Vietnamese is making its way up to the top of my ‘favorite cuisines’ list. It’s fresh, exotic, intriguing, incredibly flavorful and best of all, so affordable.
My friend Cindy and I went out Wednesday in search of pho, spring rolls and more. Originally we planned to head to Pho Saigon, but pulled up to see the storefront empty and dark. (We obviously didn’t do our research – that’s their only day closed during the week.)
But lucky for us, Vinh Chau was open across the street. Inside, it was warm, well-lit and clean, and the employees greeted us with big smiles. We had a feeling we’d happened upon a ‘good mistake.’
The menu’s huge. It’d be overwhelming to choose from even if you were completely familiar with Vietnamese food – which we weren’t. There are several varieties of pho, bun (rice noodle dishes with meat, seafood and vegetables), hot pot, rice dishes, other native soups and much, much more. The most expensive meals topped out around $15, with the exception of some specialties.
We stuck to the few items we knew: fresh spring rolls and bun ga narong (vermicelli topped with grilled chicken.) The spring rolls, shrimp, pork, rice noodles, mint and other herbs wrapped in cool rice paper, were beautifully refreshing, enhanced further by a sweet-savory peanut sauce. Total guilt-free appetizer.
The bun dish was even better, with fantastic tender grilled chicken atop vermicelli, lettuce, julienned carrots, sprouts and scallions, served with a side of nuoc cham (light dipping sauce.) We did our best to navigate with chopsticks, the only available utensils.
But we didn’t feel right leaving without trying pho, the quintessential Vietnamese noodle soup. Friends of mine have raved about its unusual complex flavor, and it was excessively cold outside – perfect soup weather. We asked the waitress to bring us small bowls of pho ga with chicken. She laughed. When the massive bowls arrived, we knew why. An order of pho could probably feed four.
Before the pho arrived, the waitress brought us a plate of accoutrements – a platter full of bean sprouts, basil, mint, peanuts, lime wedges and chopped peppers. I knew vaguely that pho was sort of a build-your-own dish, but I almost felt like I needed a primer on the process. Do you add more basil? How much lime? What flavor do the peppers impart? The day after our dinner, my colleague told me she loves to add spicy sriracha sauce. I’m trying that next time.
(I squeezed both wedges of lime into my soup and realized too late that Cindy hadn’t gotten any. “I have no idea what I’m doing,” she laughed. “Don’t even worry.”)
Pho might be one of the most intricate things I’ve ever tasted. The broth is typically simmered with exotic spices like Saigon cinnamon, allspice, star anise, ginger, cardamom and clove. In its purest form, it’s a beef noodle soup, served with rare steak and tripe. Even if mine was a bit inauthentic, it was startlingly delicious, one of those dishes you know you could never, ever truly replicate at home.
We each took home pho leftovers in quart containers, and paid a whopping $34 for our enormous meal. The bowls of pho were $6.50.
I can’t wait to experience these clean, enchanting flavors again. And at these prices, I could eat Vietnamese food a few times a week and not go broke…
Vinh Chau Vietnamese Restaurant, 409 Dickinson St., Springfield, MA 01108 (413) 731-8858