By Elizabeth Keyser
10:50 AM EST, January 24, 2013
I wanted a bowl of soup. Day 17 of the never-ending cold everyone's had, and I needed pho. Like the big, steaming bowls of spice-scented broth filled with long rice noodles and topped with fresh herbs that I used to slurp 30 years ago at a restaurant called Saigon on Doyers Street in New York City, and the ones I indulged in almost daily when I lived outside DC in Northern Virginia, in a big, always-busy place that served pho and nothing else.
Word of a newish place, TD Vietnam Palace, sent me driving up I-95 to Stratford. Tucked in the shadow of a hulking BJ's, TD Vietnam Palace is a modest, mom-and-pop operation. Thomas and Dina Nguyen are new to the restaurant business. After taking the package at Pitney Bowes in Danbury, they postponed retiring to Vietnam to open the restaurant six months ago.
The menu covers the main dishes, fried spring rolls, summer rolls, bahn mi (sandwiches) pho, bun (rice noodle dishes), and rice dishes. To start, I tried the shrimp and pork summer rolls. The clear rice paper wrapper revealed pink shrimp, scallion, mint, and pork. It was well-rolled, and had a tight, springy quality. I dipped the roll, a refreshing meld of soft rice noodles, crisp lettuce, succulent shrimp, into hoisin-peanut sauce. The only off note was the plain, dry piece of pork.
When the beef pho was set in front of me, the broth was so light and clear, I wondered if it really was beef broth. After dipping my spoon into the broth and tasting it, I still wasn't sure. So I asked Dina about it. She told me that the homemade broth is cooked from marrow-rich beef chin bones. First, she par-boils the bones, and pours the water away. Then the bones are simmered in a pot of fresh water for hours.
But I was missing the ineffable flavors of the spices, the star-anise, cloves, charred ginger and onion, and fish sauce. Dina makes her pho mild because she believes the scent would overpower the restaurant and would not appeal to her American customers. Now, to me, this is disappointing, but who am I to question? She talks with her customers every day. She says her customer base is about one half American, one-half Asian —- and they too like the mild broth. "People don't know about Vietnamese food," Dina Nguyen says.
She made sure the words "fish sauce" are not on the menu. The funky, fermented sauce is integral to Vietnamese cooking but, she thinks, a turn-off to Americans. Not to me! And not to people like chef Matt Storch, who "can't get enough" of Vietnamese flavors. On the menu at Match in SoNo he has braised pork shank bahn mi style — braised in soda, soy and ginger, then topped with cucumber, carrot, cilantro, pea greens and scallions dressed with sriracha aioli and hoisin.
At TD, the pho noodles are cut to be easier for the uninitiated to lift from the broth with chop sticks. Those who love stuffing the traditionally long, silky strands into their mouths will find the short noodles less satisfying. Still, despite my feeling of there being a certain training-wheel quality to the place, the act of tearing a pile of fresh basil into the soup, adding jalapeño slices, squirting in lime and sriracha, and tossing in bean sprouts, made me forget my quibbles.
TD Vietnam Palace tries for cheerful, with colorful paper umbrellas hanging from the ceiling, but the room is narrow and dark. You don't come here for atmosphere or quick service. Dina is the host, server, table busser, cashier, take-out packager, and that's a lot for one person.
In Fairfield, Planet Noodle, a "South Asian Kitchen," recently opened and serves pho. Whereas TD has five versions of beef pho, Planet Noodle takes a "have it your way" approach, offering beef, chicken, pork, duck, shrimp, seafood or tofu. I tried the chicken. It wasn't served with the traditional platter of fresh herbs. Cilantro and scallion had been added in the kitchen. This detracted from the pleasure, the sense of creating a salad in your soup. The place has a spare, bright and modern look, and the owner and staff were friendly.
Downtown Stamford got its first Vietnamese joint in October. Saigon Café is more deli than restaurant, and I hear good reports on the bahn mi, nine different kinds, including Vietnamese cold cuts, grilled chicken and tofu. There are only a few tables, so many people order the pho – beef or chicken, made with wider rice noodles, to go.
Pho Saigon in Bridgeport is a tried and true favorite in a slightly dodgy section of Bridgeport. On two recent visits the place was bustling. The chicken pho can sometimes be salty, and the lemonade is now from a mix instead of being fresh. Last time, I skipped the pho and was pleased with bun, a brothless bowl of rice noodles, herbs and lettuce, topped with crisp fried summer rolls. Around the corner, Cho Mein Nam Vietnamese grocery store gets deliveries of prepared foods from NYC's Chinatown Saturdays. In Danbury, Pho Vietnam offers seven kinds of beef pho, as well as chicken, and seafood.
TD Vietnam Palace
955 Ferry Blvd., Stratford, (203) 690-1325
1275 Iranistan Ave., Bridgeport, (203) 334-8812
222 Post Road, Fairfield, (203) 908-4477, planetnoodlect.com
56 Padanaram Road, Danbury, (203) 743-6049
Cho Mien Nam Grocery Store
130 Wood Ave., Bridgeport, (203) 579-9970
80 Atlantic St., Stamford, (203) 883-8208
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