May 13, 2013

Dine Out Maine: With Vietnamese soup, or pho, it's all about the broth


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Saigon serves its beef pho with a plate of fresh basil, bean sprouts, lime and jalapeno pepper slices, and hot oil. It comes with a small bowl of tofu soup, top, as a starter. In the pho pictured are beef broth, noodles, onion, Asian cilantro and four kinds of meat.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer


LEMONGRASS, 212 Maine St., Brunswick


HOURS: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; after Memorial Day, closing will be one hour later

CREDIT CARDS: Mastercard, Visa, Diners Club, Discover

BAR: Beer in bottles and wine

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: A half step at entrance

LITTLE SAIGON, 44 Maine St., Brunswick. 725-1888

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday


BAR: Full, with specialty cocktails


SAIGON, 795 Forest Ave., Portland. 874-6666

HOURS: 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

CREDIT CARDS: Visa, Mastercard, American Express

BAR: Beer and wine


ALL THREE RESTAURANTS offer vegetarian and gluten-free dishes, take reservations and welcome children.

BOTTOM LINE: Fill up on Vietnamese comfort food with a bowl of pho -- rice noodles, aromatic broth and herbs -- at one of the Vietnamese restaurants in your neighborhood. It's an entire meal. If you crave something else, the menus vary widely between these three establishments, so check online on their websites or at Urban Spoon.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value:

• Poor 

•• Fair 


•••• Excellent

••••• Extraordinary

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory. The reviewer dines anonymously.

Little Saigon distinguished itself with the rarest beef slices, but its broth didn't quite stand up to the competition. A cloudy and brown base looked earthy but lacked the compelling and mysterious deep herbal flavor of Saigon's, the champ, or Lemongrass', a close second.

While size and price were similar, these noodles, long like the others and ample, were slightly starchier ($9). Like at Lemongrass, culantro was absent, perhaps due to the lack of an Asian market in town. ••½.

At all establishments, the authentic pho meatball resembled a round and rubbery sausage without much flavor. Its almost crunchy texture comes from tendon in the mix, Ly told me.

Other variations of pho are available at all three restaurants; you may prefer chicken or vegetarian, for instance, or just beef slices.

But with pho, it's all about the broth, really. You can doctor all you want with the herbs and sauces -- and you should -- but dip the spoon in before you do, and you'll know if there's real love in that bowl.

Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer and editor. She can be reached at:

This story was revised at 9:05 p.m. Sunday, May 12, to correct references to culantro (aka Thai cilantro).

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