IN THE KITCHEN Dang Pham was born in Vietnam and moved to the United States when he was 10. Now 31, he co-owns Pho Dakao in Framingham with his father, Hiep, who is also the chef-owner of the family’s original restaurant in Worcester, which opened in 2002.
“When I was growing up, I was always helping in the kitchen,” said Pham. He went on to work in engineering, where “I learned tools and skill sets I can use in the restaurant atmosphere.” While he enjoys engineering, he said, “I wanted to go out and build on my own from the ground up.”
THE LOCALE The restaurant opened in March 2014 in the heart of downtown Framingham near the Memorial Building. “We always wanted to open another restaurant somewhere in the MetroWest, especially in Framingham or Natick,” Pham said. He had initially targeted Route 9, but appreciates Framingham’s investment in its downtown section. “It’s very diverse and up-and-coming, and they really help out the business owner,” he said.
Pho Dakao’s 98-seat interior feels spacious and includes a dozen seats at the bar. The restaurant has live jazz on Friday nights featuring local performers; Wednesdays offer special meal deals with wine.
ON THE MENU While Chinese, Thai, and Japanese restaurants are nearly ubiquitous these days, Vietnamese cooking remains comparatively rare between Boston and Worcester, Pham said, with half of his diners expressing unfamiliarity with his cuisine.
“We have some similarities to Thai and Chinese food, but it’s a little lighter on the stomach,” Pham said, noting also the subtle French influence stemming from Vietnam’s colonial era. “It’s very fresh and very healthy. We incorporate a lot of fresh vegetables, and while it’s a lot of ingredients and spices, it’s not ‘spicy.’ ” There’s basil and mint aplenty, and many meats marinated in lemongrass; fish, soy, and oyster sauces are also common seasonings, he said.
The noodle soup pho is perhaps Vietnam’s most famous culinary export. “A lot of Vietnamese people grew up eating pho for breakfast, lunch, and dinner — it’s an all-day thing,” Pham said. The restaurant offers five types, with beef and chicken bones infusing the broth with flavor during a 12-hour slow-cook process.
Bowls come in three sizes (medium $7.95, large $9.50, extra large $10.95); they all share rice noodles, scallions, onions and cilantro with a choice of meat, which may include some less-often-used parts of the animal, such as tendon and tripe. A side dish arrives with crisp bean sprouts, jalapeno pepper slices, fresh mint leaves, and lime wedges that further enliven the broth. In addition to traditional pho, there are a few specialty noodle soups, including bowls containing seafood and spicy beef (both $9.95).
But Pho Dakao is a lot more than soup, with more than 70 other traditional Vietnamese appetizers and entrees. Fresh summer rolls ($5) are a welcome start to the meal, with soft rice-paper wraps stuffed with vermicelli rice noodles, shrimp, lettuce and pork, and served with an addictive peanut sauce.
The soft-shell crab appetizer ($12.95) is deep fried and then stir fried with sliced onions, peppers and scallions. “When you think about crab, you think you have to pick at it and break the legs. Here, you can eat the whole thing,” Pham said.
There’s also vermicelli topped with shredded lettuce, bean sprouts, mint, and roasted peanuts “like a big salad bowl” for diners to mix together, Pham said, enhanced by such add-ons as grilled shrimp ($10.50) and beef tenderloin ($10.25). Sizzling Mongolian beef ($15.95) is tender sliced sirloin cooked in a hot pan and made fragrant with onions, scallions and ginger. Hot pots for two ($42) are filled with seafood, meat, and vegetables and served bubbling hot, and stir-fried rice ($9.25 to $10.50) and noodle ($11.95 to $13.50) dishes can provide a familiar starting point for those easing into Vietnamese cuisine.
Pho Dakao is at 101 Concord St. in Framingham; 508-872-2211, www.phodakao.com.