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Friday, March 23 Living

Sprouts restaurant in Bethel: Easy on the diet and wallet

Sprouts, A Vietnamese Eatery
6B Elizabeth St., Bethel
203-826-7310, sproutsvietnam@yahoo.com

This small restaurant is instantly reassuring. It looks tidy and modest and like it cares very much about the customers’ well-being.

Tucked away in a small shopping area near the Bethel train tracks and a stone’s throw from the library, Sprouts has become a local favorite for good reasons. Its popularity has little to do with the decor, which is as simple as can be. There are a few tables, a handwritten menu on a white board, a soda machine and that is pretty much that. What you can’t buy at a furniture store are the smiling faces of the owners, the luxurious smell of home cooking and the obvious pride of turning out good-tasting and good-for-you dishes.

Compared to many local Vietnamese eateries, the menu at Sprouts is pared down. Not sparse, but not falling into the trap of trying to cover all bases by serving one of everything. Sprouts does a large takeout business, but for the customers who dine there in person, it is a lovely experience. You walk to the counter and look at the big white board. Because everything is very fairly priced it is tempting to over-order. If you do, the restaurant provides take-home containers.

My first time here I went with a friend who is a veteran Sprouts’ customer. She is very health conscious; I am not. She is a vegetarian; I am not. Dining out with her can often be a problem, but at Sprouts we were both happy and satiated.

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Sprouts, A Vietnamese Eatery

6B Elizabeth St., Bethel

203-826-7310, sproutsvietnam@yahoo.com

I had a bad case of “I want everything,” a condition that often befalls me when I review a promising place. “You have to try the spring rolls,” my friend said. She ordered fresh ones. I ordered fried. They were both outstanding. Aesthetically, the fresh spring rolls are prettier. Our order produced glass-like wrappers through which you could clearly see the shrimp, lettuce, bean sprouts, grated carrots, sliced cucumber, mint leaves and delicate rice noodles within. One the side were cups of peanut butter and hoisin sauce. People who know how to eat Vietnamese-style mix them together and add the hot pepper sauce placed on the table, you then dip the spring rolls into the wonderful slurry.

Vietnamese cuisine is one where ordering a salad is not a cop out. It is not a lame side dish, but a large bowl of (in my case) grilled pork, cabbage, cucumbers, carrot, green apple, bean sprouts and mint leaves. Pour the tangy lime dressing over it, add a dash of hot sauce, the peanuts and sesame seeds that come with it and enjoy. It is large, delicious, and almost laughingly inexpensive.

Of course there is pho on the menu. Pho is the ubiquitous Vietnamese dish on every menu. For a dish served in Vietnamese restaurants around the world, pho always tastes different from place to place. The basis of pho is broth, which is made daily. It has a myriad of spices, fresh ginger, rock sugar, fresh noodles herbs and bean sprouts. My vegetarian friend ordered it plain. I added Vietnamese beef balls, tiny and savory.

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The other wildly popular Vietnamese specialty is banh mi. This is a street food sold from carts in Vietnam and meant to be eaten on the run, like a take-out sandwich. Choose your protein, and it comes slathered with pickled carrots, cucumbers, cilantro, mayo and a special “sprouts sauce” that brings it to life.

The food I tried on my first visit was light and healthy, but on a return trip I wanted to try the more rib-sticking items. The Vietnamese Curry (I got chicken) has a base of coconut milk to which is added lemongrass, ginger, curry powder, potato and carrots. It is a surprisingly light dish, not terribly spicy and not as challenging to digest as many Indian versions.

If you want something that will make you feel like you have eaten a big meal order the Vietnamese Beef Stew. It is a conglomeration of coconut juice, pineapple juice, star anise, cinnamon and lemongrass, but tasted not at all exotic. It tasted like a very good version of American beef stew, perfect on a cold winter day and also reasonably priced. Of all the “heavy” dishes my favorite was hot-and-sour soup. If you think it will be like the usual Chinese version, you will be surprised because it is a delicious melding of Thai spices, tamarind, pineapple, mushrooms, coconut juice and tomatoes. Yes, it is both hot and sour, but has a unique and original taste. It is not served before the meal; it is the meal.

The surprise ending was a dessert sesame ball, a perfectly round pastry filled with mung bean paste and coconut. I ordered one and then ordered three more. I easily ate all four.

Sprouts is a great place to go not only for superior Vietnamese food, but if you are a vegetarian or a vegan. The restaurant boasts it uses no MSG, that you must ask for the hoisin sauce (as it is kept in the fridge) and that much of the menu is gluten-free. I am always dubious when restaurants brag about this sort of thing. I am afraid the food will taste like it was made by a hospital dietitian. Not here; it is delicious, fanciful and easy on the wallet.

Jane Stern, a Ridgefield resident, coauthored the popular “Roadfood” guidebook series with Michael Stern. Join her each week as she travels Fairfield County finding a great meal in unexpected places for $20 or less.

Jane Stern|Columnist