Vermont foodies learn the Asian lingo: pho, bun...

Lobster with ginger at Saigon Bistro in Burlington. Lobster with ginger at Saigon Bistro in Burlington. (Caleb Kenna for The Boston Globe)
By Diane E. Foulds
Globe Correspondent / August 16, 2009

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BURLINGTON, Vt. - Dining ethics come and go. In environmentally-conscious Vermont, farm-to-table is becoming less a preference than a matter of principle. So it’s not without irony that food lovers in the state’s largest city are committing the unthinkable: showing up in droves not for dishes cooked with local chevres and grass-fed meats, but for yuki noodles, pad si yew, and pho.

Asian cuisine has taken this city by storm. Not any Asian, but a cross-pollination of Thai, Vietnamese, and Korean. Salads of shredded papaya woven with cilantro. Fragrant broths filled with rice noodles and greens. Mounds of freshly grated carrots sprinkled with sesame seeds, mint, and fresh-picked basil.

The craze took off in a shopping mall. When the aptly-named Tiny Thai restaurant opened in 2005 in the Essex Shoppes & Cinema, a quiet ripple went through area foodie circles. Word got out that this nondescript newcomer wasn’t just good, but exceptional. When a second location opened in Winooski, a largely blue-collar community on the city’s eastern flank, the secret was out.

At lunch, every table was full. At dinner, dozens waited inside, the tip of a queue that stretched out the door. There was the novelty of dishes spliced with papaya and mango, but the chief appeal was the freshness. Each plate was a sensory awakening, like the shrimp soaked in a lemongrass broth and served on vivid greens with quail eggs, cucumbers, and peppers. What arrived at the table was invariably better than the mental image created from the menu. Tiny Thai seemed to push all the right culinary buttons, and all of it was healthful, plentiful, and priced at half what you would pay downtown.

Before long, a Vietnamese competitor had opened a few blocks away. Despite its few tables, food-stained menus, and plastic decor, along with no alcohol, parking, or table reservations, Pho Dang was a hit. Here, too, the food was blissfully fresh and the prices so low that two years later, snagging a table at dinnertime can still be a challenge.

Pho Dang’s strength was its savory noodle and beef soups, called pho, its rock-bottom prices, and the Vietnamese voices ricocheting out of the kitchen. The picnic dress code was also a plus: T-shirts and flip-flops for staff and clientele.

In the years since Tiny Thai and Pho Dang made their splash on the restaurant scene, seven others (and counting) have joined them. Pho and som tam (green papaya) salad meanwhile have crept quietly onto the menus of more established restaurants downtown that, while never exactly unpopular, had never attracted such crowds.

The food, though, is only part of it. Some of the appeal lies in what these start-ups represent. As immigrants, the owners lack the advantages considered essential in an industry infamous for its slim profit margins. They open in dingy neighborhoods, using creative improvisation to turn improbable spaces into standing-room-only favorites. Phuong’s Kitchen, for example, prepares top-notch take-out from the side of a convenience store.

Pho Hong , a Vietnamese cafe that operates out of a former bus terminal, exemplifies family ownership. Lan Hong is the chef, husband Dao V. Le, the manager, and daughter Thao waits tables. Guests hold the door as Thao’s 7-year-old brother wheels out his bike, or look up to see Le dollying a load of carrots past their tables to the kitchen. The Hongs have warmed up this steel and cinderblock interior, hanging lengths of cloth to lower the ceiling and blocking the oversized windows with huge paper fans.

It’s amazing what a little inspiration can do.

Downtown, San Kong has transformed a damp cellar in the middle of Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace pedestrian area into a zen-like sanctuary with celadon-colored walls and bamboo accents. When she opened the Asiana Noodle Shop in January, Kong and her partner, Noppawan Charoenrat, had to place space heaters near the tables to keep their guests warm. In summer, the below-street-level coolness has proven an asset.

Kong, 40, a Hong Kong native, was already running The Asiana House , a more upscale restaurant serving a fusion of Korean, Malaysian, and Japanese fare a few blocks away. As the Asian boom took off, she recognized the potential for something smaller and more casual. So when the Church Street cellar became available, she grabbed it. Since then, she’s added a sushi bar, developed a saki, wine, and beer list, broadened the vegetarian offerings, and expanded her seating to the sidewalk. Kong’s prices are higher, but the payback is the food’s visual panache, and she’s right downtown.

Nonetheless, the demand for ever more Thai and Vietnamese eateries seems out of proportion in this city of 38,000, which lacks anything approaching a Chinatown. According to the most recent census figures, a mere 2 percent of the population describes itself as Asian.

“Everyone was surprised to see the popularity of these restaurants,’’ said Tank Bui, the chef at Saigon Bistro , the newest to open. Raised in Dorchester, Bui, 33, cooked for a church, then began a construction business. Sensing that the time was right, his family suggested he start a restaurant with his brother-in-law, Richard Than. Their niche, Bui said, is “real traditional Vietnamese food.’’

“We want to try to get more Vietnamese customers,’’ he said. “They don’t go [to the other places] because the tastes are not quite right.’’

Be that as it may, all faces were Caucasian there on a recent evening, and most were female. One was finishing off a jumbo-sized bowl of bun, a vermicelli and vegetable pho without the broth. When the server asked how it was, her face lighted up.

“Awesome,’’ she said. “I’ll have the Christmas tree to go.’’

The Christmas tree?

It’s a dessert, she explained, a sundae-like layering of coconut milk, red tapioca, and green jelly. As it happened, she was Alice Levitt, 28, a food writer for Seven Days, a local weekly that keeps a close watch on the restaurant scene. She gave this one a thumbs-up. Would she be back?

“Yeah,’’ she said, looking surprised at the question. “Our other food writer has already been here three times.’’

Diane E. Foulds can be reached at dianefoulds@burlingtontelecom .net.

If You Go

Tiny Thai 24 Main St., Burlington
Monday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.- 2:30 p.m., dinner 5-10; closed Sunday. Lively bistro that started the boom. Entrees $8.50-$10.50.

Pho Dang 215 Main St., Winooski
Daily 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Pho and stir-fry classics in tiny, casual space. Entrees $6.25-$8.95.

Asiana Noodle Shop 88 Church St., Burlington
Weekdays 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 11; Sunday noon-10. Asian fusion in tranquil downtown cellar. Entrees $10.95-$12.95.

Pho Hong 325 North Winooski Ave.
Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.- 10 p.m., Sunday till 9. Fresh Vietnamese and Thai fare in former bus depot. Entrees $6.95-$12.95.

Saigon Bistro 119 College St., Burlington.
Monday-Thursday 10-10, weekends till 11. Authentic Vietnamese classics $7.50-$9.95.