As flourishing as the New Haven restaurant scene is, there is a startling dichotomy between cheap eats and the upscale places you go to with rich Uncle Teddy. Admittedly there are exceptions, but think about that conversation you have when your friend from Brown comes in for the weekend: “We could walk down to Pepe’s or Sally’s; or we could get Thai; or we could get Indian; or … uh … we … uh … I dunno.” The truth is that when you’re looking for a mid-price restaurant in downtown New Haven there’s very little variety (and no, four Thai restaurants in the space of a block and a half on Chapel does not count as variety).
New Haven just got one step closer to variety: Next time that friend comes, walk him down to Whitney Avenue and try some Vietnamese at Pot-au-Pho. It’s further away than Chapel Street, but it’s nothing like walking to Wooster Square. You won’t regret it — New Haven’s first Vietnamese restaurant offers a quality dining experience, featuring unique flavors at stunningly reasonable prices.
Staffers at Pot-au-Pho are friendly without exception. Service is prompt and attentive without being invasive. Both dining rooms (upstairs and downstairs) are nicely appointed. Upstairs is open, bright and airy and offers a view out onto Whitney Avenue, while the downstairs is darker and cozier but offers more seating.
Pot-au-Pho has a limited but serviceable selection of international beer and wines but no liquor drinks. Unless you really want an alcoholic drink, go for the bubble tea ($3.75) — the stuff’s a little too trendy, I know, but it’s really good. They offer a wide variety of flavors made with milk, or black or green tea. There’s also a tea slush version ($4.00), which would be great on a hot day.
The one page of dishes is extensive without being overwhelming. The items are not divided into appetizers and entrees, but there are a few items that are good for starting and sharing. Cha gio ($4.99) — crispy rolls with a pork and vegetable filling — are the Vietnamese take on spring rolls. They’re crispy and sweet, but have a distinct herby flavor that’s lacking in many versions of the dish.
That’s the best thing about Pot-au-Pho. As the first Vietnamese restaurant in town, it brings some truly new flavors and dishes to the scene. Take, for example, the goi ngo sen ($6.75) — lotus stem salad with pork and shrimp served with shrimp crackers. More like a slaw than a salad, the dish is crispy, sweet and refreshing. Lotus stem tastes a lot like jicama — crispy and watery with a subtly sweet flavor and acts a great carrier for the meat in this salad. It is another good dish to share.
What’s a Pot-au-Pho without a pot o’ pho? Misleading for one, but Pot-au-Pho follows through on its name with an excellent rendition of the traditional Vietnamese beef soup. Pot-au-Pho’s pho ($7.49) is described as “beef noodle in a ginger-cinnamon-anise-scented broth.” That’s a lot of scenting, and to be honest, I found the smell of the dish not very appetizing and very much like a swamp. But I dug in, and far from tasting like swampwater, the pho is delicious through and through. The soup is packed with flavors from beef to cilantro to onion to, of course, ginger-cinnamon-anise. All in all it’s a great dish to get a newcomer to Vietnamese food (like myself) hooked.
Also on the list of soups is mi viet tiem ($8.49) — egg noodle with braised five-spice flavored duck and shiitake mushrooms. It’s a curry broth with duck and noodles, and you can get pretty much the same dish at Ivy Noodle. Pot-au-Pho’s is better, but it’s nothing to write home about.
If you’re not in the mood for soup, the restaurant offers dry noodle dishes called Bun, which are vermicelli topped with roasted peanuts and pickled vegetables. They come in vegetarian and several meat varieties. I recommend bun ga ($6.50) with lemongrass-marinated chicken or bun bo ($6.50) with sesame-marinated beef. The same great exotic flavors that make the pho so good are here as well.
Since I went on a Monday, I didn’t get to try the most intriguing item on the menu, which the restaurant offers only on Fridays and Saturdays. Chao huyet ($7.49) is a rice pudding made with blood sausage that should perk up the ears of adventurous eaters.
Pot-au-Pho is just what New Haven ordered — a quality mid-price restaurant that brings a new cuisine to town. Spice up that tired list of ethnic cuisines you subject yourselves to again and again. Go to Pot-au-Pho.