May 13, 2013

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

By NANCY HEISER

There are so many newish Asian restaurants in Cumberland County that reviewing them all would stretch into winter. For this column, I thought I'd concentrate on one traditional Vietnamese dish, a bowl of pho, at a few of them to see how they compared.

20130509_DineOutME
click image to enlarge

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

DINING REVIEW

LEMONGRASS, 212 Maine St., Brunswick

725-9008; lemongrassme.com

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

CREDIT CARDS: All major

BAR: Full, with specialty cocktails

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

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

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

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 

•••Good

•••• Excellent

••••• Extraordinary

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

Pho is a traditional noodle soup of Vietnam, a comforting bowl of broth brimming with rice noodles and garnished with bite-sized sections of meat. (Say "fuh" instead of "faux," and you'll sound good.)

A heap of mung bean sprouts, sprigs of Thai basil, slices of chili pepper (usually jalapeno here in the Northeast), and other seasonings are served on the side. It's sold at street stalls in Vietnam and commonly slurped for breakfast.

And slurp is about right. Consumption is often a two-handed affair, with spoon in one hand, chopsticks in another, and a fair amount of shoveling going on. You have to all but stick your whole head in the bowl, and many Vietnamese do.

Saigon restaurant in Portland, open since 2010, serves pho at all hours. The eatery on the outer stretch of Forest Avenue is cheery and homey, the service warm and helpful.

And oh my, the pho. It was clear like a consomme, rich and light at once, complex and aromatic with a mingling of spices hinted at but not seen -- star anise and charred ginger among them. The soup's rice noodles had a firm but silky texture. Thin beef slices, touted as rare on the menu, were cooked through when the bowl came to the table.

Accompaniments arrived beforehand -- Thai basil, culantro (aka Thai cilantro; the leaves resemble dandelion greens and taste similar to the cilantro most of us know), lime and chili slices. One breaks these up into the bowl not only for taste enhancement, but also to tickle the nose and clear the head.

A hoisin sauce and spicy, red-hot infusion came alongside too. It's $7.95 for a "small," filling a bowl. That or a medium is all any appetite would ever need. This vessel of delight earned •••• and set the standard for all pho to follow.

The Asian restaurant boom has come to the Brunswick area in a big way. Brunswick and Topsham now have 15 Asian restaurants between them. Joining old standbys such as China Rose and Bangkok Garden are other spots serving Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese and Asian fusion cuisine.

Two new Vietnamese restaurants bookend Brunswick's Maine Street. Lemongrass is up by Bowdoin College, and Little Saigon is near the Route 1 underpass. Lemongrass has an airy Asian feel, with photographs of Vietnamese countryside on the wall, parchment cut-out window shades and fresh flowers. Alan Hoang, chef and owner, opened this spot one year ago this month.

Little Saigon, open since mid-March, occupies the former upscale Clementine's, and benefits from its predecessor's thoughtful design of nooks and crannies and warm-colored walls. A mounted television in a central spot and another video screen that beams pictures of dishes on the menu detract from what could be a handsome atmosphere.

Cuong Ly owns Little Saigon, which bills itself as a noodle bar. He sold China Rose and its two affiliates, and is concentrating on the lighter and healthier Vietnamese cuisine he says people are interested in. He also owns Little Tokyo in Brunswick.

Lemongrass' beef pho came with lots of thin slices of beef that retained a little pink, dunked in right before serving to cook just a smidge. Nice. ($8.95). The rice noodles were broad like linguine, firm yet silky, and easy to slide down.

Alongside came the usual garnishes, minus the Thai cilantro. In that regard, Portland's Saigon gets a slight edge. The broth here had almost the same deliciously complex flavor; it too was clear but a little more golden in color. This is another pho to follow, at •••½ .

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:

nancyheiser.com

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

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