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Miss Saigon Gives Tucson a Taste of Vietnam

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Tucked away in the southeast corner of Campbell Avenue and Speedway Boulevard, just a stone’s throw away from the University of Arizona campus, sits what may be Tucson’s most well-known Vietnamese restaurant.  Come to Miss Saigon on any given night and its tables will be packed, its servers darting around, the space between its walls filled with fragrant spices and the clamor of conversation.

Although today it’s a household name when it comes to local Vietnamese food, Miss Saigon started small nearly a decade ago in August 2001, a hole-in-the-wall where hungry students and adventurous eaters could stop by for a bowl of its signature dish, pho.  Its owner, Steve Ma (no relation to this story's author), emigrated from Vietnam in 1984, bringing with him the culinary tradition he grew up with.

Ma attended the UA, but said he decided to open a restaurant when he realized the corporate life wasn’t for him.  Back in Vietnam, which he still calls home, his family has always been in the restaurant business.  He was raised under the culinary banners of two cultures -- the son of a Vietnamese mother and a Chinese father -- and considers himself fortunate to have known both cultures growing up.  He can speak both Vietnamese and Cantonese, but the influence of his upbringing extends beyond language and shapes to Miss Saigon and the dishes that are served.

“What’s special about the pho here? A lot of love. Basically, a lot of hard work. I make it the way my grandma made it back home.”

Miss Saigon certainly owes some of its success to its pho, a staple of the cuisine and often the first thing people think of when Vietnamese food is mentioned.  Pho, pronounced “fuh,” typically describes a bowl of rice noodles simmering in piping hot broth, seasoned with star anise and cinnamon, brimming with different cuts of beef and served with a side of garnishes such as cilantro, Thai basil and bean sprouts.

There are many regional varieties of pho, though the general consensus is that it originated around Hanoi in the early 1900s, with the first dedicated pho restaurant opening in the 1920s. Vietnam was a French colony at the time, and the dish represents a blend of French and Chinese influences while still distinctly Vietnamese.

The most critical component of pho is the broth. The broth is the heart of the dish, the unmistakable foundation upon which the other ingredients are built, its quality apparent in every bite and sip. Ma makes the broth himself each week, an 18-hour process he calls “time-consuming, but high quality.”  The broth is made with beef bones, along with different herbs and seasonings and 18 hours gives the broth time to fully absorb the flavor of all the elements. 

“Our broth is pretty amazing. I’m not just saying that because I work here. I have family in California and I love food, all kinds of Asian food. Even in California, I can’t find broth like ours,” said Maria Vo, Miss Saigon’s assistant manager.

Vo has been working at Miss Saigon since her junior year of high school.   Now a senior at the UA, Vo has witnessed the many stages in Miss Saigon’s evolution.  During her time here, she’s seen word of mouth bring more and more customers through its doors.  People started hearing about the place, and before long it had a reputation to uphold.  Tucson Weekly named Miss Saigon “Best Vietnamese” in 2005, and again in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010.  Websites such as Urbanspoon began consistently ranking Miss Saigon as the top Vietnamese restaurant in town. Customer reviews on Yelp, a popular site for social networking and user reviews, started turning up positive. A second location was opened in 2007, Miss Saigon Bar and Grill, on Ina Road by the I-10.  That same year, the original restaurant was remodeled and expanded.

“It’s been a whirlwind. Literally from the time I joined until now, Miss Saigon has just been growing, becoming busier and becoming more of a name brand as ‘the place’ to go eat pho.  I can’t go anywhere without meeting customers.”

Because of its proximity to campus, Miss Saigon hires many college students.  However, since the chefs are all Vietnamese to ensure the authenticity of the food, almost everyone who works here can speak at least some Vietnamese. Vo says they’re often mistaken for family, but that it often feels like one.

But students aren’t just working here. They’re crossing the street and eating here, in droves.

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“I could eat their pho every day,” said Marek Smolinski, a senior majoring in economics who eats at Miss Saigon at least twice a week.  “I would never get tired of it, it’s just that good. It’s healthy too. I never regret it.”

Smolinski’s favorite is number 27, the Miss Saigon Special Beef Pho, large, with cilantro, a squeezed lime and lots of Sriracha chili sauce.

“It’s close to campus, and they’re always really fast. I don’t think I’ve ever had to wait more than ten minutes,” said Zach Dukerich, who walks to the restaurant after class on Friday's, trying to beat the dinner rush. “A friend showed me the place last year, and I just keep coming back.”

Dukerich likes his pho with all the fixings and drinks the broth last.

“The only time I’m disappointed is when it’s gone.”

Written by Sean Yuan Ma You are reading Miss Saigon Gives Tucson a Taste of Vietnam articles

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