December 17, 2021 | OPINION | By Hank Bedingfield | Photo by Claire Bogart
This is the week all the crippling, spiraling questions seem to surface for Colorado College students. The gnawing, kicking, screaming, ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’. We’ve made ourselves fine, disgruntled-yet-sedated hostages. Is it too much to ask for a good meal?
Though I haven’t frequented the usually-unholy Bon Appétit food-product manufacturing mills this year, (apart from one Rastall brunch worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy) it is safe to say, in the search for good food, on-campus options will leave you more disillusioned than ever.
Whatever beautification was promised to our beloved Rastall’s, it’s now clear that we’ve all witnessed some kind of botched plastic surgery, where the botox and fillers held for a month or two, but quickly grew turgid, discolored, and infected. Whether COVID was the culprit, or a convenient excuse, the quality of Bon Appétit’s Frankenstein, restaurant hybrids — half Soviet-styled meal distribution, half sadistic-pain factory for the diarrhea fetishizers — is worse than ever.
Students must look outward for any kind of culinary pleasure, a daunting task when considering the eclectic and often impenetrable nature of what is for most of us an adopted ecosystem.
Look past Saigon Cafe.
Nearly everything about Saigon Cafe possesses the uncanny ringing of a Holiday Inn Express conference room. From the hostess who sat us down at a random table while clearing the booth and got us water without introducing herself or saying a word past hello, to the waitress who took our order without sharing her name or offering any commentary, to the other waiter who appeared suddenly with a bill and reemerged hastily to grab the payment, only to disappear shortly after, business rules at the expense of nearly all hospitality.
I was paralyzed in a state of shock and horror, thinking I had been transported to some military operation ruled strictly by corporate interior design and Realpolitik. I felt the wall-to-wall carpeting clawing at my ankles vying desperately for me to join a sea of dust bunnies and inconspicuous stains.
I had been eying Saigon Cafe for months, years even, ogling at what looked like satisfied patrons like a shameless window-shopper into its Downtown, Bijou location. On the inside the patrons still looked satisfied. The crowd was mostly older — a usual marker of great taste or extremely poor taste, nothing in between — conversation was lively, and there were many smiles.
Some food justified it. The Vietnamese Spring Roll, cut neatly into quarter-sized bites, was a deep-fried delight. Where Chinese egg rolls use cabbage, among other ingredients, which sometimes tastes like cheap, soggy filler, Vietnamese egg rolls typically use cellophane noodles, promising a satisfying bite.
The Summer roll, another highlight of the low-lit meal, was delicious and fresh. The rice paper roll, filled generously with vegetables and shrimp, with a rich peanut sauce, was beyond any honest criticism.
I wish the meal ended after the starters.
The house specialty, Bún, was my pick. When it came out, the seemingly-bottomless bowl before me seemed like a brazen challenge and a sinful proposition of rice noodles, bean sprouts, carrots, green onion, and a slapped-on portion of divinely marinated and grilled beef.
I had a moment of pause. A quick and sweet revelation. The curt, surly staff, the tacky, faux-hospitality interior, the eclectic music — banging manically from experimental jazz to Gregorian opera — it was all a smoke screen, an elaborate diversion to keep the window-watchers and carpetbaggers at doors length. I had found a hole in the wall — no frills, good food, decent pricing. I began to salivate.
I was let down. Along with the heaping bowl of Bún we’re two sauce dishes: one, a sweat-inducing chili sauce, and the other, the house sauce, broth colored, slightly salty, and tangy.
After stabbing into the rice noodles with my fork like a machete into the endless jungle, having exhausted any chance of hitting beef or even bean sprout, I was demoralized, crushed even. The beef never stood a proportional chance against the noodles and neither did the sauce, which looked at the bottom of the dish like a child’s melted ice cream. I mixed and mixed, making a laundry machine of my arm in hopeless attempts to evenly sauce the meal. It was a slow, crushing defeat.
Maybe I ordered wrong. Maybe I should’ve settled for the pho, which I eyed enviously throughout the evening, growing furious as the restaurant-wide chorus of slurps became a mocking crescendo.
Something was lost that night. I was, once again, lost, confused, and terrified. I wanted to crawl somewhere safe and toyed with the thought of ordering deep fried sweet and sour chicken from China City, only a block away, but cursed at such a bastard’s thought. Satisfaction wouldn’t come so cheap.
Saigon Cafe, interestingly, is a perennial winner or finalist of the Indy’s Best of the Springs for Vietnamese cuisine, which says something about the Colorado Springs restaurant scene, the rarity of authentic Vietnamese food beyond soup and noodles, or the Indy readers. I won’t spell it out. Try Saigon Cafe or don’t.