I remember a time when we had only one Vietnamese restaurant -- a good one, fortunately. A mere year later there were 10, and they were good too. In the following years they kept multiplying exponentially and most of them were also good, in varying degrees. And today, Vietnamese restaurants still offer some of the city's safest bets for good food.
So, is Vietnamese the new sushi? Hardly. Still, they have been popping up recently, not just in the city centre but in the suburbs as well, and more and more people are becoming familiar with the cuisine. I often hear from readers who want me to review their favourites, and deciding on which of the many to review is a recurring dilemma. However, when praise keeps pouring in for one restaurant in particular I do take notice. In this case, it was Pho Kim Tuong.
Its fans often mentioned how attractive it is, and they were right. The setting isn't fancy, but it's charming and quite serene, with turquoise walls adorned by some pretty artifacts (a few of them Asian, others more generic) and mellow lighting from hanging lanterns. Of course they all praised the food, and they were right about that, too. The flavours taste fresh and clean, the portions are generous and nicely presented, and the prices are affordable, ranging from $7.50 (for small phos) to $13.95 (for seafood entrees).
One top choice among the starters is the shredded green mango salad with shrimp and/or chicken, a tangy-sweet glory gussied up with herbs, marinated carrots and crushed peanuts in a subtle fish sauce-based dressing that is good enough to drink, and garnished with crisp shrimp crackers. On one visit the summer rolls (a.k.a. salad rolls) tasted tired and starchy, but on a more recent try they were light and delicate, avoiding starchiness by the use of more greens than vermicelli in the filling. They come with the usual nuoc mam fish-based dip but also, if wished, a complex, almost winey-tasting peanut sauce. The sugar cane-skewered shrimp paste is nice, but less exciting than it sounds, and there's nothing special about the dryish spring rolls.
There are multiple variations of the namesake phos -- deep, full-flavoured beef broths that are fragrant with a whiff of anise, filled with slippery rice vermicelli and plenty of beef (rare steak, flank, tendon, beef balls and/or tripe), garnished with such fixings as bean sprouts, basil, limes, chili peppers (and an assortment of sauces on the table if you need more oomph). The lovely tamarind-tangy sweet and sour soup is listed among the fish entrees, but if requested they'll make it with (my preference) shrimp -- fleshed out with, among other things, chunks of tomato, pineapple, and crunchy celery as a stand-in for the more interesting bac ha taro stem.
I had two outstanding dishes of plump, juicy shrimp. One was a stir-fry with splendid asparagus; the other is the battered and deep-fried Crispy Shrimp, served over shreds of still crunchy veggies, sprinkled with sesame seeds and garnished with addictive little squares of dried, fried red pepper. Not as salt and peppery hot as the menu suggests but delicious.
The superbly flavourful grilled chicken is listed among the vermicelli bowls, and it's worth knowing that, like many of the other grilled meats, it can be ordered entirely on its own, as a side (for me a little vermicelli goes a long way). Grilled meat balls or beef slices are also delicious, also available a la carte, with or without rice flour crepes and the trimmings. But make a point of reading the last page of the lengthy menu where one of the city's best and tastiest deals is listed, a deal that may be missed by those who order from the take-out menu only.
It's a three-beef special, and it's one heckofa bargain at $15.95 for two, which buys a huge platter of barbecued ground beef wrapped in spinach-like la lop leaves, spicy sate beef balls and lemon grass-seasoned beef slices. Also rice paper crepes to roll them in, along with rice vermicelli, and a little garden of fresh greenery, along with marinatzc ed carrots and cauliflower, cucumber slices, bean sprouts, sprigs of mint and basil.
Chinese dishes often appear on Vietnamese menus, and a Cantonese-tasting stir-fry of flat rice noodles with beef, onions and bean sprouts was as good as the more characteristically Vietnamese dishes I had. Lately though Thai dishes have also been turning up, with less success here in the case of the basil-strewn, Thai-tasting pork with eggplant, and the red curry chicken, both of which were more notable for heat than for flavour, whether in the meats or in their sauces .
No desserts, but the wonderful iced Vietnamese coffee sweetened with condensed milk does double duty; so could one of the luscious fruit smoothies or bubble teas. This is an exceptionally well-run place, with a superb English-speaking staff that is attentive, knowledgeable and accommodating. It's always busy (reservations might be wise), and for once, the confidence inspired by the predominantly Asian clientele on my visits wasn't misplaced.
To see the location of this restaurant and others reviewed in the Free Press, please see the map below or click here.