Tag Archives: pho

Mien Tay, Battersea

Not too long ago, the thought of moving to Clapham Junction filled me with horror. I thought this patch of sarf London was horribly bland, twee and borderline suburban; a painfully uncool, soulless “Nappy Valley” ringing with the sound of buggies clashing in cafes.

Although my father still refers to my new ‘hood as “the wrong side of the river”, in the couple of years I’ve lived here I have gradually, begrudgingly accepted that it’s not all bad.

The main thing which redeemed Clappy J in my mind was Mien Tay, a local restaurant which produces consistently great, authentic Vietnamese food.

From the outside it’s rather shabby, with dog-eared clippings of reviews in the window (a particularly glowing AA Gill number is one of the reasons the place is packed day and night, seven days a week). The interior decor doesn’t improve much; there is an incongruous shamble of filing cabinets and mismatched chairs as soon as you enter, where you must wait to be seated. The tables are peculiar glass-topped things which display miniature garden scenes and doll-like furniture. Best of all are the luminous green tunics worn by the staff. If the food wasn’t so good, these details would I’m sure add to the restaurant’s awfulness. But because it’s so good, they add to the charm!

I do think Mien Tay was probably better a couple of years ago, back when you were able to BYO booze, but it’s still a failsafe option for a reliably delicious and cheap meal out. Typically I’m there a couple of times a month; during one ridiculous six week period when Mark and I had no fridge (it’s a long story which will only end up with a rant against John Lewis, so don’t get me started), we were at Mien Tay two or three times a week.

Here are some snaps from my last few visits.

Green papaya salad with dry spicy beef. My favourite starter…

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…although occasionally I like to ring the changes with green papaya salad with fat, juicy prawns

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One of Mien Tay’s signature dishes, chargrilled quail with honey, garlic and spices. Yes, that is a little dish of MSG on the side. I told you it was authentic Vietnamese!

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Vietnamese style spring rolls – so good wrapped up in lettuce leaves and herbs and dunked into the dipping sauce.

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No Vietnamese meal is complete without pho noodle soup, the national dish and the “soul of the nation”. Served with a thicket of fresh herbs on the side, to add as you eat.

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Whole crispy fried sea bream with fish sauce and mango

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Stir fried goat with galangal. Don’t be shy about eating goat; it’s bloody tasty. Pretend it’s beef. 20140219-204716.jpg

Stir fried morning glory with garlic. Took me right back to Hoi An.

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No frills, so no dessert option – just some orange segments to refresh the palate, served as you realise the coins in your purse don’t quite cover the cash-only bill and you need to nip down the road to the cashpoint.

Mien Tay would be a success in any part of town (they have an equally popular sister restaurant in the much edgier neighbourhood of Shoreditch) but situated on the otherwise lacklustre Lavender Hill, it’s a true local gem.

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Last supper(s) in Saigon

Our time in Vietnam ended as it began: dashing around a mad, chaotic city filled with history, traffic and tempting food, wishing we had more time.

With less than 48 hours until our flight home after six long months away, we tried to strike the balance between seeing as much as possible in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon and HCMC) and simply enjoying our last days travelling.

While it was tempting to indulge in nothing but eating and drinking, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to go to the War Remnants museum. The images and stories of the Vietnam War, its victims and continuing impact were humbling. I was moved before we even entered at the sight of the vast helicopters, tanks and other killing machines parked outside. Each room of the museum increased the weeping. The photo below is just one of hundreds of harrowing images (mostly taken by Western photojournalists) in the museum. Note the baby in the centre of the image.

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Elsewhere we were able to see evidence of modern Vietnam; an optimistic, dynamic city moving forwards.

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Luxury brands are everywhere; Vietnam is very much an emerging market.

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I love this picture of a typical super chilled xe om moto taxi driver passing the time between jobs while the city whizzes past.

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This kid is practising to be just like that when he grows up.

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Of course we left plenty of time for our favourite pastime: harebrained forays into the depths of a city to find obscure eateries. On a scuba dive in Nha Trang we met a lovely chick who was a HCMC native and fellow food lover who was happy to share her insider knowledge.

I’m convinced our new friend Phuong was our foodie fairy godmother; every place she sent us was exactly what we were after – breathtakingly good food, unpretentious settings and honest prices.

In southern Vietnam and HCMC, pho is served with far more herbs and accompaniments than its northern counterpart. The noodle soup is still the star of the show but in HCMC the supporting cast is just as important.

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Sure enough at Pho Hoa on Pasteur St the tables were laden with abundant thickets of greenery, plus all sorts of other goodies to supplement your meal.

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The cubic banana leaf packages are called “wedding cakes”. The long doughy sticks are Chinese bread, great for dunking in your soup. Home made condiments like pickled garlic and chilli sauce let you personalise your bowl as you eat.

In the middle of one of these life changing meals, I was reminded of a friendly Geordie we met in our Sydney hostel. When he learnt we were heading to Vietnam next, he wrinkled his nose and said that out of everywhere he had been in Asia, Vietnam was his least favourite. Apparently he wasn’t a fan of the cuisine which he described it as “weird meatballs in water”. This comment caused a loud CHANGE THE SUBJECT QUICK klaxon to go off in my head.

The world is a wonderfully diverse place with all kinds of people and points of view, but there is no way I can talk about food with someone who can’t appreciate a heady, fragrant broth of meaty bones, vegetables and spices simmered for hours (and perfected over generations) until the flavours became harmoniously balanced. I stuck to general weather chitchat from then on.

Phuong actually got a little giddy when she told us about Banh mi Huynh Hoa, 26 Le Thi Rieng street.

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Fresh, crunchy, featherlight rice flour baguettes are crammed with pâté, ham, pork floss and innumerable other slices of meat (I was reminded of New York style deep filled deli sandwiches), and finished with a couple of devilishly hot slices of chilli and some token cooling cucumber.

We had such a good time on the cooking course in Hoi An, we decided to sign up for another recommended lesson in HCMC.

Cyclo Resto was much smaller and more personalised than Morning Glory, so we were able to request specific recipes and learn how to make new dishes.

The “cyclo” part of the name refers to their preferred mode of transport between the market and the school…

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We had a go at winter melon and prawn soup…

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spring rolls…

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lemongrass chicken…

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snake head fish cooked in a clay pot with laksa leaves…

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green papaya salad with dried spicy beef…

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There was a ridiculous amount of food between four of us!

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Part of the lesson was fancy garnishes. I doubt I will ever feel the urge to make a kitsch swan out of a tomato but it’s impossible not to admire the chef’s knife skills.

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I may attempt the tomato rosebud however…

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Although seeing my efforts next to a professional’s, I’ll stick to the simple and cheesy cucumber heart.

Thanks Vu for helping us create a wonderful last supper to toast our travels!

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Hanoi: a city built on street food

I started prepping Mark for our visit to Hanoi months before we actually arrived.

“We will be eating as much as physically possible,” I said matter-of-factly. “I don’t want to hear any ridiculous excuses like ‘we just ate’ or ‘I’m already full’ or ‘we’ve already had four bowls of pho today’. We’ve only got three days there and I have a long list of places where we have to eat. We will probably get a bit fat but so be it; we can diet when we’re back home. We will just have to man up and eat through the pain!”

Mark chuckled at me as I went back to my complex system of cross-referencing recommendations from Vietnamese friends in London, tips from my days working with Pho restaurants, online forums, twitter, guide books and maps.

After that, I reckon I could run a military dictatorship, no problem.

As planned, we arrived and were soon negotiating the famous crazy Vietnamese traffic and the narrow alleys in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, where street food glory is found in abundance.

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The tangled electrical wiring is as crazy/dodgy as the traffic.

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Let me give you an idea of our typical schedule over the three days we spent in Hanoi. We would get up at around 7am, have some tea and fresh fruit at our guesthouse before heading out for two or three bowls of pho at different street stalls around town. Then we may have a mid-morning snack of banh mi sandwiches (just to keep our metabolisms ticking over) before it was time for lunch – probably bun cha noodles to have a change from pho.

Sometime mid-afternoon, one of us would point out that it was probably beer o’clock. We would find the nearest bia hoi (fresh beer) joint (25 pence a glass). Inevitably we would be offered a snack like bo la lot (beef wrapped in betel leaves and grilled).

For dinner we would go more upmarket and eat at an actual restaurant rather than perched on tiny plastic stools at the side of the road. We would aid digestion with a stroll around a night market where we would be tempted by snacks like bánh cuốn (barbecued pork wrapped in rice paper), giant prawns or slices of sour green mango dipped in salt and chilli powder (my favourite).

Here are some of the highlights – this is the stuff that made the extra chub around our waists worthwhile.

bun rieu cua (crab noodle soup)

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Pho tai nam (noodle soup with roasted and rare beef) at Pho Gia Truyen. This baby was superlatively good, combining the different flavours and textures of savoury cooked beef and thin slivers of very rare, pink meat in a silky broth. I actually felt sad as I neared the end of my bowl, knowing I would measure all other pho against this one.

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There was a long queue of locals outside; one woman smiled and said “this place, number one!” as if congratulating us on finding it.

Mark queuing patiently

Mark queuing patiently

Giant prawns, grilled over charcoal:

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These guys managed to escape our greed…

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Cha ca at Cha Ca La Vong. The dish is prepared with oodles of green herbs, which are stir fried with fish and other ingredients at your table.

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As the sign says, this is all they serve here. It’s funny how restaurants with only one or two items on the menu have only recently become a trend in London; they’ve been doing it for ages here.

Pho ga (chicken noodle soup) at Pho Hang Dieu

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And around the corner, pho bo (beef noodle soup) at Pho Thin

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At Pho Thin they stir fry the beef before adding it to the stock, which gives an amazing smoky flavour. It’s also served with a thumbs up and a smile!

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Another incarnation of cha ca flavours, this time wrapped in rice paper at Highway 4:

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Also some pork ribs in barbecue sauce, also from Highway 4:

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Check out the crackling on this pork:

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Dinner at Quán Ăn Ngon:

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Believe it or not, we also managed to find time for non-food related sights and activities. I was going to talk about them here but I’ve just made myself hungry with all these pictures; I must go and find sustenance. Toodle pip!