Thanks to Applehome, I hit my first Vietnamese restaurant in Lowell today, Thao's, at 80 Gorham St., at the corner of Middlesex (pkg. right across the street!). Mon-Sat, 10-9, sometimes on Sun..(g)
My friend's BF works nearby, and had been slightly daunted, because with no menus posted, and plain white coffee-shop interior, it's hard to know what you're getting into...What you get is a fairly limited menu (no ban xiao, no bun rieu...) of big vats of flavorful soup, and the basic buns, all done with very fresh ingredients....
It was so freakin' cold, we couldn't do a good exploration of the menu, but all had canh chua, sour spicy soup...Their broth was light and subtle, but not watery..The fish sauce and galangal flavor did not overwhelm the light sprinkling of chili peppers...The tomatoes and canned pineapple were downplayed, in favor of an unusual amount of greens; taro stem, Chinese celery, bean sprouts and lots of Thai basil...Really low on the gratuitous oil scale...Cooked in the stock of my bowl was a huge salmon steak, the skin and bones adding flavor to the mild broth...The perfect antidote to this weather. The perfect antidote to this economy; $6.25!!!!!!
One friend got the same with chunks of white meat chicken, the other got the seafood noodle, shrimp and KRAB with yellow egg noodles and lots of greens, as well a one of the biggest plates of Thai basil and condiments I've seen in awhile...We also shared a few orders of superior goi cuon..Freshly made, the kitchen had a generous hand with the shrimp (4 in each, we asked for them w/out pork), fresh lettuce and basil. BTW; (they will laugh here!), the sauce for the goi cuon was great. It was actually a cooked version of peanut butter, garlic, Hoisin, stock and chili, as opposed to the commonplace shortcut of Hoisin, with a shot of Sriricha and a sprinkling of peanuts
I did notice fish in clay pot (cha kho to) on the menu, as well as pork in clay pot. Four different fish were offered, but I had to have soup...As Applehome said, not a destination restaurant, but equal to any storefront soup and noodle place in Dorchester or Ctown (tho without the variety of some)...If you're near there, go. If it was near me, I would...Fresh, simple food.
The big treat was when they took me to Battambang Market, nearby on Merrimack Street. (617-453-6634)...It may be small, but it's specifically Southeast Asian. It bills itself as Thai, but the selection of fresh herbs, those I've dreamed of for Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian recipes was the most extensive I have EVER seen. I need to go back with my copy of Mai Pham's cook book, that ID's them all, with drawings...My friends were amused at my loss of control...I was upset that I couldn't possibly use all the ones I wanted to buy..The more unusual vegetables (Thai eggplant, peapod tendrils) took precedence the mundane...Same for tripe and pig-skin type (organ?) meat I couldn't identify...FOUR kinds of frozen Tod Mun!!!!! I love this place! And I bought my Kom-Kom Miracle Zig Zag there