You’ve heard of Chinatown, you’ve heard of Little Italy, you’ve even heard of Curry Mile, but what about Pho Mile? Beyond the East End this is a well-kept secret: a row of slightly shabby but highly authentic Vietnamese restaurants on the Kingsland Road in gentrified Hoxton. As with all other gourmet ethnic hotspots, the competition is keen, prices are well affordable and quality is sublime.
In the interests of educating readers, your intrepid reporter went in search of prime Vietnamese dining with his regular companion, though choosing just one from the selection is guesswork. A little research revealed Mien Tay to be well-reviewed, of which there are two restaurants decked out in green and yellow and differentiated from similar green and yellow establishments by a cartoon logo of a Vietnamese chap fishing – all within a short distance among the thronging restaurants on the western side of Kingsland Road. I have little doubt that all the other family-run eateries along this patch would be great, but I couldn’t be happier with the choice we made.
For the record, here is the introduction from Mien Tay’s website:
We are a small group of four family-run restaurants specialising in authentic home-style cooking from our native South West Vietnam. Each restaurant is managed by a different family member under consultation from our founders Mrs My Le and Chef Mr Su Tran. In the kitchen Chef Su insists on fresh ingredients and in the dining room Mrs My Le insists on a warm welcome.
We are named Mien Tay after the area of Southern Vietnam from which all our family originate. The Mekong Delta runs through the region sustaining an abundance of fish and vegetation and our cooking reflects these fresh and fragrant characteristics typical of Vietnamese cuisine.
Decor is a touch bamboo and low lighting, perhaps an appropriate memory of home. We chose a table in a largely deserted section, though over time it filled up rapidly. Service was not unduly pressured, which suited me fine though my mother would have been anxious not to have hot food pressed before her without delay.
The menu makes interesting reading, particularly through the inclusion of eel and frog’s legs, both separately and in the same dish! There is goat, though not curried goat to create an unlikely connection between Vietnam and the Carribbean. Again from the website:
Our menu includes traditional dishes local to the Mien Tay region – why not try some? We can highly recommend customer favourites such as Fresh Rolls with Prawn, Vietnamese Chicken Clay-Pot Curry, Crispy Squid with Garlic, Chicken with Honey and Spices, Goat with Galangal and Chargrilled Quail with Honey, Garlic and Spices
We chose Jasmine tea to drink – and proper loose Jasmine tea too, not just bags, and a sample of dishes. Shame there wasn’t room for a pho as well, but that can come next time:
- Fresh rolls with prawn and pork
- Papaya salad with pork
- Whole crispy deep-fried sea bream with fish sauce and mango
- Shaking beef
- Stir-fried rice noodles with beansprouts
- Egg-fried rice
Each in its own way was a minor masterpiece, supplemented at will from a raft of chilli-heavy Vietnamese condiments. Fresh rolls, so called because they are raw and cold filled rice pancakes, filled with lettuce, prawns, pork, spring onion and beansprouts, served with a peanutty sauce, formed the first of two salad starters. The second, the papaya salad, proved a total delight – a combination of shredded vegetables, nuts and leaves topped with shaven pork and redolent of tangy papaya.
Our noodles were gloriously moreish, seasoned with soy and possibly hoi sin sauce. Even the rice was proper sticky rice, all the easier to be eaten with chopsticks. I’d have happily eaten the noodles with some meat on its own.
Shaking beef steak arrived tender, sizzling and tasty amid a black sauce and many peppers, but the highlight proved the whole bream. The fish had been simply dredged in cornflour and deep fried to perfection. It was moist, crispy and thoroughly delicious, topped with a coating of fresh finely-shredded mango and atop a small puddle of sauce. I can’t remember having enjoyed fish so much since the last time I cooked bream, but that doesn’t count.
The latter dish was far and away the most expensive of the evening, weighing in at £12.50. I suspect in the West End you’d be adding a tenner and maybe more for exactly the same fish, but as it is the food was all perfect and, at £43.30 all in but excluding service proved spectacularly good value for London.
My companion was disappointed to have the bill brought without asking, before she had a chance to request coconut ice cream for afters, though as I pointed out that is way better than having waiters trying to coax you into trying courses or drinks you neither want nor need. However, they did bring a beautifully carved orange, split perfectly into quarters, which served as a charming dessert in its own right.
Later we watched an episode from the new series of Chef’s Table on Netflix, which by comparison demonstrated a succession of endlessly fussy dishes at a vast price. Our view was that such conjuring tricks are not necessary to enjoy simple food with excellent ingredients cooked and served competently in a way that it has been served for centuries. I look forward to trying the same dishes in Vietnam someday, but in the meantime I thoroughly recommend Mien Tay as a perfect way to sample Asian home-cooked food.