Freelance travel writer and Policy Adviser for the UK government living in Brixton. View my blog www.my-big-fat-carbon-footprint.blogspot.com for ethical and budget travel inspiration
Published September 23rd 2012
Lemongrass and rice noodles in East London
Last night, I had one of the best meals I have ever eaten. I have travelled to Thailand, to Malaysia, to New York and to Guatemala, but I can say, hands down, that now I know what it must feel like for a meat eater after they have eaten some particularly succulent steak.
Vegan and vegetarian food is not often 'wow' food. It can be delicate, or hearty or interestingly textured, but eating out at mainstream restaurants can often result in the vegetarian feeling like they got the bum end of the deal.
But last night, my omnivorous cousin looked at my plate in sadness, as he pushed his chicken around his lemongrass broth, eyeing up the nicest thing I have ever eaten on this earth. I would trade my mother to eat this meal again. And luckily for me, it wasn't in some fancy pants Michelin starred restaurant, but a £6.40 dish from a Kingsland Road Vietnamese eatery.
Viet Hoa Cafe is no new venue. It is a popular, bustling restaurant-cafe sitting on the east side of Kingsland Road, nestled between more well known cafes such as Mien Tay and Song Que. We were enticed inside by the full, beautiful lit and cosy looking room, despite it being 9.30 on a Tuesday evening. The vegetarian menu was wonderful, and, as cheese and yoghurt are absent in Vietnamese cookery, vegan friendly too.
We were ushered to a table quickly, but were served by a variety of staff which was frustrating as we were never sure whose eye to catch for the bill or to order. The menu was extensive and displayed a full offering of Vietnamese foods, rather than Chinese crowd pleasers like some of the other restaurants did along Kingsland Road.
Classic dishes such as Pho (available with Chicken, Pork or Tofu) seemed like obvious choices, but we were starving, having got off at the wrong stop and having to hoik up several miles of tarmac to get here. My boyfriend and I chose two dishes to share, with a serving of coconut rice, whilst my cousin opted for the Chicken with Chilli and Lemongrass (£6.60).
The first of our dishes to arrive was the best, the one and the same dish that I raved about at the start of this blogpost. Aubergine in a tamarind sauce (6.20) was the waitresses suggestion. Western eaters are often afraid of both aubergine and tamarind. I've had some nasty experiences with both. Aubergine can be chewy, dry, often burnt and sometimes discarded like a rag on the top of something wet on a plate. Tamarind sauce can be overpowering and unpleasantly cloying, but both were perfect. The aubergine that arrived had a texture unlike any I had ever experienced. The pieces were large, but had an almost caramelised, delicately chewy exterior, whilst the centre melted immediately on your tongue. The tamarind sauce allowed the flavour of the aubergine to make an appearance, before coating your palate with a heady mix of sour, sweet and sticky flavours.
The sticky sauce with the coconut rice was phenomenal. It wasn't painfully spicy, but the slices of red chilli scattered around the plate contrasted well with the gooey-ness of the aubergine. Our other dish was Viet Hoa noodles with a sweet and sour peanut sauce with lemon leaves and tofu. This dish was tasty and filling, but after the stunning aubergine tasted almost mediocre. This dish was probably the closest I've got to a Vietnamese version of a pad thai, but it was egg free. Peanuts were crunched over the top, and it was served with a wedge of lime to add tanginess to the sweet peanuts.
Both dishes were fabulous, and while I'm eulogising about Viet Hoa, I may as well mention their tasty homemade lemonade. This provided a perfect accompaniment for the dishes we chose, although there was a great selection of Vietnamese beers including Lao and Sagres.
Do not hesitate to visit. For all you allergy sufferers, vegans, vegetarians and meat eaters alike, this was hands down the best food I've eaten in London yet.