Saturday, January 12, 2008

Asian Restaurants in Annapolis

A town with so many frangible restaurants is hardly going to care about interesting Asian food. You can't go twenty feet in downtown Annapolis without bumping into yet another surf 'n turf eatery offering the usual crab cakes, grilled steaks, or gussied up free-range chicken. Even the desserts are interchangeable: tiramisu, lemon cheesecake, creme brulee, and some sort of "death by chocolate" confection. For most Annapolitans, culinary innovation is not a high priority.

It was with considerable foreboding that we made our way to a modest Vietnamese restaurant in Edgewater called Saigon Palace. The food, I am pleased to say, was tasty and unpretentious and the service excellent. Food came piping hot from the kitchen (an obsession of mine), and the waitress was prompt and attentive without being officious.

The dumplings were a bit tough around the edges, probably from sitting too long in a steamer, and I would have liked more flavor in the mixture of vegetables and tofu, which arrived as a plain and not terribly appetizing mass: large, unadorned chunks of tofu surrounded by steamed vegetables. Everything was fresh and crisp, but the dish needed a sauce. Far more inventive were the Vietnamese pancakes, which were filled with shrimp and vegetables. The waitress showed us how to scoop up the pancake with large leaves of lettuce, and the juxtaposition of textures was pleasant indeed. We especially like the lemon and pepper chicken, although we puzzled over the name since freshly grated ginger, not lemon, was by far the predominant flavor.

As the lemon chicken suggests, Saigon Palace could use some help with labeling. Their web site claims they offer "the most authentic Vietnamese cuisine in the Bay area." As far as we know, they offer the only Vietnamese food in the area, which once again leads to the question of scarcity in Annapolis. Common sense dictates that communities with healthy Asian populations produce an abundance of good restaurants, as NYC, L.A., S.F., or even Northern Virginia attest. When I first moved to Washington twenty years ago, I was told that the best Vietnamese food was to be found within a 10-miles radius of the Pentagon, courtesy of the Vietnamese who fled the fall of Saigon and then followed the brass back to that imposing edifice. While the story seemed implausible, I had to admit that Northern Virginia boasted by far the best Vietnamese food in the greater metropolitan area, in addition to respectable Chinese, Korean, and Thai restaurants (who apparently followed in their wake).

The causal relationship between population and food is not axiomatic. I have been in overwhelmingly white towns that have excellent ethnic restaurants: witness our terrific lunch at Typhoon in Bend, Oregon.  The best Ethiopian meal I've ever had was in Madison, Wisconsin, hardly a bastion of ethnic diversity.  Ultimately, I think the desire to experience different textures, ingredients, and flavors perhaps balances (or at least mitigates) the question of population.  Having an educated, affluent citizenry who are well traveled or at least curious helps considerably, although here again I have found surprising exceptions in redneck towns boasting culinary gems.  It does not speak well for Annapolitans that they are seemingly content with boring "American" fare, indifferently prepared and woefully overpriced.

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