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Honest and Unbiased: Saigon No. 1 Kitchen

Saigon No. 1 Kitchen
Garden Grove, CA
2 Stars

Saigon No. 1 Kitchen is a small restaurant on the second floor of a grocery store, the kind of place that feels like a real find. And it is! The mango salad is sweetly prickly, and then you build your own spring rolls out of this sticky rice paper and pieces of whole fried catfish, and it is delicious!

But OK. So I went with my good friend Matt B. (who I eat with all the time, and it’s sort of important to this story (??) that we “hooked up” a couple weeks ago but then decided, mutually, that we should just be friends and no one seems to believe me but I’m totally okay with this) and we’re seated at this tiny table, right next to another tiny table. We are essentially sitting together, but there’s a crack in the middle barely big enough to pass the light that maintains this illusion that we’re all still strangers.

At this other tiny table, a beautiful Asian woman (about forty, I’d say?) is sitting across from one of the oldest men I have ever seen. Wrinkles look ready to fall off his face like ridges of cream, and he has this wispy dead hair in this strange formation around the back of his head. He’s wearing red leather pants with navy blue suspenders, though—pretty spiffy.

At first I just assume that this woman is his nurse (he’s white, so she probably isn’t his daughter/granddaughter) and don’t pay much attention to them, until they start taking pictures of each other and sort of giggling in a way that feels really flirty. Then they progress to playing patty-cake across the table, and then finally, they drink a bunch of soda and commence a full-on burping contest, complete with grave, dramatic hand gestures like they’re about to start singing solos from Les Mis!

As all this is happening, Matt and I kind of look at each other and bug our eyes out quietly, but when the old man lets loose the winning operatic belch, we both just lose it. We try to laugh silently, but we’re sitting even closer to this man and woman than we are to each other. It’s hard not to notice someone’s shoulders are shaking when you’re basically touching her shoulders.

They don’t seem to mind, but the illusion of privacy is now officially shattered. The old man turns to Matt, and he says, “That’s your woman, eh?” and then he clucks his tongue and winks, and it’s the strangest wink because his eyes are basically shrouded in wrinkles and I’m not sure I’d ever seen a 100-year-old wink before. Anyway, so it takes me a second to hear what he said, but when I do I turn hot red. My cheeks prickle and my ears burn to the tips. Luckily, my hair is covering my ears at least.

We try to go back to eating and pretending we’re not eavesdropping, but our cover is blown and the old man keeps talking to us and saying kind of suggestive things that are just subtle enough that we can’t call him out. Finally, they get up to leave, and we kind of wave meekly, like, “Seeya!” and the woman waves back with the same brand of hesitant smile.

The old man takes a step away from the table, then turns around in this spry pivot motion that impresses me more than it should. He puts a finger gun right in Matt’s face, and I can almost see Matt gulping.

He opens his eyes wider than I would have thought possible, and he says, “Boy. I’m old enough to be your uncle. But I have a young bride.” At this point I try not to look at his bride in questioning horror. “Do you know how I do it?” He twinkles, and Matt can’t look away, but he doesn’t answer, either. Then this man, who is old enough to be Matt’s grandfather’s uncle, shouts, “Wheaties! Makes it rise every time.” Then he turns on a heel and walks out.

So okay, all this is very weird and somewhat horrifying, and I know I’m red because I look down and man, what a day to wear a low-cut blouse, I am blushing right down to my sternum. Anyway, our waitress comes a few minutes later and says, “I see you’ve met the owner.” She just casually drops this M. Night Shyamalan twist and walks away.

A few thoughts on this. First, if you’re going to make a scene with your gross burping contest then embarrass the hell out of your customers, maybe comp an appetizer or something? Second, I have a message for the owner’s wife. Your husband owns a Vietnamese restaurant in Orange County, and I’m sure it’s doing fine, but he is definitely not rich enough for you! I mean if you’re sleeping with someone ancient, he should at least be able to afford Viagra, don’t you think? It is entirely possible that you love him, I guess, but I think it’s just as likely that you have a limited imagination!

Anyway, Saigon No. 1 Kitchen—good food, horribly run, and my dinner didn’t sit very well after we left. Would not come again.

This is the first installment of Trop’s new weekly series, Honest and Unbiased. 

Steph Cha is the author of Follow Her Home, a feminist hardboiled detective novel. She lives in Los Angeles and mothers a basset hound.