At Table: Fab Pho

Pho Saigon
400 Dickinson Street, Springfield (413) 781-4488
Mon.-Sun. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.  
Entrées $5.50 to $15.95.

n Springfield’s Vietnamese district at the “X” on Dickinson Street, a storefront introduces passersby to the history of fast food delivery. Flanking the entrance to Pho Saigon, display windows feature an old rickshaw on the right and a shiny vintage Vespa, which appears poised for takeoff.  
The next impression wafting from Pho Saigon, the favorite of three such restaurants in a three-block radius, is the sounds and smells of authentic Vietnamese cuisine. Fragrant basil and lemon grass combined with sounds of sizzle announce the light yet filling phenomenon that is Vietnamese food. The word “Pho” means soup in Vietnamese, but there is much more on the menu than the generous bowls of steaming broth.  
On weekdays, businesspeople and couples are greeted at the door for lunch and dinner by a man who bows briefly and swiftly dispatches his guests to a clean table. On weekends, the place can get rowdy families for lunch but calms down at dinner time. The traditional menu doesn’t cater to kids, but a favorite with this crowd is the Vegetarian Happy Pancake. A cross between an omelet and a scallion pancake, this dish is filled with tofu, mushrooms, onions and bean sprouts with a house sauce. Healthy and delicious, it is the kind of thing that would be offered by the International House of Pancakes if it were actually international.
Many Pho combos include squid, shrimp and crab stick. Meat options are flank steak, meatballs, brisket and pork, some fried, some flattened with a mallet and exceptionally tender. Three kinds of noodles, quail egg, lemon grass, basil, ginger and garlic add a variety of flavors.   
This restaurant has a lot of regulars and almost everyone starts with the spring rolls. A low-fat version of traditional egg rolls,  Vietnamese spring rolls consist of tightly wrapped bundles of herb, shrimp, chicken, secret sauce and vermicelli noodles. Moist and neatly shaped, encased in a rice pancake, they are presented with a sweetly sharp peanut sauce. Sometimes the spring rolls come with lettuce, sometimes with mint or basil.
If you’re not a culinary risk-taker, order by number. There are 93 items, not including beverages, and when we ordered Hot Clay Pot with Fish (Ca Kho To) we were served Fried Soft-Shell Crab (Cua Lot Tam Bot). A friend requested Marinated Tofu on Vermicelli (Bun Dau Hu Chay) and ended up with the Cabbage Salad with Chicken and Shrimp (Goi Ga Tom). By merely uttering “57” (Clay Pot) and “67” (Marinated Tofu) they could have avoided the confusion, but we live and learn. The soft-shell crab was nice and fresh with a satisfyingly crunch, but the light appetizer of cabbage salad was a bit bland.
Of several outstanding dishes, the Cha Ca Thang Long (55) is a beautiful thing consisting of catfish marinated in a spicy, peppery sauce and crispy around the edges. It was superb, with tender boneless fish with piquant sauce drenching both noodles and a salad.
As perfect as the catfish is an appetizer called Chao Tom, a nice hunk of ground shrimp surrounding a stalk of sugar (picture a deep-fried drumstick). One bite of shrimp followed with a crunch of sugar cane is unique and delicious. Sugar cane, fibrous and juicy, can’t be found just anywhere. At the center of Springfield’s burgeoning Vietnamese district, the locale and clientele of Pho Saigon keep it real.

Author: Mary Nelen

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