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review: A Family Affair

Visit the Nguyen family, and their food, at Saigon 2000.

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First to the food, which is uniformly excellent.

Clear noodle soup ($7.95) is served the way the family enjoyed it in their native village of Mo Cay, with the broth in a small bowl and the main ingredients — pork, shrimp, quail eggs, watercress and cellophane noodles — in a separate large bowl. You can pour the broth into the big bowl or, as our charming waitress, Noxy Nguyen, recommended, eat them separately. Either way, it is a delicious main course.

Another unusual entrée is broken rice with a tasty egg cake ($7.95) made of ground pork, mushrooms, carrots and onions, baked in a pan and topped with a layer of egg and accompanied by shredded pork, a fried egg, mounds of bean sprouts, thin slices of carrots, cellophane noodles and a slice of lime.

On a second visit, we sampled more conventional fare. I opted for a dinner portion of bite-sized ginger chicken, which makes for easier handling with chopsticks, that was loaded with onions, in a sauce that had just the right amount of ginger flavor. At lunch, it is one of a dozen stir fry specials that include wonton or vegetarian soup and an egg roll or spring roll, for $5.95.

My wife, Nancy, enjoyed vermicelli (spaghetti-thin noodles) with shredded pork and bite-sized portions of egg roll, with lettuce and carrots ($5.95).

We tasted three appetizers ($2.50) and gave the highest marks to the toasty egg rolls with sweet-and-sour sauce. The other choices, each of which could have been a bit more moist, are shredded pork rolls, with a fish sauce, and spring rolls (of pork, shrimp and herbs), with a peanut sauce, both wrapped in rice paper and served cold.

I also had a cup of beef ball soup ($1.50), which had three miniature balls of ground beef in a soothing broth.

For dessert, we split an order of fried bananas ($2.50), which we dipped into a creamy coconut sauce.

The drink menu includes soft drinks, tea, beer, wine and several exotic offerings, such as salted lemonade, salted prune, soybean milk, eggnog and pennywort.

Each meal ended with a complimentary large slice of orange.

The brightly lighted main dining room, which has a dozen booths and half that many tables, is nonsmoking.

Saigon 2000 opened last July 30, and except for one part-time server, is staffed entirely by the Nguyen family, who are living testament to how immigrants make this a great country.

The restaurant's attempt to attract customers in a sluggish economy was dealt a blow last Saturday when the Ukrop's next door closed. But the Nguyens have overcome much bigger challenges.

In 1986, in a desperate effort to find a better life, Truc Nguyen, a former South Vietnamese solider; his wife, Lien Tuyet, and three children rowed away from Vietnam with seven other family members in a dingy boat about twice the size of a canoe. After three nights and two days at sea, they were rescued in a storm by a Greek ship that took them to Hong Kong. After six months in a refugee camp in the Philippines, the Catholic diocese of Richmond arranged for them to come to America.

In the succeeding 16 years, Truc worked as a carpenter and painter (the murals on the wall are his handiwork) and Lien cleaned houses and cooked in Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants until they saved enough money to buy the former China Inn, where they now work 13 hours a day, seven days a week.

The parents work in the kitchen and customers are served by their children: Phong, 24; Tuyen or "Noxy," 21, a third-year science student at Virginia Commonwealth University; Phu, 18, a student at Reynolds Community College; and U.S.-born Phuoc, "Anna," 13, and Nhu, "Diana," 11. All are American citizens. S



Don Baker has been reviewing restaurants since he retired as Richmond bureau chief for the Washington Post in '99. He has worked as a waiter and maitre-d', and has a dining Web site, diningpro.com. All his visits are anonymous and paid for by Style.



Saigon 2000 Vietnamese Restaurant ($)

Fountain Square Shopping Center

8030-A W. Broad St.

270-4400

Hours: Monday through Friday 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m. to 10

p.m., and Sunday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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