't even need to add soy (which we nearly always do).

Drinks Given the intense flavors on our table, our choice of Chang beer ($5), a light and easy-to-drink lager from Thailand, was a good one.

Service From the time we stepped in the door at Saigon Today, the staff — including a bartender, waiter and chef — was outgoing and friendly. Our waiter chatted with us, filling us in on the restaurant's story and making sure we understood the menu, which was undergoing some changes and hadn't been updated in print.

That friendliness helped make up for some of the service glitches: water glasses that sat empty, an appetizer that arrived after the entrees, a check that took too long to arrive. If the waiter had been the least bit surly — or the food hadn't been as good — those problems might have seemed insurmountable. As it was, though, they seemed like something Saigon Today can overcome.

Dessert Our first dessert choice, a trio of puddings, was no longer available, so we made do with several fat rounds of strawberry mochi ice cream ($4.95) and a lightly fried banana delivered with a scoop of ice cream made with seaweed ($5.95).

Though both desserts were tasty and pretty, we were a little disappointed to discover that the seaweed involved was just a thickening agent — the ice cream itself tasted like the normal vanilla stuff.

But "normal vanilla" was not the theme of the meal as a whole. Service lags and chewy octopus aside, between the flavors and the friendliness, Saigon Today was more "pow" than bland.

Saigon Today

Back story: Owner Susu Ha, a local business owner who also operates Athena Nails & Spa on Aliceanna Street, opened Saigon Today in July in the Canton spot that formerly housed Yellow Dog Tavern. The restaurant has already gained a local following for its friendly service and simple but delicious takes on Vietnamese food, from pho to rice and noodle dishes.

Parking: Street parking

Signature dish: Flaky, lightly breaded fried halibut makes Saigon Today's bun cha ca la vong a standout dish. Paired with vermicelli noodles and topped with scallions, crispy garlic, dill and crushed peanuts, the fish dish is full of fresh flavors.

TVs: Three

Where: 700 S. Potomac St., Baltimore

Contact: 410-276-4888; saigontodaybmore.com

Open: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily

Credit Cards: All major

Reservations: Accepted

Bottom line: Tasty takes on classic Vietnamese dishes in a cute corner spot in Canton

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