By Bernie Whitmore
593 Park Ave, Worcester
My fondest memories of Vietnamese cuisine are of steaming bowls of noodle soup on cold winter days. And that’s about where they end. But there’s much more to Vietnamese food, and to help us venture deeper into the menu, we asked our friend George to accompany us to Pho Dakao; although the time he spent in Viet Nam included the Tet Offensive, where some of the fiercest battles almost cost us the War, George left with a fondness for and interest in the country’s people and cuisine that’s never waned.
The plan worked; soon after being seated, George announced, “No noodle soup!” and then ordered a martini.
After ordering our appetizers I looked up from the table and realized Pho Dakao had grown since my last visit. They now have a full bar and spacious lounge area. The original dining room is mostly unchanged, with its eye-popping neon sign and photos scattered on the walls. Aimee, our waitress, soon returned with condiments for our appetizer course: small bowls of peanut sauce and nuoc mam, a clear light sauce of fermented fish ~ yeah, it sounds scary, but it’s actually light and fresh-tasting.
We started with a couple favorites. Fresh Summer Rolls made with shredded lettuce, pork and sliced shrimp were delicious dipped in peanut sauce or the nuoc mam. Pho Dakao’s Sautéed Mussels were large and juicy, the edges of the shells opalescent-green. Fresh ginger and scallions packed them with zesty flavor ~ fortunately, there were plenty for sharing. Glasses of ‘33 Export’ bottled beer provoked more stories of Vietnam and tasted crisp and fresh.
This was the first time I had ordered Shrimp Paste on Sugar Cane. Four chunks of cane fashioned to the size of flattened Chapstick tubes were dabbed in a creamy concoction and served on a dish heaped with springy-fresh watercress. Frankly, I was suspicious of the very idea of making paste from seafood and expected mischief (seafood spam?). This apprehension vanished with my first nibble; the flavor was of unadulterated shrimp and the warm cane was pure, exuding sweet juice when chewed.
After clearing our appetizer dishes, Aimee started setting up the table for our entrées. George needed half the table for the four plates and bowls that made up his Steamed Vermicelli with Grilled Spicy Hamcake. Taking a rigid Frisbee-sized disc of rice paper, he dipped it into a bowl of hot water and it immediately became pliable. He carefully loaded it with lettuce, scallions, mint and fresh cilantro. Over that he layered slices of the ground ham cake, cucumber and carrots sticks. The carefully assembled mound was wrapped into the rice paper like a precious gift, dipped in nuoc mam and happily devoured.
My choice was simple in comparison but, I daresay, tastier. Pho Dakao’s ‘Traditional Family Dish’ of caramelized pork was served in a wooden-handled covered cooking pot. When I removed the lid I was met with fragrant steam and strips of pork coated with onions that had sautéed to the vanishing point. It would be difficult to devise a tastier treatment for pork, yet when I added sprigs of fresh cilantro the flavor seemed to burst. I enjoyed it so much I even scraped the rich caramelization from the bottom of the pot with one of my chopsticks.
Each time I leave Pho Dakao it’s with the same reaction: “That was so good, why don’t I go more often?” When it comes to the Worcester dining scene, Pho Dakao is synonymous with Vietnamese cuisine ~ honest fresh ingredients, elegantly simple preparation, and attentive service.