by Alice Levitt
9 Park St., Essex Junction, 878-6699
In 2007, Pho Dang in Winooski was one of the first eateries to start the trend that has led to nine Vietnamese restaurants in Chittenden County. The ninth is another Pho Dang. It replaces the short-lived Pho Vietnam in the old Ming's space in downtown Essex Junction.
Just seven months after I reviewed Pho Vietnam, I was back at the same table trying Pho Dang. The single server ran up and down the stairs between two floors of packed dining rooms. My hopes were high and apparently, so were those of the locals.
As usual, I had to start with a great Vietnamese lemonade. There's nothing like the thin but tangy and sugary drink. It took around 15 minutes to get the drink, but I busied myself with some gorgeously floral jasmine tea.
Freshly poured Pho tai bo vien arrived shortly after the lemonade. The rare beef was still pink, though it cooked quickly once it arrived. I had to ask for the usual sides of basil, sprouts and lime, and it took several more minutes before my harried server brought them, but they were all uncommonly fresh.
The broth itself was flavorful, but not as richly beefy as those at Pho Pasteur in Winooski or Pho Hong in Burlington. The brighter taste seemed to owe partly to the two kinds of onions floating in the soup. There was also a hint of lemongrass.
The rare beef was surprisingly lean, more like a fondue Chinoise than the fat-and-gristle-streaked strips I'm used to. Nice touch. The meatballs were dense and bouncy as a good Vietnamese meatball should be. Overall, a good pho, but not a standout.
I was more eager for bun (noodle salad) anyway. I lived a couple of blocks from the Winooski Pho Dang for a few years. During that time, its peanutty bun was one of my dietary staples. Would this one be any different?
In a word, yes. The marinated chicken within was burnt in places, but that was only the beginning of the dish's problems. The real issue was the nước mắm pha. The sauce, usually dominated by flavors of fish sauce and lime, was basically sugar water. I should have known when it was described on the menu as "sweet sauce." It's always nice for the sauce to have a hint of sugar, but this hurt my teeth. It's too bad, the vegetables were fresh and nicely, if lightly, pickled.
I felt like I had tasted the Vietnamese equivalent of a bright red General Tso for the first time. The eggrolls compounded the issue. They were filled only with meat and apparently flavored with nothing else. Nothing like the complex, nutty version at the Winooski Pho Dang.
Com Suon Bi Cha turned out to be a better choice. However, the dish that was supposed to feature three elements only had two. Grilled pork chop and over-easy egg were in place, but there was no shredded roast pork.
I really enjoyed what I did have of that dish, though — partly because I applied just enough of the "sweet sauce" to moisten the dish, not candy it.
The pork chop was fork tender, lightly crisped on the outside and flavored with a marinade that reminded me of a refreshingly un-sweet teriyaki.
Though the outsides of the two eggs were browned and blistered, the yolks ran through the rice. The creamy, eggy rice made an exciting, fresh combination with cilantro and pickled carrots. If only the rest of the dishes were as good, I would have been happy to go out of my way to the Essex Pho Dang. But hey, it's only been a month. Hopefully in five years, this Pho Dang will be as good as Winooski's.
Alice Eats is a weekly blog feature devoted to reviewing restaurants where diners can get a meal for two for less than $35. Got a restaurant you'd love to see featured? Send it to email@example.com.