The first thing you’re likely to notice about Saigon Flavors is that it isn’t in downtown Orlando or anywhere near the intersection of Mills Avenue and Colonial Drive. That neighborhood, which locals have unofficially called Little Saigon for years, has the city’s greatest concentration of Vietnamese restaurants.
Now Saigon Flavors is taking Vietnamese cuisine farther afield, to the northeast and Oviedo, where it has set up in a new, small strip mall. SF is not totally divorced from the downtown Vietnamese community: the owner, Charlie Tang, was the proprietor of Viet Garden in that old neighborhood (officially dubbed the very non-ethnic Mills50).
Besides its location, Saigon Flavors has something else that sets it apart from other Vietnamese restaurants in the area: it is more modern in its style and decor. The walls are painted tomato reds, sky blues and avocado greens. They have myriad cubbyholes with bric-a-brac, each with its own spotlight. And instead of the more common background traditional music played on a two-stringed dan nguyet, Saigon Flavors plays Western piano classics — it wasn’t, but it sounded like an old Ferrante & Teicher album. For a more traditional note, one wall sports tall windows inset with paintings of old Vietnamese scenes, such as the Central Market and the Temple at Hue.
The food strikes a more familiar traditional note as well. The menu, blessedly, is not quite as tome-like as some of the other Vietnamese restaurants, but it does take some studying to make a decision.
My guests and I started with appetizers of summer rolls and a golden pancake. The summer rolls featured shrimp and pork (not a whole lot of either) in soft, gummy rice paper wrappers with noodles and vegetables, served with a peanut dipping sauce. The golden pancake was not the sort of pancake you put butter and syrup on.
The pancake was more like an omelet, sort of like those served in some Korean restaurants. The folded egg was filled with bean sprouts, shrimp and pork (again, more bean sprouts than anything else). It was accompanied by lettuce leaves, and our server instructed us to put some of the pancake on a lettuce leaf with a sprig or two of cilantro or basil and roll it up to dip in the sweet vinaigrette. it was quite tasty.
For my entree I chose a pho, the iconic beef noodle soup. I had the tai nam bo vien (number 35 on the menu), which had sliced beef and Vietnamese
meatballs with al dente noodles in a beefy broth. My companion had the pho hai-san, a seafood version with shrimp, scallops, squid and crab claws with noodles more angel hair-like. The big pieces of squid were the best part of a very good soup.
Service was also different from the usual Vietnamese restaurants — a little brasher, but in a playful, non-offensive way. Although Saigon Flavors claims some Vietnamese beers on its menu, none were available when I visited. We had to settle for beers from Laos.
With its easy access from State Road 417 on Aloma Avenue, Saigon Flavors is worth visiting by those who enjoy the Vietnamese restaurants in the Mills50 district. But it’s an even better location for the folks in northeastern Orange County who no longer have to drive downtown for decent pho.
Saigon Flavors is at 3573 Aloma Ave., Oviedo. It is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Click this link to visit Saigon Flavors’ Web site. The phone number is 407-951-8818.