No food seller in Vietnam touts his use of fresh ingredients—it just goes without saying that it's a priority. Sawtooth, a three-story Vietnamese restaurant and lounge in the West Loop, gets that part right. The freshness of its output—down to the ubiquitous salad of herbs, greens, and pickled carrot and daikon that accompanies practically every dish—can't be faulted. But Sawtooth dumbs down the flavors. Of the handful of well-known soups culled from the universe of Vietnamese bowls, canh chua is the most out of whack: the tamarind-based catfish soup, studded with tomato and pineapple, should have a tartness to balance the cloying sweetness prevalent here. The pho bo has a deep, beefy-flavored broth, but you'll find no meatballs or soft, pliant tendons to add texture to the sliced filet mignon, and only dainty plates of bean sprouts and mint and a few dabs of chile and hoisin sauce to fine-tune it to your liking. Congee is bland by definition, but Sawtooth's tastes like watery gruel, even when loaded with plump sea creatures. Claypot catfish (ca kho to) is probably the homiest dish represented—sections of fish braised in a caramel sauce with none of the faintly bitter burnt-sugar flavor that should make it deep enough to eat on plain rice. Simpler dishes like bun thit nuong cha gio (grilled pork and plump deep-fried spring rolls over cool rice noodles) or thin fish-sauce-marinated pork chop are a bit less disappointing. Then again, there's no reason you should be paying twice as much for them here as you would around Broadway and Argyle.
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Though the lounge is open only on Friday and Saturday nights, this Vietnamese restaurant and lounge has pretensions as a club spot, and the young staff are probably better-looking than anyone who's eaten there. In fact, at a certain late hour on one visit, they seemed to cluster at one end of the bar and stare vacantly over each other's shoulders every time I needed one of them most. —Mike Sula