Pho Fans Opens in Darien

Photographs by Venera Alexandrova

A new Pho Restaurant in Darien brings fab new flavors to traditional Vietnamese fare

When a pho place opens on Main Street, it’s become mainstream—and that’s good news for fans of Vietnamese noodles, aromatic broth and fragrant herbs. Foodies have long sought out little pho joints in Stamford, Norwalk and Bridgeport, and as word spread of Pho Fan’s arrival in a bright, contemporary space with an open kitchen of gleaming stainless steel on the Post Road in Darien, its seats have filled with the towns’ diverse and well traveled populace. Pho Fans is the second outlet of this family-owned restaurant (the other is in Smithtown, Long Island).

No other cuisine evokes an herb-filled garden more than Vietnamese. A plate of mint, basil, cilantro and bean sprouts accompanies almost every dish, bringing a sensual element as you tear mint and basil leaves into hot bowls of soup, sprinkle them over bowls of rice vermicelli, or wrap lettuce and mint around crisp spring rolls. Shrimp summer rolls, the most popular order at Pho Fans, require no work other than dipping into peanut sauce (just add a squirt of siracha for heat). The rolls are expertly, tightly wrapped in rice paper, revealing pink shrimp and mint leaves. They’re packed with julienned lettuce, and each bite is like eating a refreshing salad in a roll.

Fresh ingredients lead every dish at Pho Fans, from the grilled beef salads to the summer cocktails and long-simmered broths for the steamy bowls of pho.

The shrimp and crab roll is extra crisp because it’s got a textured layer of cellophane noodles around the wrapper. A variation on the Vietnamese spring roll, it comes with lettuce and mint to wrap around the roll before dipping into nuoc mam, a sweet-sour dipping sauce. Pho Fans’s nuoc mam, geared to the American palate, is predominately sweet, rather than balancing sugar with lime and diluted fish sauce. Pho pros might want to doctor it with more fresh lime and hot pepper. What is fish sauce? A key ingredient with a deep funky flavor, it’s made from fermented anchovies, and along with lemongrass, is in the marinade for the choices of proteins—grilled beef, pork, chicken or shrimp—in the soups, salads, sandwiches and rice vermicelli bowls at Pho Fans.

Papaya salad is an excellent accompaniment to shared appetizers. Unripe green papaya is more like a vegetable and julienned and paired with purple carrot, mint, pickled carrots, peanuts and the grilled protein of your choice. It is a lighter dish, especially topped with shrimp. It too is tossed with nuoc mam, which I found cloyingly sweet while a dining companion couldn’t get enough of it, asking for extra and more to take home with her leftovers.

Pho is the main story here, served in huge, white ceramic bowls. These are shareable, which transforms the usual slurping over a bowl into a more dignified affair, as we used tongs to lift noodles into two smaller bowls, then used the shallow ladle to add the broth. The long-simmered beef broth has hints of cinnamon and star anise. The decision is what kind of beef for the pho? My favorite is the eye round, rare slices placed in the steaming bowl of soup at the last minute, where it cooks to your liking, and slices of soft, simmered brisket—a combination that satisfies my carnivorous cravings with two different textures.

Pho Fans is a great spot to gather for lunch or dinner.

Beef tendon sounds ominous, but cooked to tenderness and sliced thin, it adds more beefy flavor and gelantious texture to the beef combination, which along with beef round and brisket, includes Vietnamese beef meatballs with their distinctive springy texture. Topped with finely sliced white onions, cilantro, basil, bean sprouts and a squeeze of lime, and filled with rice noodles, these soups will restore you.

Pho ga is a clear chicken broth filled with something I’d never seen in a bowl of chicken pho—velveted chicken. This Chinese technique of pre-cooking chicken in cornstarch gives the white meat a soft, silky texture.

The friendly staff was ready to offer forks to anyone they sensed might be unfamiliar with chopsticks. In fact, the noodles appeared to be prepared for novices. On our two visits, they were cut rather than left long. Fans of pho know the pleasure of lifting long rice noodles from the bowl. Pro Tip: Ask the chef not to cut your noodles.

I crave pho in warm and cold weather, but Vietnamese brothless rice vermicelli dishes are more suited for warm. It’s a room temperature salad of rice noodles tossed with fresh cucumbers, pickled carrots, bean sprouts, mint, fried onions and peanuts. The choices of toppings range from crisp spring rolls to grilled lemongrass pork chop to combinations.

left: Manager Sherry Dong and her business partner, Perry Zhang at Pho Fans. right: Papaya salad with grilled shrimp and shrimp summer rolls and peanut dipping sauce.

Later I realized something was missing from the herb plates—the usual slices of fresh hot peppers or jalapeno. If locals don’t use the peppers, the kitchen stops serving them. Pro Tip: Ask for fresh hot peppers for the pho and rice vermicelli bowls.

Bahn mi, Vietnamese sandwiches, are simplified at Pho Fans. They combine the familiar flavors of the well-seasoned choice of proteins with pickled and fresh vegetables and herbs. Served on a light, crunchy hero roll, they are a satisfying alternative to a sub, even though they don’t have the traditional layers of Vietnamese cold cuts and pate.

To drink: Classic Vietnamese drip coffee is a dark brew that is transformed into a coffee milkshake with sweet condensed milk. Served hot or over ice, it’s rich, sweet and potent. Fresh lemonade tasted as if it has been boosted with a mix the day we tried it. Pho Fans serves beer, wine, sake, and sake-based cocktails. Mixers of fresh cucumber juice, fresh pineapple, and lots of mint portend well for the future cocktail menu when Pho Fans gets a liquor license.

When pho comes to Main Street, it adapts to main street palates. The American sweet tooth and fussy palate (hold the cilantro!) can transform Asian cuisines. Longtime fans of pho will want to add Pho Fans to their list. Just make sure they don’t cut your noodles.

left: The inside decor offers a modern vibe. right: Spicy and sweet sauces.

PHO FANS

971 Post Rd, Darien
203-656-2225; phofans.com

CUISINE
Fresh Vietnamese noodle soups, salads and sandwiches

HOURS
Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

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