There are many good things to eat at Saigon Block, but only one of them is certain to turn every head in the restaurant.
No matter how many times it moves past, tucked loosely in the confident arms of a waiter, it can’t help attracting attention. The enormous white platter, topped with an impressionist mosaic of silver, crisp burnt-edge brown, warm earth tones of nuts and fried shallots is lined with green lettuce. Even regulars at Saigon Block give in to the covetous pleasure and follow this spectacular newcomer as it heads to somebody else’s table.
Only the first-timers talk about it, though. It’s easy to tell which customers have never eaten here before because they’re the ones excitedly whispering, “I think that’s the whole catfish.”
It is. The catfish comes in three sizes: medium ($40), large ($47) and extra-large ($54). A medium-sized fish is a main course for four people; extra-large could feed a swimming team. The fish, which appears to be enough food on its own, comes with a platter of fresh, fragrant herbs — mint, bunches of basil, a showering of scallions — and a container full of rice paper for the creation of spring rolls.
If you can’t make these raw materials into a delicious meal, you can blame only yourself. The crisp skin of the catfish calls out to be tugged off with chopsticks, and the tender white meat inside begs to be wrapped in rice paper with herbs and a gentle smear of mam nem, a savory sauce made with fermented anchovies. True, catfish isn’t the most attractively flavored fish, and its texture is an odd medley of firm and flaky. But the fish is just the centerpiece of this extravaganza, a roll-it-yourself family-style meal that qualifies as an event.
Leftover catfish the next day is a good thing, too. Make fish cakes at home with the meat, skins, nuts and scallions, adding potatoes and a few slices of leftover herbs or sprigs of parsley. Mix the ingredients together with an egg and dunk the patties in breadcrumbs. Although the texture will at first feel dangerously close to falling apart, after some time in a skillet, the resulting cakes should be firm and scrumptious.
Then, when you’re ready, head back to Saigon Block again because this restaurant has another showstopper of a meal at least as momentous as the catfish. It’s a high-end Vietnamese banquet feast, common in Los Angeles but nearly impossible to find elsewhere in Texas. The name says it all: Seven Courses of Beef.
Unlike a Western-style tasting menu, the seven courses are served simultaneously and more or less immediately. A few of the courses may hit your table before your glass of water. (By the way, Saigon Block is BYOB.)
Within minutes, plates will begin arriving in a sudden rush: a platter of cucumber slices, bean sprouts, basil, mint, lemongrass, carrots and daikon; chilled noodles; rice paper to roll spring rolls; a tangy, spicy salad of sliced beef, cucumber, crumbled peanuts and a clutch of basil leaves; slices of raw tenderloin waiting to take their turns in a roiling broth of fried shallots; a huge bowl of congee, the comforting soup of rice, slivers of beef, herbs and yet another delightful showering of fried shallots. This would be hard to verify, but Saigon Block might fry more shallots than any other restaurant in Texas.
On the night of our visit, one of the seven courses — bo cha dum, a huge steamed meatball that some Vietnamese-American writers compare to meatloaf — was unavailable, so the kitchen doubled down on the three remaining courses, which all rely on the charcoal grill. Even better than the short, chubby sausages are thin slices of flank steak wrapped like casing around stalks of green onion.
Maybe best of all are the ground beef patties wrapped in lolot leaves, which the menu calls “Hawaiian” leaves although the plant is not native to Hawaii. The grill turns the leaves a charred, flakey black. The three grilled courses are also available together in an a la carte trio for $18.
Seven Courses of Beef isn’t as intimidatingly meat-heavy as the name implies since congee, salad and spring rolls are at the heart of the action. It is, however, an extraordinary amount of food. You’ll spend just $18 per person — a minimum of two orders is required — to fill the table with a huge variety of dishes, and an order for two could easily feed four. The leftovers are spectacular.
The diversity of the Vietnamese food scene in Garland and Richardson isn’t well-reported by (overwhelmingly white) Dallas mass media. In addition to the banh mi bakeries and pho kitchens that fill most outsider-written media guides, there are spots that specialize in banh cuon, soups like bun bo hue, desserts and Cantonese-influenced menus that reflect generations of Chinese migrants moving southward.
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At the top end of the range, in price and complexity, is Saigon Block, the rare Dallas-area Vietnamese restaurant specializing in big, flashy banquet foods. On Saigon Block’s menu, pho is practically an afterthought. Most of the tables in this dining room, which has been packed with fans since it opened 10 years ago, are ordering roasted quail, deep-fried Cornish hens, butter-basted frog legs, bountiful portions of beef and, of course, enormous slabs of catfish.
This restaurant is still at the top of its game and shows no sign of slowing down. After all, there are still newcomers here, craning their necks to watch in wide-eyed wonder as Saigon Block serves its next whole fish.
Saigon Block, 2150 E. Arapaho Road, No. 200, Richardson. saigonblock.com, 214-575-6400. Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.