¿¿1/2 Chau's Vietnamese Restaurant
964 Main St., Manchester, (860) 643-5006, closed Sunday and Monday
Sometime last year Lisa and I whipped ourselves into a mayonnaise upon learning that we could purchase the distinctive Vietnamese sandwiches called banh mi in the Hartford area. As is often the case, readers jumped in to let us know there were other places — at A. Dong Market in West Hartford and just up the road on Park Street, for instance — that served banh mi. It turned out we had no reason to feel so deprived. So we won't toot on our car horns, wave flags or bang pots and pans in the streets when we share another banh mi find, this one in Manchester. Lisa and I recently drove out to Main Street to track down Chau's Vietnamese Restaurant. We'd almost concluded that the place was out of business after several days of phone calls went unanswered, but maybe the owners had been on a little vacation. Last week the staff was answering the phone. And they were open for lunch. So we made the trip.
Chau's exterior is humble, one might even call it unimpressive. The unlit sign above the door and the dim interior only add to the appearance of a place that may have closed up shop. With the numerous pictures of sunflowers and other floral touches, it looks like it might have had a previous life as a flower shop. It's a shotgun room — long and narrow — with the kitchen area completely open for inspection, in case you want to catch an instructive glimpse of how the cook prepares your curry while you wait. To get to the bathrooms at the back, one walks through a small office area/breakroom/storeroom. Some people, often those who've worked in food service, find this element of being on display to the world to be a nice feature in a restaurant. The staff consisted of two people last week — a woman who took orders, worked the register and possibly did some of the cooking, and a man who did some cooking, too.
Since the number of places that serve banh mi in the Hartford area can evidently be counted on one hand, we're still mildly giddy when we get a chance to taste these sandwiches. Banh mi are basically Vietnamese grinders, made with crusty rolls, grilled meat or fried tofu and pickled vegetables. If the standard Connecticut grinder is a showcase for excess, with layers and layers or meat, cheese and sauce, creating an imposing construction that can hardly be bitten into, banh mi is a little more restrained. The application of all the components is generally restrained, not quite minimalist, but certainly not heavy-handed. That said, with non-standard sandwich ingredients like pickled matchsticks of carrot, slices of cucumber, fresh cilantro and a scattering of roasted peanuts, biting into a banh mi, some might feel like they've gone to an alternate sandwich universe. The crusty roll (the style varies from place to place), is a legacy of the French colonial presence in Indochina, as is the occasional inclusion of Vietnamese pates and sausage on the sandwiches.
The banh mi at Chau's was very good. I tried the grilled beef version, which had heavily seasoned thin strips of beef cooked with a hint of scallion, sesame and ginger. At $5.95, the banh mi at Chau's as good a bargain as anything you'll get at the local sub shop, though its proportions might not leave you quite as stuffed as a footlong Italian grinder.
Chau's also serves pho soup. The much-loved rice noodle soup served with slices of beef and piles of mung bean sprouts, scallions, sliced hot peppers, lime wedges and basil has fast become one of America's great comfort foods, perfect for the chilly weather or for battling the sniffles. A blast of sriracha into the soup can do wonders. The pho at Chau's is noteworthy for the prominence of the star anise flavor in the broth. Some will want to seek it out for this and others will steer clear of the restaurant for the exact same reason.
Though the menu at Chau's is nicely brief, the restaurant does serve quite a bit more than just pho and banh mi. There are spring rolls, wonton soup, pork chops, rice noodle stir fry, grilled eggplant and grilled shrimp dishes. And of course there's Vietnamese iced coffee, sweet and potent. We sampled a lemongrass and tofu curry tossed with bean sprouts scallions, rice vermicelli, shredded lettuce, mint and peanuts. The tofu had a wonderful sturdy texture, but I found the perfume-heavy lemongrass to be overpowering. Connoisseurs of Vietnamese food in the region may very well conclude that no place beats Pho Boston, but those interested in comparing a different approach should pay a visit to Chau's in Manchester.