Our Gourmet: A unique spot for fine pho in the city

April 04. 2018 12:48AM

Saigon Noodles
342 Lincoln St., Manchester; 264-3420; www.facebook.com/pg/saigonnoodlesnh

Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m., 6:30 p.m.-8 p.m.

Cuisine: Vietnamese.

Pricing: Appetizers, $2.99-$3.99; Entrees, $6.99-$9.50.

Scores for Saigon Noodles
Atmosphere: 15/20
Menu: 15/20
Food: 19/20
Service: 18/20
Value: 18/20
TOTAL: 85/100

We’ve been a fan of pho, the ubiquitous noodle soup found in almost every Vietnamese restaurant, ever since we tried it years ago. Its simple ingredients and clean flavors are restorative, curing anything that ails us. We’ve sought it out all over the country, and have enjoyed it in Canada, too. We’ve been known to drive to Boston just for takeout.

When pho (pronounced fuh) came to Manchester, we were happy. As pho-natics, we were overjoyed when Manchester became home to two Vietnamese restaurants. We reviewed one of them in this space a year or so ago. The other — Saigon Noodles — is off the beaten path and has a lower profile, but offers truly excellent pho and the most unique dining experience we’ve ever had.

Saigon Noodles is on Lincoln Street, a stone’s throw from the Central Little League fields and across the street from Price Rite. A squat, white building, it was a fairly notorious bar in a previous life, becoming a restaurant about two years ago. It is run by Candy Pham, who serves as hostess, waitress, chef and chief bottle washer.

When we visited, two couples waited for takeout. The room is dimly lit, with orange walls and orangey floor tiles. The horseshoe shaped bar looms, unused, a ghost of the room’s past and home only to a cooler, a coffee maker and a large-screen TV playing a Vietnamese variety show, on mute. It feels exotic and mysterious. Our Gourmet (OG), the Dining Companion (DC) and the Fussbudget (FB) chose a corner table, perused the menu and waited. When the others left, we were alone.

The menu is limited to a couple of appetizers and several varieties of pho. It’s all you need, really. You come here for the soup. Period.

OG loves a large Pho dac Biet ($9.50), the “House Special” version of pho, and ordered a bowl. We were excited to see Vietnamese-style coffee on the menu ($3.99), which is no longer offered across town, and ordered that, too.

The Fussbudget, age 8, was claiming he wasn’t hungry but we know he loves chicken noodle soup, so we ordered him a Pho Ga ($8.50). The Dining Companion ordered a Veggie Fresh Roll ($5.49), the vegetable Pho Rau Cai ($8.50), and a limeade ($2.50).

The DC’s fresh rolls were served first. One bite and she deemed them delicious. A pair, each was a translucent, slightly sticky rice-paper wrapper loosely rolled around vermicelli and crisp lettuce, cilantro and carrots, accompanied by a creamy peanut sauce. She devoured them, exclaiming about their freshness.

Ms. Pham’s fresh-squeezed limeade was another hit: the sour lime juice tempered with sugar and diluted to a refreshing tang with water. The DC had a second serving, which met with Fussbudget approval.

Our Pho dac Biet was a monstrous bowl, a tangle of slippery rice noodles teeming with rare beef, fatty flank and springy Vietnamese beef meatballs as well as cilantro and thinly sliced onion, all swimming in a clean, delicate beef broth tinged with the flavors of star anise and charred ginger. With a handful of crisp bean sprouts tossed in and several Thai basil leaves torn up and tossed in too, we dug in two-fisted with chopsticks in our right hand and spoon in our left. We almost forgot to add Sriracha. This is pho made right.

The FB’s eyes widened at his bowl of Pho Ga. It was a medium-sized bowl, with plenty of tender chicken in the mildly spiced chicken broth and it was easily the biggest bowl of soup he’d ever had. He loved it, coming close to finishing the entire thing and declaring Saigon Noodles his new favorite restaurant.

The DC, who avoids meat, was put off by her pho. She had ordered vegetable pho and expected vegetable broth, but got beef broth instead. She was prepared to feign fullness and have it packed up when Ms. Pham appeared at our table. She was carrying another bowl of pho.

“I’m going to eat dinner with you, OK,” she said. And sat down with us.

She fixed the FB’s hair. She exclaimed about his beautiful eyes. When he accidentally dropped his chopsticks, she got him a new pair. When his spoon fell into his soup, she helped him fish it out. When he ran out of noodles, she offered to put more in. When a group of college kids arrived, she shooed them out, sending them across town. “I don’t need the stress,” she said of cooking for such a large group. We talked Manchester home prices. Before we knew it, we’d finished a wonderful meal and felt like we’d made a new friend.

Ms. Pham walked us to our car and as we drove away, the DC asked, “What just happened?” The FB had an idea. “That was the best soup. I liked that lady. Can we come here every week?”

Our GourmetManchester

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