As the Great Pho Wars of Knoxville continue to rage on, I hereby proclaim Bida Saigon the ultimate victor. But pho is not my first choice when dining there—instead, let us examine the Vietnamese crepe, aka bánh xèo.
[First, a quick aside on the pho: Several years ago, when Bida Saigon was but a smoky pool hall with four dining tables, it was also the only place in town for pho, and therefore the best. Since then, Knoxville has gone pho crazy, with dedicated pho restaurants (Pho 99, Vincent’s Cafe), another Vietnamese restaurant (Viet Taste), fancy fusion places that sometimes have fancy pho specials (Kaizen, the Landing House), multi-cuisine Asian restaurants that also serve pho on the menu (Sticky Rice Cafe, Asia Kitchen), and, hell, even Uncorked Market Square (née, Knoxville Uncorked, Oodles, etc., etc.). Throughout this onslaught of soupy competition, Bida Saigon has held on strong (in my opinion) and its pho remains the most flavorful, most fragrant, and most well composed. The worst I’ve had is Vincent’s—bland, lukewarm broth and mushy noodles, which made me think it had been sitting around for a while. Most disappointing, considering its T.Ho lineage.]
So what is bánh xèo? While it may look exotic, it’s actually pretty simple: A rice-flour batter—flavored with a healthy amount of turmeric and green onions—is fried to a crispy state; it is filled with pork (or chicken), shrimp, and bean sprouts; then one side is flipped over like an omelette. According to reliable sources on YouTube, the bánh xèo crepe should be wrapped in lettuce then dipped in nuoc cham, the ever-present Vietnamese fish sauce. However, Bida Saigon’s version isn’t street-style hand food—it’s a big, whomping crepe that’ll probably self-destruct should you attempt that maneuver. You could try slicing it into more manageable pieces, I suppose, but Bida Saigon supplies shredded lettuce only, so you’d have to request lettuce leaves for the full effect. I usually just pour the nuoc cham over it, array some lettuce on top, and eat it with a fork.
You may be wondering why I order this instead of the pho that I recklessly declared to be the best in town. In a word, texture. I am addicted to banh xeo’s mouthfeel. First, the exterior should be fried to a super-crispy state in which the rice-flour batter has a nearly caramelized flavor. (In fact, bánh xèo translates loosely to “sizzling cake,” or the sound the batter makes when it hits the pan.) However, the non-fried interior of the crepe will still be soft, so while you get a nice crunch on the initial bite, it quickly turns into a smooth, more traditional crepe-like feel as you chew. But that’s not all! Since this eggless omelette is stuffed with bean sprouts, they also add a natural vegetable crunch to each bite.
I’m also hopelessly addicted to nuoc cham, and bánh xèo is an excellent delivery mechanism for lots of fish sauce. Combined with the turmeric and green onions (not to mention the sheen of oil from the pan), it’s a flavor combination that beckons to me even more so than the star anise-anointed pho broth. My only disappointment is in Bida Saigon’s proteins—they could do a lot better than the near-flavorless (and probably boiled) chicken and the underdeveloped (yet not quite baby) shrimp. At $9, I can’t complain much, but I have fond memories of T.Ho’s version being a bit better, and it makes me wonder if Viet Taste could rise to the occasion. (In my several visits, I’ve found Viet Taste’s menu to be inspiring—but its service and execution to be hit or miss.) Oh, for char-grilled shrimp like the ones served at Birmingham, Ala.’s Phở Quê Hương.
While pho remains Bida Saigon’s main attraction, its menu has other options worth your consideration. Beyond bánh xèo, there’s also very credible bánh mi sandwiches ($4.50), hu tieu pork noodle soup ($8.50-$9), bun vermicelli noodle bowls ($8.50-$9), and a variety of excellent rice paper rolls ($3.50). Sadly, my quest for an endgame egg roll continues, as Bida Saigon’s are best eaten chopped-up in the vermicelli; on their own, they are a bit underwhelming with a not-so-crisp exterior skin and somewhat mushy interior ingredients.
Finally, a word about Bida Saigon’s service—it’s fast and to the point. There’s no waiting around, hoping someone will notice you or cook your meal. You sit down, make your order, and 10 minutes later your food arrives, super hot. You pay the server directly at your table via credit-card reader for optimum efficiency. While it may not be much on romantic atmosphere, Bida Saigon is a smoothly running machine, which I appreciate. And while I may sort of miss the mysterious pool-hall guys muttering over their games late at night, I’m glad their cigarettes have been banished in favor of good food.
Worth a Return Visit?
Yes—although it could do better with its protein selections, Bida Saigon’s recipes and service are tops.