Smile Politely

Saigon to Bangkok in… Savoy

Campus has KAM’s and Chipotle, Urbana has the homely downtown with Crane Alley and the Courier, Champaign touches on the gourmet urban with Bacaro and Jim Gould’s, and Savoy has… Dairy Queen and the abandoned Spaghetti Shop.

Pretty much the only reasons to come out to Savoy are for the movie theater and Friar Tuck’s. Food, generally, is left to be desired elsewhere. Even then, I have a M.O. when it comes to eating in Champaign-Urbana: I drive up to Chicago for Asian food and the family-like ambience of small restaurants or to join my family in post-Catholic-Mass Vietnamese feasts on Sundays.

So when Saigon to Bangkok opened this past October (formerly “Saigon”), I was both excited and hesitant — excited because I could really use a “go-to” place for good Vietnamese food, but hesitant because having grown up in Chicago and my frequent food trips to the city, I’ve been spoiled with the variety and quality of restaurants the city has to offer.

Saigon to Bankok is a family-run establishment of aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, and nieces. When we walked in on a Friday night, the place was bustling with friendly chatter and laughter. We were greeted by a little girl who grabbed two menus and walked us over to our booth. The restaurant is spacious, decorated with Thai paintings on one side and Vietnamese décor on the other wall. There’s a small private room in the front that seats roughly eight people and a large 25-person seating area in the back of the restaurant. Booths line the walls with chest high dividers. After the little girl seated us, we were greeted by Julia, a manager/waitress who works weekends to help out her aunt (who is one of the owners). Friendly and casual, yet not overly buddy-buddy, she was a great help and loved to talk about the intricacies of the food and the concoctions the cook puts together.

My dining partner and I started out with an order of banh xeo (#006, above), which is basically a Vietnamese version of a pancake made w/ an egg-like batter, filled with bean sprouts, green onions, chicken, and shrimp. Julia politely explained to us (at least my dining partner) how to eat it: use the lettuce to wrap up the banh xeo and then dip it in the nuoc mam sauce. Or if you’re like Julia and don’t like vegetables, just ignore the lettuce wrap aspect, which is perfectly possible due to the delightfully light and crispy pancake that is fried just enough to give it shape and a nice crunch.

For our main course(s), we tasted four of their most popular dishes: pho tai chin (#21), bun bo thit nuong cha gio tom (#41), and chicken pad thai (#50), and tofu in a clay pot (#94).

We got ready to eat the pho first, but she advised us to hit up the pad thai (above, in its taster’s portion) first because apparently it doesn’t taste great cold. I have to admit, I rolled my eyes when she brought out the pad thai. “Really,” I thought to myself, “this is one of the most requested dishes?” Expecting to be underwhelmed, I squeezed the lime over the noodles and dug in.

I have to say, I was really taken by surprise. It was the best pad thai I’ve had in ages. It was a bit sticky, which I prefer over the overly-greasy versions, the noodles nice and firm and the chicken well-cooked. But what really caught me off guard was the touch of coconut that added another level of depth to the pad thai. Topped off with a squirt of lime, the tartness pulled the sweet coconut-tinged noodles and savory chicken flavors together.

Pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup and it’s all about the beef broth. It’ll make or break it. Good pho broth takes a long time to make. The broth here is top notch — it has a depth to it that’s hard to explain. It hits you in the beginning and stays with you long after you’re finished sipping it. I didn’t realize until I was half-way done with my bowl that I didn’t put any of the usual fixings in, like sirancha, nuoc mam (fish sauce), and hoisin sauce to boost the flavor. I even forgot to put in the basil, sprouts and lime. The broth was heartwarming and the tender slices of beef in the soup rounded out the broth and noodles deliciously.

For the vegetarians, we tested the tofu in a clay pot (#94). Sadly, it was not served in a clay pot, nor is it cooked in one, but it didn’t detract from it at all. The dish is composed of a special sauce, fried tofu, mushrooms and a few other vegetables, served with a side of rice. This was the winning dish of the night for us and it was because of the sauce. Really, all of the components of the dish, as good as they are, are only really there so you have something to soak up the sauce with. The sauce… was amazing. We tried to get Julia to tell us what was in it but she said it’s one of the chef’s secrets. The “special sauce” was special indeed. After we finished the veggies and tofu, we were tempted to toss in the rice to soak up all the sauce and eat it, but we somehow managed to stop ourselves.

To drink, we had some homemade limeade. It was refreshing but nothing to write home about. I was hoping to have an avocado shake or bubble tea for dessert, but their dessert menu is not their forte. However, they do have desserts on the weekends but you don’t know until you get there because it depends on what the chef decides to offer. We went again last weekend and I was pleasantly surprised with a serving of one of my favorite Vietnamese desserts, che, a sweet tapioca pudding.

On our way out of the restaurant, we saw the family members/workers eating dinner together. It was nice to see that the chef, Julia’s uncle who is one of the owners, serves his customers the same food he feeds his family. While Saigon to Bangkok won’t replace my weekend food trips to Chicago, I like knowing that I can take a 10 minute walk from my place (or 10 minute drive for you folks outside of Savoy) to grab some quality Vietnamese food, pick up a six-pack or bottle of wine at Friar Tuck’s, and catch a movie at the Savoy 16. It’s nice to know that the more I stay in the C-U area, the more I find that it’s beginning to feel like home, food and all. And surprisingly, it’s in Savoy…


Saigon to Bangkok is located at 1333 Savoy Plaza Suite 8 in Savoy (between Schuck’s and Friar Tuck’s. It’s open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. You can view their dine-in menu here and their carry-out menu here.

Related Articles