Three years have gone by since Saigon Block first opened to mass crowds, and although the hysteria has died down, it continues to be a must-go destination for fans of the restaurant's two most popular dishes: the indulgent seven courses of beef and the beastly baked whole catfish.
The craze over Saigon Block can be a bit mystifying for a couple of reasons. Although the restaurant is located in Richardson, it isn't exactly in an Asian-centric neighborhood. There is also the issue of pricing: Saigon Block is not cheap. The menu pricing is arguably the main reason there are two camps when it comes to the restaurant: the Vietnamese-majority loyalists who don't mind dropping the pretty penny, and the bemused who find the menu to be ghastly overpriced. I'm not quite sure where I fall.
After having listened to several differing opinions, I debated whether I wanted to spend what I kept hearing was a ridiculous amount of money on some Vietnamese food. After some begging and pleading to the controller of the City of Ate purse-strings (the things I do for this blog), I was given the green light to discover whether the legendary tales of hundreds-strong queues, three hour waits, and $30 catfish are justified.
For $32, I sampled the medium-sized baked catfish. Admittedly, it was a healthy sized creature and could easily feed three, maybe four people. A large catfish is $38 and extra large is $42.
Although the catfish is baked, it would be misguided to think that it's a healthy lifestyle choice. The whole fish is smothered in both fresh spring onions and fried onions. The crispiness of the catfish skin indicates that the fish is either basted with oil repeatedly while baking or it's flash fried at some point. The accouterments of the dish are rice paper; a bowl of water to wet the paper; lettuce; cucumber; pickled carrots and daikon; Vietnamese fresh herbs; vermicelli noodles; and an unstrained anchovy dipping sauce called mam nem. The diner then rolls up the catfish along with the vegetables and noodles into a wet sheet of rice paper and dips their spring roll-like creation into the sweet and pungent mam nem. Between the hands-on festivities and the BYOB factor, it is no wonder there are always so many big parties and family gatherings at Saigon Block on any given day.
The fish itself is not bad. The dissenters would say, "But, it's thirty-something dollars for catfish," and I would have to agree ... to an extent. Other restaurants outside of Dallas that also serve this dish have pretty comparable prices. That doesn't mean that it's not overpriced, it just means all the kids are doing it. Actually, when it comes to Saigon Block, I've never heard a complaint in regards to food. The worst would be that the food is OK, but it's not worth the dollars. It doesn't help that it seems as if the restaurant charges extra for almost everything. While a whole medium catfish would certainly be enough for three or four people, what wouldn't be enough are the accessory ingredients needed for the spring rolls. Extra vegetables are $3. Extra vermicelli is $2. Extra sauce is $3. Some of the vegetables I received were rotted, and my request to have them replaced was ridden with anxiety that they would charge me extra. (They didn't.) Still, if a fish is meant to feed a number of people, shouldn't the amount of items that comes with the fish match the number of people it feeds?
The other famous menu item at Saigon Block would be their seven courses of beef. At $17 per person and with a minimum order of two people, this dish, opposed to the catfish, costs more than other restaurants that offer it. Thanh Thanh in Arlington charges $13.95 a person for the same deal. I didn't get to try Saigon Block's, but I can't imagine it would be much different to warrant the higher cost.
A part of me can't completely deride Saigon Block for their pricing. We live in a city that has some restaurants charging $12 for quesadillas and upward of $60 for a steak. Why should a Vietnamese restaurant be held to a different standard? Well, if there is a reason -- one big, main reason -- it would have to be the service.
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Maybe it's from years of being so popular, but the service at Saigon Block was seriously lacking when I visited. Plates and bowls (and remember, there were A LOT of them) were never cleared. Refilling of water glasses would only be accomplished if I got up and personally headed to the water pitchers myself. Simple questions and requests were met with rolled eyeballs or sighs. Seeing as how I was dining at 3 p.m., these events didn't even occur during busy hours.
I can't imagine having the same experience if I were to pay the same bill at another restaurant. The food was hardly good enough to put up with the attitude. Service is what it boiled down to, because as a friend of mine pointed out, "It's $32 for a catfish. Wouldn't it just be cheaper to throw a party with friends and make it at home?" All the components are there for a good time; friends, BYOB and the sharing of the prep work. Perhaps it'd make a good experiment for a future Walk the Wok. Does this mean I have to start groveling now?
Saigon Block Restaurant 2150 East Arapaho Road 214-575 6400