If the long lines at Tiny Thai are any indication, Winooski's newest Asian eatery, Pho Dang Vietnamese Café, has a ready clientele in the space formerly occupied by Souza's Burritos. On its first day of operation, a gaggle of young Vietnamese children run through the restaurant, laughing merrily as they try to lock one another - and the odd customer - out of the building. Clanging sounds emanate from the kitchen.
The casual family atmosphere extends to the service. Our waiter, communicating with smiles and hand signals, brings over a pitcher of water and some glasses. Menus are splayed under the glass tabletop, and, as is traditional, chopsticks, forks and spoons sit in a container on the table, next to a red plastic basket that holds cruets of fish and chili sauces.
The Cha Gio Imperial rolls come out quickly and hot, with crisp, golden-brown exteriors and a toothsome filling of seasoned ground pork. Spring rolls with shrimp and pork are a refreshing contrast, dominated by the cool flavors of lettuce and licorice-scented basil. The apps cost $3.50 apiece, and each one serves two.
Pho, pronounced "fuh," is a noodle-filled Northern Vietnamese soup that has become immensely popular in U.S. cities. Here it's offered in seven different permutations. Nothing with heart or liver, however. "Soft tendon" is as exotic as the folks at Pho Dang are willing to go.
All versions of the soup arrive with heaping plates of traditional mix-ins that allow diners to season dishes as they like: bean sprouts, lime wedges, chili paste, Thai basil and sawtooth herb or "culantro," which is related to but not the same as cilantro. Another treat: small bowls of sweet and tangy pickled vegetables.
The broth in an ample "small" bowl of Pho Tai Chin Nam, featuring a combo of rare beef and well-done flank steak, is both meaty and redolent of herbs. The sloppy and delicious rice noodles do an admirable job of soaking up the broth's flavor, though slurping them with chopsticks ensures that soup will dribble down one's chin at some point during the meal.
Bun Bo Xao Xa Ot is equally delicious. It's a fragrant stir-fry of beef, lemongrass and hot pepper over rice vermicelli. For the faint of heart or palate, there's the plainer Bun Ga Nuong, grilled chicken served with noodles, or the Com Suon Nuong, grilled pork chop served with rice.
The lingering funk of fish sauce hangs over the table as the plates are cleared and patrons ponder dessert or order super-sweet glasses of coffee blended with condensed milk.
Che 3 Mau, or "three colors desert [sic], served cold," is a must-try for the culinarily curious. The part-liquid refreshment comes in a tall glass filled to the brim with crushed ice and coconut milk. In the bottom of the glass are black and white beans - which taste surprisingly good soaked in the sweet, tropical liquid - and a layer of sweet bean paste. But plunge in a spoon, and you'll find something that looks like it would be more at home in a horror film than in your mouth: a bunch of glistening, green-dyed, slug-shaped blobs, presumably made of harmless, gelatin-like agar-agar. Aside from these taste-free jiggly bits, the dessert is delightful.
A city's restaurant scene should reflect its citizenry - which, in the case of Winooski, has always been an ethnic medley. It's about time pho found a place alongside pasta and pad thai.