989 New Britain Ave., West Hartford, (860) 953-1122
What’s it called -- in business-speak -- when you open up a new small enterprise right next to the establishment that’s likely to be your biggest competitor? You have to admire the nerve and the confidence of the folks behind Pho Saigon, a tiny new Vietnamese restaurant within shouting distance of Pho Boston, the beloved, bigger and often-bustling Vietnamese restaurant in the West Hartford shopping center that also houses A Dong Market. How do you say “chutzpah” in Vietnamese? It could be wildly ballsy, or it could just be supersmart. You’ve got to figure that Pho Boston already lures the throngs of fans of Vietnamese cuisine to the area, so setting up shop in sight of all those potential customers could make perfect business sense. And the staff at Pho Saigon seems blissfully focused on serving their diners, who filled the half-dozen or so tables at the restaurant when I ate there last week.
The interior is mainly functional. Nothing fancy, just a vase of plastic flowers in one corner. A cooler and a TV playing Vietnamese variety shows in another. A large poster of tulips adorns one wall. A sign for pho adorns another. A swinging door hides the small kitchen. Some of the tables seat six, and so during a crowded lunch you might share tables with strangers. There are bottles of sriracha, fish sauce, hoisin sauce, other chili pastes and soy sauce on the tables, to augment your meal, if you want to up the flavor and fire factors.
Some foods are hot-weather foods -- meant for cooking and enjoying during the summer months, or when visiting tropical regions (I’m thinking fruit salad, outdoor grilling, ceviche, perhaps). Other food seems to be custom-designed to fuel a body when sunlight and heat are scarce. (Pierogies and stew come to mind.) And then there’s that mysterious category of food that originates in hot-weather regions, but somehow caters to our cold-weather needs. Vietnamese food -- and pho noodle soup in particular -- strikes me this way. It may be intended for gulping down while you’re sweating through the monsoon season in Southeast Asia, but it hits the spot just as well when you’re waiting for the winters of the American Northeast to come to an end.
Pho Saigon has a nicely broad menu; it’s not ultra-focused like some of the other pho places that only serve soup and spring rolls, and it’s also not quite as wide-rangingly encyclopedic as other Vietnamese restaurants that have diner-style menus. And -- get this -- in addition to also having excellent soup, Pho Saigon may serve the best banh mi sandwiches in town. Before you get too impressed though, you should know that there are probably only three or four establishments within a 30 mile radius of Hartford that I know of serving banh mi, the uniquely Vietnamese take on a grinder. But that’s up from a few years ago!
For appetizers there are the requisite spring rolls as well as Vietnamese crepes, chicken wings and teriyaki. The menu also includes salads, curries, chow mein, rice dishes, and a healthy amount of vegetarian fare (including vegetarian banh mi with tofu). There are over a dozen varieties of pho -- including combinations of steak, meat balls, flank, tendon and tripe, as well as shrimp, chicken and tofu. There are nine different types of banh mi sandwich.
My bowl of pho with steak, brisket and tendon was excellent ($7.95). You could breathe in the steam from the broth and get whiffs of star anise, maybe some cinnamon, along with onion and cilantro. Just inhaling near it made me happy. And it was swimming with thinly cut beef that served to sandwich bundles of the rice noodles together. The soup is served with a plate of crisp and earthy mung bean sprouts, purple-stem basil, a wedge of lime and a slice of jalapeno. I put some of each those into the broth and then added squirts of sriracha and fish sauce toward the end of my meal. There was an eye-pleasing manicured perfection to all of the food I ate at Pho Saigon. The knifework was all careful and clean.
My grilled pork banh mi ($3.75) had perfectly straight and thin strips of green pepper placed atop the sweet and tangy meat. A single strand of cilantro served as a flourish. There were matchsticks of pickled cucumber and radish tucked between the pieces of french bread.
Pho Saigon serves a number of interesting desserts (soybean custard with ginger syrup) and drinks (Vietnamese-style hot or iced coffees and teas -- quite a sugar jolt!) as well. It’s a small space, but they’re making a lot of excellent food in there. Be glad the area has room for two very good Vietnamese restaurants within a stone’s throw of each other. Go try one of those banh mi the next time you’re in the neighborhood.
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