The first time I tried Vietnamese food was a happy accident. Daisy and I were having a wander around Manchester and she decided that she wanted something snacky/street food-y, so jumped the gun and went for a rather unsatisfying calzone from the street food market that resides outside Halifax, Greggs and the like on the Market Street/Piccadilly stretch. Nothing struck my fancy there, so I opted for the Arndale Market knowing that I could always go for at least a Mexican or some jerk chicken there.
Then, there it was: Viet Shack. Lunch for £3.50. I knew very little about Vietnamese food, but I was drawn to it like a moth to a flame or a poor writer to an obvious cliche.
The Banh-Mi looked good, but I had braces at the time so settled for a chicken Viet Wrap. Daisy and I then went on a one mile walk to the ‘urban beach’ at New Islington for some reason, maybe just because it’s nice. And it is. It is particularly nice on a lovely sunny day with a Vietnamese wrap.
“I wish I waited for the Arndale Market. That smells amazing.”
I gave her a taste.
“I definitely wish I’d waited.”
From then on, every time she came to Manchester we went to Viet Shack. And, it turns out, she went without me, to the point that the staff recognised her. She prefers the Viet Wrap, I prefer the Banh-Mi (braces are off!) I like the peanut sauce as well, though I realised that this is probably because I like peanut butter a lot. And peanuts. Huh, go figure.
A better value lunch in Manchester is hard to find. The awards are deserved.
Other than Viet Shack, Vietnamese food wasn’t really around much in Manchester. There was at least one restaurant, but I never went.
In London, it seems to be the in thing right now. Pho is everywhere, and you hardly seem to be able to move without coming across another Vietnamese restaurant, often imaginatively named with some variation of the words: “Viet, Pho, Banh Mi, Eat, Food”. Zon Zon is an exception, although I suppose this is probably another way of saying one of the aforementioned words.
I was intrigued to try my first Vietnamese restaurant (as opposed to a food stand in the Arndale Market).
My friend DD in Chicago sent me a picture of some pho that her Vietnamese boss made her, which I thought looked awesome and would be a good place to start. My chance finally game when Debra from Manchester came to London for an improv thing and we arranged to do dinner. She said she fancied Thai or Mexican. The Thai places were full and the Mexican that we passed (Chilango) had oppressive lighting. I suggested Vietnamese food. She tenuously agreed.
I had been googling Vietnamese places earlier that day and had pre-decided upon Caphe Pho. The interior is quite welcoming, though the restaurant was empty. Of all the ‘restaurants from the orient’, Vietnamese staff seem to be the nicest.
Debra ordered some wine, a starter, and a meat dish with a side of rice. She did not realise that the rice was extra and was none too pleased when the bill came. (I hope that you appreciate the specificity of my rundown of her menu choices). I ordered pho, and pronounced it like so, because that is how I am and to be damned with the correct pronunciation. I don’t pronounce my name ‘right’ I’ll be damned if I say the word ‘pho’ like it’s a whisper in the night.
It arrived. I was impressed at the size of it. Like a ‘pho’, it tasted very much like a whisper in the night. I loaded it with the sauces that were on the table. It still didn’t taste of very much. Maybe it is unsurprising that a dish that consists mostly of rice noodles and water doesn’t taste of much.
Debra and I chatted about life and comedy, and how this was by far the smartest that she had ever seen me dress and clearly London had changed me to my very core, especially with this disappointing meal.
We both paid more than we had initially anticipated on our first meeting, but looking at the menu again now I think this was just a slight Manchester/London discrepancy and the prices are actually quite fair. And Manchester doesn’t tend to add tips to the bill. I think I didn’t pay the tip. That’s bad of me.
The waitress, who was very pleasant, told us about how Vietnamese food is a very healthy cuisine. With this little taste, I should hope that it would be. She said that she hoped to see me as a regular, as I work close by. She will be disappointed.
Due to a table mix up, I nearly revisited for a meal-before-Christmas with work, but thankfully our table got sorted and we went to Grain Store instead, where I had another disappointing healthy meal.
A month or so later, Daisy came to visit. She texted saying that she fancied either Mexican or Vietnamese. I had had my Mexican fill for the month, so thought maybe it was time to give Vietnamese another spin. Besides, last time we had Vietnamese food together it changed my world (in the most minimal way, but this is rhetoric, dammit).
After some research and consulting my spreadsheet, I decided upon Banh Mi Bay. There are two close by, but the Holborn one seems more lunch-y, and the St Paul’s one made a preferable gateway to the ensuing tour that I was to give her. Apparently she had only been to London twice before in her life. Shocking to a suave southerner like myself.
On arrival we were the only people on the restaurant. On leaving, a table of three had joined the mix. We were having quite an early dinner.
Daisy said that she had some amazing Vietnamese food when she went to Amsterdam. Spring rolls to start, as in Amsterdam.
“Are you sure not summer rolls?”
No, spring rolls. We like anything that could be healthy to be deep fried.
These came and were delightful. Taste at last. Maybe there was hope after all for Vietnamese food.
I was torn between the pho (who knows why) and a spicier noodle soup which was their daily special and marginally more expensive. I asked the waiter for his advice (earn that tip) and he said spicy was both better and more filling.
It was filling at least.
I loaded it with everything that it came with on the side, and slathered it in sauce to boot. Still it was too watery for me. I am used to watery dishes. With my Cantonese background, I happily eat congee and the many soups that have water as a majority ingredient, but I have never come across a cuisine that I find so bland or maybe unsatisfying as Vietnamese food (bar the banh mi and spring rolls).
Daisy had a dry noodle dish.
She said it was quite nice but mine looked better (bigger). Maybe noodle soup dishes are my downfall, although I had a wonton noodle soup at Hikari which stands as one of the most enjoyable eating experiences I had last year.
We finished and both felt still hungry. Daisy wanted to order a pineapple dessert that she had tried in Amsterdam, but alas, alack, they were out. She looked crestfallen. She paid, as she was on the dole at the time so said that it was “on the government.”
I have had better free meals.
We walked, and it turned out that we weren’t still hungry after all. Let the food settle, kids.
So there we have it. Vietnamese food: my least favourite of the Asian foods. Though I like banh mi. RIP me from three years ago, when I said I enjoyed bland, tepid food.
I don’t understand the rising popularity of Vietnamese food. Healthy people can convince themselves of all sorts of ridiculousness.
(Update: it turns out it is Vietnamese food in London that is the real let-down, as I ate the exact same dishes in Chicago and they were a marvel, and of course Daisy’s Amsterdam trip suggests the merits of the ‘Nam).