The genius of Vietnamese cooking lies in the adaptation of foreign influences to develop a distinctly unique and subtle cuisine with contrasting flavours and textures. Sour flavours are balanced by salty ones, and sweet notes are tempered by heat from chilies and ground pepper. There is a dependence on rice; noodles figure prominently and a wealth of fresh herbs, fruit and vegetables. As in China and East Asia, the Vietnamese serve their rice in bowls with chopsticks. Meat is an accompaniment rather than a central offering.
The Vietnamese custom of wrapping fresh rolls and spring rolls in lettuce leaves and fresh herbs are a remnant of the original cultures that existed before centuries of Chinese influence. The Chinese contributed many culinary techniques including their art of stir-frying using the wok; the French left their traditions and penchant for aromatic filtered coffee with condensed milk and crème caramel; scented ingredients like lemongrass were embraced from the Thai culinary repertoire; and the spicing techniques and aromatic infusions of curry-inspired recipes are suggestive of India. That is the short-list.
Pho, a popular street food in Vietnam, is a deeply-flavoured broth with long rice noodles, fresh herbs and thin slices of meat most often accompanied with a side of bean sprouts, peppers and lime wedges. Pho has become the mainstay of many Vietnamese restaurants. In London, students have given Ben Thanh and Pho Haven cult-status due to pho’s hearty, meal-in-a-bowl, comfort food popularity and its relative affordability. Here are four Vietnamese restaurants in London that dyed-in-the-wool foodies brag about.
The Vietnam Restaurant
My introduction to pho and subsequent comparisons are based on the delicious concoctions that have a fragrant undertone, accompanied by thin slices of rare beef, which they have been serving at The Vietnam since my first visit twenty years ago. The Vietnam is located across from Kellogg’s, and Long Duc Ngo has been the welcoming hands-on proprietor of this long established Vietnamese restaurant since 1994. The kitchen offers a selection of accessibly-priced noodle, rice and soup dishes. The substantive menu includes superb spring rolls, pho, sizzling hot pots, and many seafood and chicken dishes. Favourites include Pho Dac Biet, the signature combination beef, rice noodle broth with rare and brisket beef, beef balls and tripe with fresh herbs. The cold rice paper roll known as goi cuon is a perennial favourite. It is comprised of noodles, shrimp, pork, lettuce, mint and Thai basil, making this savoury easy to dip in a thick sauce of peanuts and soya.
1074 Dundas St, London
Sunday 12pm–9 pm
Established in 1996, Thuâ.n Ki`êu is family-owned and operated and has developed an ardent and devoted fan base over the years for Chen’s (or Chu’s — he goes by both) hands-on approach, his ability to remember his regulars by name and his traditional Vietnamese cuisine.
For years the restaurant was located in cramped premises at Huron and Sandford Streets. The new incarnation has a slick urban sensibility with a variety of seating options. The ambitious menu offers a range of traditional/non-traditional Vietnamese dishes that reads like an encyclopedia. Some dishes reach out to other parts of South Asia. Due to its updated high-concept business model, it has lost some of its intimacy but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The service is very attentive but when it gets crowded, and it does, things at TK’s can go a bit haywire.
The appetizer to order is the Bo La Lop; the parcels of grilled lemongrass-infused beef wrapped in grape leaf are exceptional. At Thuâ.n Ki`êu, they are zealously creating quality food using traditional cooking methods and techniques to impart the essence of Vietnamese cuisine.
1275 Highbury Ave N., London
Sunday 11 m–8:30pm
For well over a decade the family-run Quynh Nhi (named after siblings Quynh and Nhi) has garnered a loyal patronage and prospered because of its responsive service, consistency and traditional Vietnamese cuisine. The updated forty-seat restaurant is situated off the beaten path, next door to an auto repair garage at the corner of Wharncliffe and Riverside. Quynh Nhi built its formidable reputation on its spring rolls. The signature Crispy Spring Roll is offered with chicken, pork, or in a vegetarian version served with fresh mint, lettuce and a chili-lime fish sauce. The restaurant is also known for its five different spicy Pad Thais on offer.
55 Wharncliffe Road N., London
Tamarine by Quynh Nhi
Tamarine by Quynh Nhi is the sibling restaurant and the evolution of the venerated Quynh Nhi. This is the new wave of Vietnamese cuisine that has undergone a coherent development, it has a technical almost architectural articulation, and the chefs are concerned with creativity and innovation. Menu offerings are intended to be mixed and paired in ways that harmonize and contrast flavours. Both the shredded mango and shrimp salad with chili lime fish sauce, mint, crushed peanut and pickled carrots, and the green papaya salad with fiery beef jerky, basil and sweet tamarind sauce are otherworldly. Tamarine is known for its crispy Torpedo Rolls made with shrimp, and crispy Imperial Rolls with shrimp, pork, wood ear (a type of fungi) and glass noodles, which are also served with fresh mint, lettuce and a chili-lime fish sauce. The kitchen combines fresh ingredients with traditional seasonings to construct offerings designed to encourage communal dining. Long Phan is your charismatic host and downtown London champion.
118 Dundas St, London
Monday–Friday 11 am–2:30pm & 5 pm–9pm
BRYAN LAVERY is eatdrink’s Food Writer at Large.