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Saigon Xich Lo Vietnamese cuisine

Some situations call for food fast without resorting to fast food.

Such was the case on a recent weekday when my husband, Will, and I found ourselves in downtown Grants Pass around our toddler’s dinnertime. His capriciousness discouraged us from The Laughing Clam and Blondies’ Bistro, both handy and popular choices. But we were equally reluctant to hit up a drive-thru.

Looking for something en route to the freeway, I recalled a Vietnamese spot I’d spied on previous trips. I managed to convince Will that there would be few diners so early in the evening to disturb with our son’s difficult demeanor. Sure enough, the parking lot of Saigon Xich Lo was empty, and just a solitary customer was waiting inside for takeout.

The fact that Saigon is a counter-service operation, of which I was unaware, was even better for our purposes. No waiting for a server to take our order. And minimal ambiance to jeopardize for other patrons in the sparsely furnished but impeccably clean dining area.

The menu was a bit smaller than I’d hoped, devoid of fried items that unfailingly tempt my son. But in place of crunchy spring rolls, Saigon does prepare fresh salad rolls, uncommon in local Asian restaurants because they’re both labor-intensive and highly perishable.

To the salad rolls ($5.75), we added a chicken banh mi ($6.50) and chicken “Vietoc” ($5.50), which I took to be the Vietnamese version of Korean tacos popularized by big-city fusion-food trucks. Grilled chicken, beef or a combination of the two are served with rice and seasonal vegetables for $6.50 to $9.50.

Cabbage, bean sprouts and pickled vegetables compose a chicken salad for $7.50. Also served cold, rice noodles and vegetables can be topped with grilled chicken, beef, both meats or both meats plus shrimp ($9 to $12). A special pho, Vietnamese rice-noodle soup, also was on offer.

The chill outside had crept into Saigon’s high-ceiling space, suggesting hot tea or the quintessential Vietnamese coffee with sweetened, condensed milk. But fountain drinks and iced tea constitute the beverage options. We contented ourselves with water until our items arrived in disposable, paper boats.

The salad rolls were on the large side and fairly bursting with fresh produce, namely leaf lettuce. The dish also boasted two meats: poached shrimp and sliced chicken breast that looked as if it had been cooked in-house.

A bit of crunch was evident from a rice-based crumb sprinkled among the roll’s other fillings, including rice noodles. And the accompanying peanut sauce was among the best I’ve had. Saigon charges 75 cents apiece for sides of its five sauces.

Described on the menu as baguette, the sandwich’s bread seemed more like a crusty pub roll. While it lacked pate, likewise traditional on a banh mi, the sandwich derived a distinctive flavor from pickled carrots and onions, cucumbers, cabbage, cilantro, mayonnaise and the house special sauce, all in harmonious ratio to the grilled chicken.

Will’s Vietoc was a similar array, only served in corn tortillas with “mung sauce.” Customers can help themselves from a bottle of spicy sauce at the self-service counter for beverages, napkins and flatware.

Pleased to encounter something new on our spur-of-the-moment outing, Will and I agreed that fast food would have been more expensive but nowhere nearly so flavorful and healthful. I plan to return when crispy spring rolls are among Saigon’s daily specials, announced on social media.

Located at 405 N.E. Seventh St. (corner of Seventh and D streets), Saigon Xich Lo is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, until 8 p.m. Friday and until 3 p.m. Saturday. Call 541-441-1481.

— Sarah Lemon

Grilled chicken or beef and pickled vegetables fill a banh mi sandwich at Saigon Xich Lo. Mail Tribune/Sarah Lemon