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Fresh Vietnamese fare amid the tiendas

Saigon Grill opened in March in a squat, tan building with a brown awning, the sort of nondescript structure that risks getting lost amid the clutter of a busy commercial thoroughfare. But because the building sits in the middle of a stretch of North Roxboro Road known as a mecca for Mexican food, the Vietnamese restaurant stands out like a lotus blossom in a basket of jalapeños.

That's my theory, anyway, as to why Saigon Grill opened to a packed house with minimal advertising in the middle of a recession. Given the paucity of Vietnamese restaurants in the area, it isn't surprising that word would spread quickly among fans of that cuisine. And doubtless the restaurant benefited from pre-opening word-of-mouth reporting among the local foodie network, particularly those who frequent the nearby taquerias and tiendas.

Such publicity can prove a double-edged sword, however, especially to a small restaurant that's just starting out. In the first few weeks after opening, Saigon Grill's kitchen was frequently overwhelmed by the crowds. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that virtually everything was prepared to order.

And therein lies the explanation for Saigon Grill's continued success. The food might have been slow in coming and at times inconsistent in those early days, but the emphasis on freshness and authenticity was evident. Now that the crowds have died down a bit, those qualities are really beginning to shine.

The Vietnamese crêpe that was merely good a few months ago is now excellent: crisp at its ragged edges, subtly redolent of coconut and generously filled with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts. Even the plate of fresh herbs that traditionally accompanies the crêpe raises the ante on the local norm with the exotically fragrant perilla (a variant of the sawtoothed leaf known in Japanese restaurants as shiso) in addition to the usual cilantro, mint and lettuce.

Deep-fried spring rolls are exemplary, too, their shatter-crisp wrappers containing a savory filling of minced pork, shrimp, vegetables and bean thread noodles. Just as rewarding are fresh spring rolls whose artfully arranged filling of mint, vermicelli, shrimp and grilled pork is a pastiche of pastel colors visible through translucent rice-flour wrappers.

Saigon Grill's rendition of pho, the classic Vietnamese beef noodle soup, is also solid. The spices in the broth are more subtly nuanced than some, but there's no shortage of long-simmered beefy goodness. And you can always punch up the flavor to your liking with the fresh herbs and lime that accompany the dish and with the fish sauce, Sriracha and other condiments on the table.

Don't get the idea, though, that Saigon Grill's offering is limited to the familiar Vietnamese classics. In addition to the expected rice plates, vermicelli bowls and stir-fries, you'll also find about two dozen exotic -- and for some, challenging -- dishes under the heading of Saigon Grill's Specialties.

For example, there's eel "sautéed with curry and coconut sauce," which you might find exotically satisfying if you don't mind nibbling around the tiny bones. Or "salt-toasted shrimp, battered and stir-fried with garlic, onions and bell peppers," whose only off-putting characteristic is the gumminess of the batter. Or rabbit "marinated in special fermented tofu," which is decidedly an acquired taste.

On the other hand, even a moderately adventurous palate should find ample rewards in hot and sour fish soup or minced shrimp grilled on sugar-cane skewers or Vietnamese-style spiced beef stew served with a baguette on the side.

Fluorescent lighting gives the minimally decorated dining room something of a cafeteria feel, though the look is softened by potted bamboo plants scattered about the room. For that matter, the dining room gets most of its warmth from the ever-present smiles of owner Kim Do and her sister, Lien, who wait on tables with eager-to-please efficiency.

Saigon Grill is Do's first restaurant, though she brings plenty of experience to the table. She grew up in the business, for starters, working in her parents' Vietnamese restaurant in California. Now they're doing the cooking in her restaurant in Durham -- which goes a long way toward explaining how a little lotus blossom of a Vietnamese restaurant can bloom in the unlikely environment of North Roxboro Road.

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