who couldn’t love these?
Recently I made macaroni and cheese for a friend. The friend said, “I hate macaroni and cheese” and I was floored, because saying “I don’t like macaroni and cheese” is like saying “I don’t like puppies.” It doesn’t compute.
So if like my friend you are an enemy of noodles, please stop reading. If like the 99.99 percent other normal people in the world who regularly worships at the altar of great noodles, keep reading. I am suggesting two splendid Asian noodle houses where a bowl of comfort food is both affordable and worth a trip.
56 Padanaram Rd,
There is nothing about Pho’s curbside appeal that would signal how good this place is. It is one of a short line of stores in a tiny strip mall across the street from Jim Barbaries.
Pho is a small place and it is not unusual to see people waiting for a booth or table clustered in a pack by the door. I have never been to Pho when it was not crowded, so be prepared for a wait.
While it is possible to get dumplings, spring rolls as light as clouds in transparent wrappings, and a divine starter of red curry mussels here, the heart of Pho Vietnam is noodle soups. When it comes to noodle soups, the Vietnamese could have taught my Jewish grandmother a thing or two. Although Granny’s chicken soup was perfect and as good as penicillin for curing all ailments, it was fairly minimalistic: chicken, noodles, celery, and carrots. Vietnamese noodle soups are spangled with all sorts of wonderful things beside the broth and noodles. You can pretty much customize it, as you like. From a short list you can add chicken, brisket, tendon, tripe, spiced meatballs, rare slices of beef, poached egg, shrimp bok choy, chicken, or shrimp. Your order will come in a wide deep bowl, steaming hot, the surface covered in a merry mix of cilantro, scallion, and onions. The house motto is “Slurping Encouraged” and indeed you will.
There is really no dainty way to enjoy Vietnamese noodle soups and that is part of the fun. It is a hot mess of the best sort. The most popular noodle soup at Pho is the one with the most titillating name: Pho King—a big bowl of noodles with braised short ribs and poached eggs.
Pho also has great noodle dishes in other guises. Here Pad Thai gets a Vietnamese twist, and the threadlike noodles are abbreviated with shrimp, calamari, and mussels and any of the other proteins on the menu. Buns (pronounced boons) are a popular choice. The bun bowl is a noodle salad with cilantro, carrots, peanuts, lettuce, and your choice of a protein. I liked the Beef Bun which features rice noodles, herbs, beef, and garlic. Pho is the kind of “little black book” places that foodies hold dear. It is the perfect equation of reasonably priced food and exotic taste adventures.
Mecha Noodle Bar
1215 Post Rd, Fairfield
If you go to Mecha on a Saturday night you might think this is the hot spot for all of Fairfield County. The restaurant is crackling with good vibes and cool looking customers. As with Pho Vietnam, you may have to wait a bit for a table, but it is worth the wait, not only for the food but also for the people watching. The experience here is all bustle and hearty eating and although you sit shoulder to shoulder with other diners at the long table in the center, you can feel the conviviality.
Mecha’s short menu has some wonderful dishes that do not come in a bowl of broth, so before I go on about the heart and soul of the place (bowls of noodles) I should mention those I especially liked. The roasted mushroom dumplings are very savory and delicate at the same time. They come in a rather non-Asian cream sauce, and are something that always makes me return to Mecha because I have not tasted anything like them anywhere else. The Bao rolls are also extremely popular. If you are unfamiliar with Bao (pronounced bow as when you get a round of applause, not the thing tied around your neck or a Christmas gift) it is a ivory-colored steamed Asian bun, into which is layered beef, chicken, or pork, then topped with pickled vegetables and a squirt of spicy aioli. A Bao is about the size of your palm, often ordered two at a time. They are a great snack and a wonderful contrast of textures and flavors, spicy and sweet, vinegary and pillow soft. Next to me a man ordered the KFC Bao, a funny twist on the Kentucky colonels fried chicken. At Mecha the nugget of fried chicken is tucked nicely in a Bao bun and made extra crispy with the picked vegetables. A health-conscious vegetarian friend was very pleased with the crispy kale salad served with a big poppadum and dressed with very nice miso vinaigrette.
Getting down to business, I ordered a huge bowl of Ramen, and an equally huge bowl of Pho. My order alone took up most of the small table and I looked like a complete pig sitting in front of two giant bowls. I truly did not expect such generous servings. I happily slurped away, dribbling it down my face and shirt but no one seemed to notice my immense dinner or my slovenly table manners. Everyone was too busy tucking into his or her own giant soups.
I must say that one of the things that make eating at Mecha so great is the wide range of craft beers, exotic sakes, and designer cocktails they serve. I passed on the above because I saw my favorite drink in a cooler. This drink of all drinks is an ice-cold Coca-Cola bottled in Mexico. Coke aficionados know that Mexican Coke is still made with cane sugar and not corn syrup as they do here. It is like going back in a time capsule to the 1950s.