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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Restaurant Review: Pho Vietnam, Danbury, CT

I love pho, the wonderful Vietnamese beef soup that, in recent years, has become one of my food cravings.  There are several  pho-only restaurants in Beltsville, MD, where my family likes to stop when we drive home to Virginia.  When we lived in New Jersey, we'd often go to a Vietnamese restaurant in Tenafly.  For a while, there was a pho restarurant in Westport that served "adequate"  pho , but it has recently closed, no doubt due to the marginal quality of its food.  Kimberly and I went to Pho Saigon in Bridgeport a while back and the pho was very good, but the restaurant itself was dirty, with a layer of grease on the tables, and the service was nonexistant and, while I might go back, It was definitely not the kind of place to take a Kimberly.

Today, we were going to have Greek food for lunch, but the plan changed when I received an offer for a foosball table for the youth room we're putting together at church.  The only catch was that it was in Ridgefield, about a half hour's drive from home.  For some time, though, I'd been plotting a trip to Pho Vietnam in Danbury, only an extra 20 minutes or so further along than the foosball table, so when Ian finished his finals at school today, he, Kimberly, and I took a road trip for lunch, figuring to kill two birds with one stone.

Pho Vietnam restaurant in Danbury

We found Pho Vietnam in a small strip mall on Padanaram Ave. and were pleased to see how full it was when we entered.  We were shown to the one available table and given our menus, which proved to be delightful, as we enjoyed the puns that were incorporated into the names of a couple of the dishes: the seafood pho called "Pho Shore" and the pho served with steak on top called "Pho Sizzle."  Clearly, there was a native English speaker with a sense of humor involved!
A moment later, our server arrived and she began telling us about the day's specials, including a dish billed as "Pho King," which included a poached egg which, she told us, should be eaten as the last bite.  She chuckled about how her Vietnamese grandmother would think that putting an egg in pho was a crime and would ask, "What are you?  American?"  Something tells me that we found the menu's chief author.
Sampler Platter, missing two pieces of spring roll.
Why is it so hard to remember to take pictures BEFORE eating the food?
As we got ready to order egg rolls, our waitress suggested that, since there were three of us, we should consider getting the sampler platter, with spring rolls, egg rolls (with ground pork, crabmeat, and woodear mushrooms), and fried wontons stuffed with pork, rather than just getting  the Vietnamese egg rolls that had planned on.  It was, of course, a stellar suggestion.   Kimberly and I enjoyed the spring rolls (since Ian doesn't like shrimp) and everyone liked the egg rolls, but the real surprise was how good the fried wontons (which I've never much liked other places) were.  These were filled with ground pork, carrots, scallions, woodear mushrooms and sesame and tasted like heaven with any of the three sauces provided (peanut sauce, nuoc cham, and a sweet, spicy sauce that I don't believe I've had elsewhere.)
It didn't take long for the entrees to arrive.  As it was a warm day, Kimberly didn't feel like ordering pho, so she got bun, grilled pork with shredded lettuce, bean sprouts, cilantro, mints, carrots, cucumber, pickled leeks, shallots, and peanuts, served with nuoc mam.  This is one of the dishes I make at home, and one that I prefer to serve as do-it-yourself spring rolls, served with rice paper noodles, which changes the character of the dish slightly and makes it a fun finger food for serving at parties.  Kimberly's bun - she gave me exactly one bite - was very good, with nicely seared pork that had obviously had a very productive relationship with some hoisin sauce, onions, and fish sauce in the marinade.
Ian and I both opted for the pho.  He got a "large" (which is the smaller size) pho tai, that has rare beef slices added to the broth, where they finish cooking.  (Notice how pink the beef is, as this photo was taken seconds after the pho arrived.)  Ian is a bit of a purist when it comes to pho in that he doesn't like to make use of any of the wonderful garnishes that the rest of the world puts in their pho: bean sprouts, lime, hoisin sauce and pepper sauce.  Instead, he prefers the simplicity of the broth, rich with bone marrow and traditionally flavored with cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, cloves, coriander, and fennel.
I opted for the "extra large" combination pho, which included not only rare beef slices, and well-done brisket, but also beef tripe and beef tendon.  It was a festival of beefy goodness, with the tripe's chewy texture and the unctuousness of the tendon adding a lot to the dish.  [Really, if you get a chance, you need to set your squeamishness and cultural biases aside and try some of these less-than-common-in-the-United-States animal parts.  They're quite good.]  I rounded out the dish with all of the garnishes that Ian had opted against and enjoyed the pho thoroughly.
The only drawback to the restaurant is its location, which I'm sure is fine for people in Danbury, but it is just a bit too far for us to make this a regular place to eat.  Even so, we have the location stored in our GPS, and I'm sure that we'll create a new tradition of stopping here on the way either to or from Silver Lake Conference Center -- or whenever we can create an important reason to drive through Danbury.

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