Wandering into corner bars in Canton often means a night of burgers and beers, with or without a glowing jukebox or a band with an amplifier that seems to work well enough to hear the cover tunes all the way in Fells Point. While I’ve never been one to turn down a burger or a beer (or the allure of late-night local talent), it was refreshing to see an entirely new concept settle in at the corner of Potomac and Hudson streets where Yellow Dog Tavern once lived.
Serving up Vietnamese favorites with a self-proclaimed contemporary flair, Saigon Today (700 Potomac St.,  276-4888, saigontodaybmore.com) is one of only a few restaurants in this pocket of Charm City providing Asian cuisine.
While most corner bars tend to be dimly lit, Saigon Today is clearly trying to be as much of a standout with its décor as it is with its cuisine. Its sign, in brightly lit neon, advertises the name of the restaurant to anyone within a block in any direction. We couldn’t help but wonder if the neighbors inside their homes feel a little like old-school cartoon characters trying to sleep with that ever-flashing “Eat at Joe’s” sign glowing through their windows at night. Inside, the bar itself seemed cozy enough to sidle up to, but the tables in the space just to the side were cluttered with papers, boxes, and a mishmash of other materials. It wasn't enough to turn us away, but walking through an area that felt like someone’s displaced office was about as welcoming as it sounds.
Upstairs, the ambiance is charmingly playful. Brightly colored pillows sit in stylish contrast to sleek metallic tables and chairs in a way that makes you wish you were so talented at decorating with your Ikea furniture in your first apartment.
On a quiet Monday night, we had our choice of seating with only a few other tables of regulars that dined and chatted with the staff. Service was flawless, but for the distinct wait only on drinks from the bar.
But what about the food? Yes, Saigon Today has brought pho to Canton, and yes, it is the star of the menu. With a rich, savory broth in a fairly enormous bowl, the three-beef pho ($9.75) features rare steak, flank brisket, and beef ball.
Beef ball may not sound like a tasty menu item (and we definitely had our doubts). But, because the densely packed meatballs are slow-cooked and served in a broth that was simmered with bone marrow, beef bones, and traditional spices for a full 24 hours, we found ourselves wishing the pho had more balls (yes, the inevitable and expected jokes rounded the table about more pho-king balls).
With other varieties, such as chicken, steak, and all-beef ball, all of which come with plenty of crunchy bean sprouts and spicy jalapeno slices on a side plate, you can satisfy most of your pho cravings at Saigon Today. But vegetarians beware: While there is a version with only vegetables, at last visit broths were still only beef- or chicken-based.
From the “Bun” portion of the menu, the fried halibut, served with vermicelli noodles ($12.95), was surprisingly light and fresh in taste. While the fish is fried, the batter is so light that the outer layer is just crispy enough, with perfectly flaky meat inside. Scallions, dill, garlic, and peanut lend a depth of flavor not often found in a mild white-fish dish.
Appetizer or light-fare-style items were less successful with spring rolls ($5.95) that were very light on the pork and short on seasoning, and crispy spring rolls with vegetables ($4.95) that were smaller than expected and overpowered by the thickness of the outer layer and the heaviness of the frying.
Pad thai ($10.95) was also disappointingly one-note with too much sweetness and a lack of that defined peanut flavor that pad thai lovers desire.
For drinks, the Saigon Paloma is a refreshing, albeit non-authentic, start to a meal, and with rose water, fresh lime, fresh lychee, and prosecco, the Saigon Fantasy is a delicate treat in terms of taste, but the potpourrilike smell was a little off-putting. In the future, we would probably order from the beer list that includes a few Asian brews as well as some local craft beers and domestics.
Several chats with the very attentive owner Susu throughout the meal revealed that the kitchen is still working to perfect the menu through feedback from diners (they visited every table the night we visited). Despite the missteps on a few menu items, we still walked away pretty enthusiastic about the potential of this very different sort of corner spot in Canton.
Saigon Today is open Monday and Wednesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.