I'm going to start here with a brief history of Vietnamese food in Harford County. And it will be brief, briefer even than the history of Mexican food in Harford County. First, there was nothing - a great dark void in the culinary landscape for the entire 15 years I've lived out here. Then, back in 2012 and completely out of the blue, the Golden Szechuan Inn hired a cook from Vietnam and added a modest selection of pho and noodles to their menu, and Vietnamese food had finally arrived.
Sadly, this was short lived. By the end of 2013, the cook was back in Vietnam, and the pho was off the menu. Little did we know, however, that a new establishment had risen to bring pho, noodles, and other Vietnamese delicacies to prominence just a short drive down Route 24. The Saigon Pearl opened in The Festival about five months ago, and it is brilliant.
We arrived at about 7:00 on Sunday evening and found a modest crowd, including a family of five. We seated ourselves in one of the booths along the wall and were quickly greeted and provided menus. Saigon Pearl has a massive menu that includes several varieties of pho, as well as Viet vermicelli bowls, several categories of fried rice, and the usual noodle dishes from the region like Pad Thai and Drunken Noodles.
After a long discussion about where to start, we asked the waitress for her recommendations. She recommended the summer rolls (which we ordered) and the Thai spicy rice noodle soup (which we didn't).
The summer rolls came with the traditional peanut sauce that was just slightly sweet, slightly spicy, and very peanutty. The rolls were simple and tasty, consisting of shrimp, lettuce, and rice vermicelli wrapped in a rice wrapper. There was nothing clever here - just good, basic, authentic rolls. Coming two to a serving, this was the perfect starter for us.
For our main course, my counterpart ordered one of the vermicelli bowls consisting of grilled pork, shredded pork, a spring roll, and a generous helping of rice vermicelli. And the nice thing about this is that Saigon Pearl serves the accompanying fish sauce on the side so you can season your noodles to your liking. Now, I can't comment on this particular dish because there was no sharing. My counterpart seemed quite pleased overall, though, but did comment that the meat was missing a little something. While he enjoyed his meal, he felt there could have been a bit of seasoning on the meat to give it some zest. This could be the kitchen tailoring their menu to the mild palate in the area. In addition to fish sauce, they do provide chili paste and a bottle of sriracha so you can spice it up if you so desire.
I ordered the deluxe noodle soup. I got a large bowl of clear, tangy broth filled with rice vermicelli and a combination of grilled flank steak, beef meatballs, beef tendon, and tripe. The flank steak was well done but not over done, the tendon was tender, and the tripe was in small, easy to manage pieces. As far as the meatballs go, alas, I only got one. But, it was nice and peppery with a hint of onion. I also got a serving of bean sprouts on the side that were crisp and earthy and tasted incredibly fresh.
The service was quick and pleasant. The food coming out of the kitchen was good, solid stuff. You can dine in or take it to go. They also do catering. Saigon Pearl is located in The Festival Shopping Center on Route 24 in Bel Air. They do not yet have a website, but they do have a Facebook page.