Chicken soup at the new Cafe Roots in Pittsfield
I know that I’ve been writing a lot lately on the subject of soup. Forgive me if you’ve grown tired of liquid sustenance—next week, I promise, I’ll tackle something more substantive. But with the cold, wet days we’ve been having, soup’s all I want to eat, and sometimes, I want somebody else to cook it for me. Two tiny local establishments offer very different, but equally hand-crafted, options for simple, inexpensive fare.
Lee’s Pho Saigon is something of a cult favorite around the area. My family and I stumbled into it last winter, desperate for, as a friend put it, anything with flavors other than the ubiquitous “Americanized Bistro” that seems to dominate local menus. Husband and wife Henry and Hieu Chung, along with Henry’s sister, Kim, have been in business for just over two years, serving up authentic Vietnamese food to an eclectic crew of locals, hipsters and tourists. The tiny storefront, though lean on atmosphere, is long on charm. It’s a great family spot, and you’ll often see Henry and Hieu’s son Tony playing or doing homework at the “family table” in the back of the room. The welcome to customers is enthusiastic and earnest, and if you go more than once, you can expect to be remembered and greeted like an old friend.
The warmth extends to the food, as well. Pho (rhymes with “duh”), the restaurant’s namesake, is a beef and rice noodle soup of relatively recent (early to mid-twentieth century) invention. The origins of pho are the subject of conjecture and argument, but all agree that it hails from northern Vietnam, and has both French and Chinese influences. At Pho Saigon, soup stocks are made from scratch, then combined with meat, seafood or chicken. With every soup, a plate of shredded lettuce, chopped chiles, sliced cucumber, fresh cilantro and lime wedges is served alongside, so you can customize texture and flavor as you see fit. I’ve tried any number of dishes (soup and otherwise) at Pho Saigon, but when I visited recently, I asked Kim for her pick for best soup. Her first answer, “Everything’s good!”, though accurate, wasn’t all that helpful. When pressed, after making sure that I could tolerate some spice, she steered me to hue, also known as “Number 17.” A woman at a neighboring table piped in to second the recommendation, saying she orders it every time she comes in. (This is the kind of spot where regular diners can’t seem to help guiding newcomers to favorite dishes.) Fragrant beef broth flecked with red pepper and slivered lemon grass held shimmering rice vermicelli and slices of eye round. The broth was steaming, the meat tender and full of flavor. I am not ashamed to say that I inhaled every drop.
Another excellent choice is the pho ga, a milder chicken-based broth with the same skinny noodles, plus chicken, shrimp and hardboiled egg. And in the non-soup section of the menu, don’t miss the fresh summer rolls, or the unusual Vietnamese pancake. The latter is stuffed with shrimp, chicken and vegetables. Its bright yellow color comes from curry, not eggs—made from rice flour and coconut milk, it is absurdly delicious. Also try the Vietnamese hot tea, sweetened with honey and spiked with lime. A mug of this when you sit down will take the edge off while you wait for the soup to really warm you.
For more traditional fare, a new coffee house in Pittsfield holds promise. Cafe Roots took over the old Berkshire Bistro space on West Street nearly three months ago. Owner April Bertelli, who locals may recognize from her tenure managing the coffee bar at Lenox’s Arcadian Shop, was eager to open her own place. “I worked at the Berkshire Bistro years ago, and it’s where my love for coffee started. When I heard it was up for sale, I knew it was time to go for it.” She hopes Cafe Roots will become a place where the ever-expanding downtown Pittsfield community can relax and recharge. To that end, Roots has a friendly, casual vibe, wireless internet, great coffee drinks, and, most important for my purposes, a delicious fresh menu, including a rotation of soups.
Like Pho Saigon, Cafe Roots is a family affair: April’s younger sister, Kim, works alongside her at the counter and in the kitchen. The soup changes almost every day, with recent offerings including chicken vegetable, thick with shredded chicken and mushrooms, to a broad bean soup that was more tomato-ey pasta e fagiole than the humble name suggested. At $5.00, a bowl, served with grilled toast, is a bargain. April tries to use local produce and products whenever possible, and also serves a broader menu of sandwiches including grilled paninis and homemade chicken salad, as well as freshly baked quiches, muffins, cookies and cakes. The service, vibe and offerings are all first rate, and the cafe is developing a loyal group of regulars. A warm welcome, and a hot bowl of delicious soup? These days, that’s worth a lot. —Paige Orloff
5 Railroad Street, Lee; 413.243.6288
Wednesday - Monday 11:30 - 9:00; closed Tuesday
Winter nights, please call ahead to confirm.
44 West Street, Pittsfield; 413.442.4226
Monday - Friday 7 - 3