They crop up occasionally -- pleas for a good restaurant in East Kildonan. Recently, though, there's been a different kind of email, rejoicing in the discovery of a good Vietnamese restaurant. Actually, there always have been some good eats in this underserved area, a few of which I'll get to later.
But first, the Watt Street Bistro, the cause of that recent rejoicing.
It's an unassuming, spotless little place, its only stabs at decor the gorgeous colour prints of fish and crustaceans, the kind I've seen in some sushi houses. But sushi isn't the specialty here. And although a small part of the menu is devoted to burgers and pizzas and fries and such, they aren't exactly in short supply in East Kildonan... unlike Vietnamese food, which is the focus of today's column.
The menu isn't extensive. It was even shorter on my first visit in the dead of winter, and although the food was good, I learned that the menu was about to be expanded. So I put off the review for a few months, and yes, the menu has indeed grown. It's still relatively limited, compared to other Vietnamese menus, but it offers local residents an alternative to driving downtown. Not only will they save on gas, they'll also save on the food, which comes in generous portions and costs a little less than many of its downtown competitors.
There are some delicious appetizers, most $4.99 to $7.99, the latter price for 12 deep-fried spring rolls of good quality, slightly garlicky shrimp wrapped in wonton pastry. Our plump, fresh salad rolls were overloaded with lettuce and rice noodles, but two sampled salads were lovely and particularly well dressed -- the chili- and lime-splashed shredded green mango salad (a veggie-only version), and the fish sauce-scented coleslaw with slices of slightly smoky grilled beef (chicken or shrimp, if preferred) and a sprinkle of peanuts.
Phos -- the signature soups of Vietnamese restaurants -- come in a handful of variations ($6.75 to $7.99), and ours was top-notch. The fragrant, long-simmered beef broth was full-flavoured, served with generous slices of tender rare beef, slippery rice noodles and lots of fresh basil, plus hot sauce for those who want heat. For those who want even more heat -- lots and lots of heat -- the delicious Spicy Coconut Chicken Vermicelli Soup delivers a powerful wallop.
Most main courses range from $7.50 to $9.99. I love the Vietnamese way with fried chicken; it may look like your neighbourhood takeout versions but it's worlds away in flavour -- marinated first in a garlicky paste, dredged in flour, deep-fried to an incredible crunch, and moist within. The bed of fried rice -- despite a whiff of fish sauce -- was merely passable.
One of the best dishes seemed more Chinese than Vietnamese, albeit without any starch thickening. Whatever its origin, the flavour-packed beef with bean sprouts, cabbage and shreds of onion was a winner.
Two others were so disappointing they could have come from a different kitchen. The shrimp in Sizzling Honey Shrimp were luscious, but there was no sizzle whatever, and the sauce was more like a cloyingly sweet soup. Spicy Coconut Pork Ribs were tiny and tasteless, with barely a trace of coconut or lemon grass and no other detectable spices in the also soupy sauce.
Service is friendly but can be slow. Closed Tuesday.
Now about those other good eats in the area, a reminder that there are some good, value-priced foods close to home. There are probably more, but I've culled the following from relatively recent reviews.
Famous Dave's barbecues are among the city's best -- not just the ribs, but the roast chicken, brisket and chopped pork as well. All can be ordered la carte, from $14.99 to $26.99, but the Feasts -- which includes three of them -- are excellent value at $74.99 for four to six, or $44.99 for two, with leftovers in each case. Included also are terrific cornmeal muffins, a decent creamy coleslaw and addictive baked beans, as well as frozen fries and so-so corn on the cob, but I'd skip the last two and double up on the muffins and beans. Full service and licensed. 11 Reenders Dr., 204-504-7200.
Charlee's also offers full service and a licence, and its puff pastry-topped chicken soup alone is worth a visit. Other worthwhile choices are a Filipino-style barbecued pork sandwich topped by a fried egg; a superior Reuben with steamed corned beef brisket; and mozzarella-topped, baked penne in a winey sauce with mushrooms and chorizo (nothing over $12). 185 Stadacona St., 204-663-6484.
Sonya's is a simple, cramped little place that is open for breakfast and lunch only, Monday to Saturday. The Czech owners make the most marvellous soups, and they're big on pork too -- a breaded chop, medallions in mushroom sauce or a gravy-soaked sandwich. The turkey for a similar sandwich is house-roasted, the perogies are plump and silky, and the fries are good, but they also do something magical with plain boiled potatoes that I've never been able to figure out. Top price is $11, soup included. 190 Henderson Hwy., 204-661-3643.
The Bake Oven -- a grocery-cum-bakery-cum-café -- offers such rare Dutch treats as brined matjes herring with onions; crisply breaded, creamy-centred beef or chicken kroketten with mustard; hotdog-shaped pork frikadellen in a soft bun with piccalilly mustard and curry ketchup; and, of course, terrific frites with mustardy mayonnaise. For dessert, choose between heavenly crumb-topped rhubarb pie or butter tart square. Average price $5 to $6. Café service from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. 300 Edison Ave., 204-338-0663.