Pho Binh Minh
- 819 Sargent Ave.
- 878 Ellice Ave.
When I think of bargains, Vietnamese food often comes to mind. Not only is it invariably reasonably priced, but it is also rarely less than good. The food at Pho Binh Minh is much better than just good; the prices are typically low (most $6.95 to $14.50), and there's a plus in the spacious and nicer-than-usual ambience.
The menu runs to almost 200 items, but like many Vietnamese menus, half of it features Chinese food, some of which — on its way to other tables — looked inviting. But I resisted: my quest this time was for the fresh, light flavours of Vietnam.
The phos, for many, are the main (and sometimes only) measure of Vietnamese cooking, and this pho is a mellow, slightly sweet beef broth, with (in our case) thin slices of tender beef, bean sprouts, rice vermicelli and sprigs of basil. For those who need the heat, there's a potent chili paste to be added with caution.
I like the phos, but the soup I like even more is the tamarind-seasoned sweet and sour soup, crammed with shrimp, bean sprouts, pineapple, tomatoes and the authentic spongy slices of bac ha, i.e. taro stem.
One top starter is the fish-sauce-splashed green mango salad with chicken and shrimp. Another is the turmeric-tinged banh xeo rice flour crepes folded around shrimp and bean sprouts, to be wrapped in lettuce leaves along with sprigs of basil, pickled veggies and cucumber slices. Its only flaw: there could be more and bigger lettuce leaves for easier wrapping.
One of my Vietnamese musts is fried chicken with fried rice, which may sound like a generic cliché, but isn't. These crunchy slices have a remarkably fine flavour from their marinade, and come on fried rice that tastes much lighter and more interesting than most of its Chinese cousins.
The addictive grilled meats — pork balls, sliced chicken, beef or pork, brushed with a slightly sweet but never cloying glaze — are some of the best things that come out of this kitchen. They come with (bless them) warm, moist rice noodles and the usual bean sprouts, herbs and pickled veggies. Or, if requested, entirely on their own.
Other dishes I've liked on past visits are the Phnom Penh noodle soup topped by a crisp, shrimp-pierced crepe; shrimp with lemon grass and chili; curried chicken (the bone-in kind, with a baguette); and — always — the superb Vietnamese iced coffee. Also listed (unsampled) are hot pots, banh mi sandwiches and a large section of vegetarian and vegan dishes.
This is a family-owned restaurant, and the daughters who serve are friendly, accommodating and thoroughly knowledgeable about everything on the menu.
Note: the menu has changed slightly since my visit.
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Tropikis is a snug, two-level place, with walls painted in various warm colours, and a menu of savoury Caribbean comfort foods. Prices are relatively painless, with rotis or combination platters ranging from $8.95 to $15.95. For a snack or starter, there's a delicious double of puffy fried breads filled with curried chickpeas ($3.75).
There are the usual hearty curries of chicken, goat and beef; juicy shrimp with sautéed red and green peppers; and a luscious, gelatinous oxtail stew. No jerks, but there are such rarities as bison and elk — the latter was particularly delicious. The flavours are more mellow than fiery, and those who want more of a kick will find it in the squeeze bottles of killer hot sauce.
Rotis come in two sizes, rolled in superb, almost flaky shells — some of the city's finest. The combination platters of beef, chicken or chickpea curry come with tasty rice with red kidney beans and a well-dressed green salad dotted by bits of fruit and nuts. The Chef's House Special of chicken or beef curry also includes a delicious little pastry topped by beef or chicken curry, slow-cooked almost to a purée, and half of one of those great rotis as well.
Service (albeit in a half-empty dining room) was just fine.
Pho Binh Minh
Updated on Thursday, January 29, 2015 at 8:11 AM CST: Replaces photo, changes headline, adds map