“You know how to eat that?” asked the kindly woman as she set a steaming bowl of soup before me at Pho Mai. Did I know how to eat pho? To handle the chopsticks and spoon? To lift the long noodles from the big bowl of broth without slapping myself in the face with a wet noodle? I’ve learned over the years. But Vietnamese food can be perplexing to the uninitiated. It’s hands-on.
Pho Mai makes the best Vietnamese food I’ve found in Fairfield County. It’s been open for about a year, and it’s worth a jaunt to Wood Avenue in Bridgeport (across from the Wood’s End Deli) to enjoy the fresh, herb-filled, sweet, sour, and fermented flavors of Vietnamese food.
Pho Mai’s red awnings strike a cheerful air on a bleak corner. Inside, the place is spic and span clean, with freshly painted yellow walls. Big orange fish swim back and forth in an aquarium that bubbles soothingly. The restaurant has been near empty every time I’ve been, and that’s a shame because the food here is seriously good, and it’s a great place for a weekend lunch with a group of friends.
You have to start with summer rolls, a bundle of shrimp, pork, soft, thin rice noodles, lettuce and basil. They’re rolled to order and have that cool, fresh, springy, herbal quality that makes me feel that Vietnamese summer rolls are a gift of the food gods, especially when dipped into sweet peanut-hoisin sauce.
Pho Mai’s fried spring rolls are long, hand-rolled cigars, crisp and caramelized. Inside, there’s a depth of flavor from fish-sauce-seasoned cellophane noodles, pork and mushrooms. Fish sauce, which is made from fermented anchovies, is the defining flavor of Vietnamese food. Nuoc mam is the dipping sauce made from fish sauce diluted with water and flavored with lime juice, and sweetened with a little sugar. The rolls come with a platter of lettuce and herbs. Wrap the lettuce around the spring roll and tuck in a piece of basil. The crisp, cool lettuce crunches against the hot, crackling, thin wrapper.
The Vietnamese are a soup-loving culture. Pho Mai makes 21 Vietnamese soups. I started with pho, the herb-filled rice noodle soup. At Pho Mai, the beef pho and the chicken pho are made with homemade broth. It’s clear, herb-scented, and not overly salty. With it comes a platter of bean sprouts, mint, cilantro, a wedge of lime, and slices of jalapeño. Tearing the herbs, dropping them into the soup, squirting some lime, adding the jalapeño, while inhaling the steaming broth, these are the pleasures of eating pho. Then, dip your chopsticks into the broth to pull out the long, pliant rice noodles. With your other hand, use the Chinese spoon to rest the ends of the noodles as your chopsticks stuff noodles into your mouth. Slurping is considered a good thing in Vietnamese culture.
On my third visit to Pho Mai, I tried the orange-hued Hue soup. It’s a “spicy” beef and pork soup that gets its color from annatto seeds (which impart more color than flavor). To my taste, it needed a squirt of Sriracha hot sauce from the condiments tray. (The condiments tray held tubs of shrimp paste, bottles of hoisin, Sriracha, and a sweet Sriracha-ketchup mixture). This soup comes from Hue in central Vietnam, and at Pho Mai it was accompanied by a plate of bean sprouts and raw, shredded purple cabbage, to be added to the broth. The purple cabbage, an inspiration of Mai’s, stands up to the hearty soup (and makes it healthier). The bowl was filled with thin slices of meat, beef and pork, some tender, some chewy and delightfully fatty, and slices of a pale, smooth-textured, sausage that reminded me of weisswurst. The rice noodles were round, about the size of spaghetti, and they had a pleasing springy quality from being steamed. It was a hearty bowl of soup, and when I got full, I traded my husband for his empty bowl of barbecued pork over rice vermicelli.
On my next visit, I tried seafood soup with thick noodles. Round, fat, translucent, with an appealing chewy quality, they are made of tapioca. Shrimp, squid, scored rectangles of it, fish balls, sliced, and the wiesswurst-like sausage floated below sprigs of green cilantro. The 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 men I’ve eaten with at Pho Mai with have ordered the same thing: barbecue pork over rice vermicelli. The pork has a wonderful smoky, sweet, highly seasoned flavor. This is a must-order dish. A friend who was new to Vietnamese food was perplexed by the small bowl of sauce sitting in the bigger bowl of noodles. So he dipped the barbecued pork into the bowl of sauce, until that kindly lady, Mai, showed him how to dress the entire bowl with the sauce, and toss the meat and noodles together with the cucumber, carrots and bean sprouts and scallions.
My friends brought their daughters, both about to turn 13, who were unfamiliar with Vietnamese food. Leigh immediately chose chicken noodle soup with wide noodles. Caitlyn’s father ordered chicken chow fun for her. (Culinary history lesson: China dominated Vietnam from 111 BC to AD 939, and strongly influenced the cuisine. According to Vietnamese cookbook author Andrea Nguyen, Vietnam is the only Southeast Asian country that uses chopsticks.)
Now Caitlyn, when she first looked at the menu, announced, “I don’t want to share.” That’s understandable. Sometimes you just don’t want to. I felt that way myself. But she did give the rest of us a taste of her chow fun. It was a well-prepared version, with wide pan-fried noodles, crunchy and chewy pieces of chicken, in a garlicky sauce with a heavy sprinkling of black pepper. Both girls liked their meals, and shared noodles with one another.
To drink, order the lemonade – it’s fresh squeezed, the glass filled with ice to dilute the sweet, lemon-lime syrup. And Vietnamese coffee is like dessert, brewed at the table into a glass, the bottom thick with sweet condensed milk you stir into it.
There’s so much more to explore at Pho Mai, – the bahn mi, the Vietnamese “submarine sandwiches” and an array of rice dishes. And the 16 soups I haven’t tried yet!
925 Wood Ave, Bridgeport 06605 203 916-7440
[Photography courtesy of: Donna Young & Mark Strauss]