By Elizabeth Keyser
8:55 AM EDT, August 15, 2013
Pho Hong Thom
48 Wood Ave., Bridgeport, (203) 690-1533
925 Wood Ave., Bridgeport, (203) 916-7440
133 Wood Ave., Bridgeport, (203) 873-0980
1275 Iranistan Ave., Bridgeport, (203) 334-8812
Wood Avenue in Bridgeport is becoming Fairfield County's Noodle Central. In the last two years, three new Asian restaurants — two Vietnamese and one Chinese/Vietnamese — have opened, joining long-timer Pho Saigon. In fact, the area has a new name, the Little Asia Dining District.
The Little Asia Dining District got a $25,000 grant to build and plant an Asian community garden at Curiale Elementary School, and upgrade its playing field. Curiale, by the way, is one of the district's worst-performing schools and is in a "turnaround plan."
You have to applaud the initiative of the families that have opened these restaurants and joined together to transform a dodgy city neighborhood into a place known for good food. It's something to celebrate, and Saturday, Sept. 14, Wood Avenue will celebrate with a Lunar Festival from 2 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., with lanterns, parades, food, music and a "Man vs. Pho" soup-eating contest. Pho is Vietnamese beef soup, served in a large bowl with long rice noodles.
Pho Hong Thom's pho is worth sipping and savoring. The restaurant opened a year ago in October, and it's a spare, spanking clean place with bare, blond wood tables and gray-and-white linoleum floors. The menu is limited, with just 11 items, and they also specialize in fruit drinks made with aloe. Don't expect seven different kinds of beef pho, with choices of rare beef, brisket, tendon, or tripe. There's one beef pho on the menu and that's with beef balls, the beloved Vietnamese meat balls sliced and floating in a bowl of clear, light beef broth. But what's this? Thin square slices of pale beef (added rare, and cooked in the broth), and darker, tender, fatty brisket and thin strips of white, textured tripe, chewy and slightly funky. I loved the range of textures of the different cuts of beef and tripe, with whisper-thin slices of raw onion and fresh herbs including culantro, a relative of cilantro with aromatic spear-shaped leaves.
An excellent pho. Marred only by the cook having cut the noodles, assuming I was a novice. I was deprived of the joy of stuffing the long, thin white rice noodles in my mouth, but every other aspect of this pho was wonderful.
The rice noodles with spring rolls had lots of herbs, basil and cilantro. The crunchy fried rolls were filled with pork, mushrooms and bean thread noodles. The bowl held another surprise: pieces of pork, lightly browned and coated with a fermented, shrimp-paste-infused seasoning. Once again, it was a first-rate version of this dish. The lemonade had a note of a mix, mixed with fresh lime, but it bothered me more than it did my friend.
CN Station has been open for almost two years. Its walls are lime green, it has an open kitchen and it's spotless. The owner immediately brought us styrofoam cups of hot tea. We were going to order pho, but as we spoke with the owner we learned that, though it has Vietnamese items on the menu, it serves "classic Chinese dishes." We noticed pig's ears on the menu. (In this region I've only seen that at Lao Sze Chuan in Milford.)
We were in the mood for soup, so we ordered from the soup section of CN Station's Chinese menu.
The minced pork and noodles turned out to be less of a soup than a brown gravy, tasting of fermented black beans, coating the pork. The long noodles had a silky quality and bean sprouts added a fresh crunch. The owner told me it was a dish from Northern China and Beijing.
"Spicy noodle soup," a dish from southwestern China, was vibrant red and the light chicken broth had a smokey flavor from the chili oil. These two dishes were interesting, but I missed the vibrancy and herby freshness of pho. Would I go back? Yes. Much more to explore here.
Though technically outside the Little Asia Dining District, Pho Mai is also on Wood Avenue. It's been open for about a year, cattycorner from the Woods End Deli. I have been many times. They have 21 Vietnamese soups, and I've tried five of them. The Hue soup, from the north, is a red-hued, spicy beef and pork dish served with herbs and shredded purple cabbage. Seafood soup has thick, chewy tapioca noodles . Hu Tieu Nam Vang, a soup from the Mekong River Delta by way of Cambodia, is filled with ground pork, seafood, Chinese celery and chives, and thin rice noodles. The spring rolls are freshly wrapped to order, and the lemonade is fresh, no mix. And they serve bahn mi, Vietnamese sandwiches.
These places are family owned, friendly and welcoming. If you're just learning about Vietnamese food, try Pho Mai. All questions will be kindly answered. If you're a die-hard pho eater who isn't afraid of finding some tripe in your soup, try Pho Thom. And let me know how the pho is at CN station!
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