Nestled in a concrete jungle, or should I say the Surrey Quays super bowl and bingo car park, you’ll find a place called Cafe Pho – guilty of serving up some of the best Vietnamese food I’ve had in London.
I won’t moan about the odd location or fact that it’s a mission for 99.99% of people to get to, because quite conveniently for me, it’s not. In fact I think part of the reason why Cafe East has managed to remain so true to its roots since relocating from a smaller outfit in Deptford is because it’s tucked away from the masses. The food is so good they can get away with the authentic low-key, no frills approach – no tap water, no reservations, cash only, sans alcohol, “if you don’t like it you can go f@!# yourself!” – you get the idea? This restaurant is not the kind of place to go to if you want to mess with the menu, or, dare I say it, ask for anything vegetarian – it is what it is, try to amend and things will only get messy! However stick with the status quo, and you will be immensely rewarded.
The menu is fairly small – show casing 5 or 6 starters, and 15 or so mains which are centred around Pho (of course!), Bun (rice vermicelli noodles) and Com (rice dishes). The portion sizes are generous, especially the starters, so be careful not to go overboard on these (one starter is usually plenty for 2 people). Do try the bean drinks, they are especially good here.
Huge portion of Bahn Cuon, these rice paper rolls are stuffed with pork and mushrooms and then steamed. Topped with vietnamese sausage, fresh bean sprouts and fried shallots and dressed with a slightly spicy fish sauce, these are very morish indeed and I never forget to order them.
The Pho are delicious – choose from beef (two ways), chicken, prawns or a mixture of all three. Being a creature of habit, I tend to avoid any notions of food envy by going for Pho Tai Chin, which is a mixture of thin slices of lean raw beef that cook in the broth, and slow cooked brisket, richly marbled and tender. The broth is excellent, full of meaty depth and aromatics such as star anise. A deeply soothing meal if ever there was one. The rice noodles are always well cooked, soft and bouncey, and the accompanying vietnamese herbs and beansprouts generous. There’s nothing worse than being on the receiving end of a few measely scraps of herbs and soggy beansprouts, as these are in my opinion essential to any good Pho and bring the dish to life. I’ve yet to find a better Pho in London, (possibly) surpassed only by Uyen Luu’s Beef Pho which I’ve tried a couple of times at her cookery class and other events.
For me, the Pho is the stand out dish at Cafe East, but if you’re not a big fan of soup, the Bun are pretty tasty too.
These fine vermicelli noodles are topped with pickled vegetables, sprouts and nuts and accompanied by the signature fish sauce dressing. You can choose from a variety of meat toppings, pictured above is Bun Bo Xao which is stir-fried chunks of beef. I can never quite bring myself to order these in place of the Pho (I love my broth too much), but I can imagine this would be a welcome alternative on a really hot summers day.
Now I can’t claim to have tried all the Vietnamese restaurants in London, but I have had my fair share of Kingsland road mishaps, and as a result have almost neglected going there in recent years because it’s always disappointing. If you take note of the other customers in Cafe East at any one time, you’ll notice that the majority are asian. I really like that, a big fat seal of approval to have the restaurant full of Vietnamese and other Pho-craving asians. You know you’re getting the real deal, and the standard of food will not be compromised.
Check out Cafe East’s new website for a glimpse of their menu and prices, or directions should you happen to get lost in the ‘Leisure Park’. Try it, you won’t be disappointed.