In Fairfield County, Vietnamese cuisine is not as plentiful as other asian cuisines, so you really have to dig deep, and go where the Pho is...wherever it is. I recently received a tip from a CT Bites reader that good Pho was to be had in Bridgeport at a small mom & pop restaurant called Pho Saigon. We rallied our enthusiastic tasters and headed out to Iranistan Street in Bridgeport, an area that is definitely "off the beaten path", but you do what you've gotta do for good food. You won't find this place in Zagats.
We entered what seemed to be the living room of a small corner house, furnished with gum-ball machines, plastic floral table cloths, and big pots of luke warm tea on the tables. Clearly, dining here was about the food, not the decor. We were greeted warmly, although not in English (which is generally a good sign that the food will be authentic), and escorted to a clean table piled high with squeeze bottles of fiery sauces and jars of fish paste. Lucky for us, the menu had translations, so we ordered half of the 21 item menu (as most dishes were under $7) and waited for the food to arrive.
The first dish to show up was hands down my favorite: The Cha Gio (#17 Fried Spring Rolls with lettuce & Fresh Herbs for $6.99 seen above) and it belongs in the "must order" category. It was so good, we actually ordered a second round after the dish had been cleared. I am ordinarily not a fan of deep fried food, but there is a time and a place for everything...this was it. These crispy rolls come with a side of lettuce and a clear sweet tangy sauce for dipping. The proper technique is to wrap the lettuce around the spring roll providing a cool surface for quick grabbing and a great contrast to the warm spring roll. The rolls were dark and crispy, but not greasy, and the filling was a finely minced mixture of pork, shrimp (very kosher), rice vermicelli noodles, and if you looked closely, possibly carrots. Whatever was in there, it was all good.
The next to arrive was the non-fried alternative in the rolled appetizer category, the Goi Cuon Tom Thit (Pork and Shrimp with Vermicelli salad Rolls). You've seen these before...Rice wrappers filled with whole shrimp, minced pork anda healthy portion of vermicelli rice noodles, loaded with whole leaves of mint, basil, and cilantro. The flavor of these simply prepared rolls was greatly enhanced by the fresh herbs, and while they were made with very fresh ingredients, they didn't hold a candle to the Fried Spring Rolls.
When at last the fragrant Pho Saigon-House (Vietnamese beef noodle soup) made it's appearance on the plastic tablecloth, it came with an entourage. Next to the large steaming bowl came a side dish with great heaping piles of beautiful freshbasil, cilantro, and mint (the Vietnamese herb trifecta). Also in attendance were lime wedges, Thai chiles, bean sprouts, and a deadly looking sauce that we were instructed, through hand gestures, to put into the soup . The beef broth, which can take a full day to make properly, was amazingly aromatic with hints of cinnamon, star anise, and cloves. We had read up on the proper Pho eating technique before we arrived, so we lovingly layered the various elements and thoroughly enjoyed the fragrant broth even after the noodles had been devoured. It is darn good Pho.
We couldn't resist ordering the Co'm Suon Bi Cha (Spareribs, Meat Pie, Shredded Pork with Steamed Rice $7.99), just out of "meat pie" curiosity. This came with a preparation for the sparerib that I had never seen previously. It was pounded flat like a cutlet, and came on a bed of white rice. We had a hard time cutting through the sparerib with our chopsticks, but once we managed to dissect it, it had great flavor, although we couldn't quite place the spices and couldn't really ask for assistance due to the language barrier. Unfortunately, I can't say many good things about the Meat Pie which appears elsewhere on the menu. It had several layers of ground meat, held together with a custard-like filler. People did not look happy getting this item down. I'd opt out on our next visit. The spareribs and rice were lovely however.
To our great pleasure, The Fried Spring Rolls we so enjoyed also made a appearance in the Bun Cha Gio Thit Nuong (Pork, Shrimp, Spring Rolls with Spicy Noodle). This dish consisted of a giant bowl of fiery noodles, with bite sized pieces of pork and the infamous fried rolls on top. You really have to be a very enthusiastic noodle eater for this one, or pass it around the table as we did, as the portion is quite large.
Lastly, we sampled the Mi Xao Don Bo Bien (Seafood with Crispy Fried Noodle) which was the only polarizing dish in the group. We were split 50/50 on the reorder-ability of this one. It had a bed of crispy fried noodles on the bottom, and was covered with calamari, shrimp and broccoli in a thick clear white sauce that was very reminiscent of mainstream Chinese food. Meant to be mixed together such that the fried noodles soften in the sauce, it was a bit bland, but if you are looking for a Chinese-style dish to balance the fire elsewhere on the table, you will be perfectly happy with this one. I would say this is the most kid-friendly item on the menu (other than the Fried Spring Rolls) as it can also be ordered with beef, pork, or chicken.
As we were finishing up, the owner of the restaurant came over and placed a Vietnamese sandwich on the table as a little gift for the large group, or possibly because she saw me taking pictures throughout the evening (which I normally do more discreetly). It looked like a Subway sandwich but had curried mayo, two kinds of pork and some veggies. It was a daily special, and certainly tasty, but not really what we had come here for. It felt like gringo food.
As for dessert, in lieu of the Vietnamese Coffee, or Ice Soda with Egg, sugar and milk, we opted for cans of Asian soy milk laden with tapioca pearls which we had spotted in the refrigerator case on the way in. If you live on the West Coast, you will be familiar with the tapioca bubble tea shops around town. It is a sensory thing you either love or hate. We enjoyed seeking out the little "pearls" at the bottom of our beverages, and it was a perfect cool finale to our fiery meal.
Around 9:15 pm, the wait staff began to shut the blinds, so we took this as our cue to leave. A fun night was had by all, and we had tasted some really authentic Vietnamese fare..some good, some not so good, some great. All in all, if you are having a Pho craving and can't get to Hartford or New Haven, this is a great option.
Pho Saigon 1275 Iranistan Avenue, Bridgeport. 203.334.8812