by Ann Thurlow
The owner of Pho Vietnam comes up to our table, introduces himself as a newcomer and thanks us for welcoming him to this country. I can feel tears in my eyes. I haven’t even eaten yet and already I’m hooked.
The décor is kind of seducing me, too. The new owners have taken the spot formerly occupied by bright, brassy Cora’s and turned it into a lovely, calm Asian influenced space. The booths are still there but now they feel cozier, private—the kind of place you could while away a long lunch.
One of the interesting things about Vietnamese food is the heavy influence of French food and cooking. Hanoi was the capital of French Indochina from 1902–1954. Though French colonialism is long gone, the culinary influences remain. The owners of Pho Vietnam are originally from Hanoi; it’s not so surprising, given that, to find crepes on the menu.
But first let’s talk about banh mi. At Pho Vietnam it’s called a Vietnamese sub, but banh mi is what it is and it’s a Franco-Vietnamese classic. It’s a homemade, crusty baguette, stuffed with vegetables, meat and a sweet/vinegary sauce. You can get it with chicken or pork but it is traditionally made with pate (thank you France) and you can get that here, too. They make the baguette in the restaurant and, if you hit on the day it is fresh out of the oven, you’ve hit the jackpot.
Pho Vietnam serves both breakfast and lunch, Canadian style. You could get bacon and eggs but why would you when you can get crepes? (Again, merci). There are several choices: we picked buckwheat, which were a treat and spinach and cheddar. The latter came, not stuffed with spinach and cheese but with the spinach and cheese built right in. At first I was surprised, then I was pleased; it’s the kind of comfort food you dream about when you’re peckish.
The French influence is also evident in the Vietnamese love of coffee. It comes in a tiny pot and you wait for the coffee to drip through. It’s served with sweet condensed milk and, unless you’re a coffee warrior, you’ll need it. It’s good coffee but it’s very, very strong and is guaranteed to make even the quiet talk very loud and fast.
At the end of one lovely meal (this one, pho—the savoury Vietnamese soup) we were presented with a gift—a little pot of Vietnamese green tea. Like the coffee, the tea is righteous—it will give you the strength and optimism of ten.
We are blessed, now, to have two Vietnamese restaurants and, inevitably, people ask which is better. But it turns out that cuisine of Vietnam is like the food of any country—full of regional differences. The owner of each restaurant comes from a different part of the country; each, therefore, is special and good for its own wonderful reasons.