I have passed by this place on occasion. And being the late owl that I am, I always make a mental note of any place that is open late or for 24 hours. Conveniently located across from a skytrain station and at the corner of a busy intersection it is no surprise that the restaurant was still fairly busy at 11:30pm. Patrons finishing up meals, others picking up take out, and a few just sitting as we were about to leave an hour later.
The restaurant is pretty standard. A decor of pieces as a pose to a setting with a central theme. A scene of green plants and traditional Asian figures greeted you at the door. They shrouded the bar that stood behind. Lucky bamboo and cats, potted plants tied in red, Buddhas in gold, and red shrines dedicated to ancestors. The white walls were home to a mix of Vietnamese and oriental inspired art. Giant fans with wildlife painted on, framed works of women in traditional south East Asian island wear, and an expansive painting of a watery landscape framed by a setting sun and encroaching greenery. And then the framed jersey of Canucks #33 Henrik Sedin, unsigned. A little out of place, but who would ever complain about Canucks pride. Seating is self serve and available in any of their booth or table tops. Black marble-like tables splashed with white came with matching black chairs. They sat on hard wood floors framed by splotchy dark red booths.
Service is pretty minimal overall. A young man and woman team worked the front, with their lone chef covered the back. The guy took the food orders and gave her the necessary directions. She bussed tables and fetched side plates and took out take out boxes as needed. And the chef delivered the dishes he cooked, as he completed them. It was clear by the way they dressed and they way the young man spoke he was the one in charge. The girl seemed to be training all in black, where as he was leading in a very casual striped shirt and baseball cap. Too casual for my liking, despite the intended relaxed feel of the place. I have never been served by a person in a ball cap. When they weren’t needed by their guests they chatted casually at the host’s podium. He sitting, she standing, it gave them a perch to view the expanse of the place. At one point the television channel was switched from the hockey game before, to one that mentioned the word “penis”. There then was a chat between the two on which channels were acceptable for a restaurant. They must have seen the surprised look on my face and others as we froze mid bites, hearing the word mention so fearlessly, so out loud.
Sit down or take out, there was only one style of menu. Folded paper printed in blue ink. Tucked away in between the extra utensils and napkin dispensers. It wasn’t immediately obvious this is what we were to be ordering from; and no one made a point to ease us in the process. And with no pictures and no descriptions, it was hard to know what you wanted or what you usually get. Luckily the young man was able to steer me in the right directions based on my lose descriptions of what I have enjoyed at other Vietnamese places in the past.
Utensils are the help yourself style. A caddy of bright green chopsticks, white plastic soup spoons, napkins by the bundle, and an assortment of bottled sauces and saucy spices.
Despite our hunger we found the food just ok. Nothing quite tasted like what we expected. Failing to keep in mind that the food wasn’t solely Vietnamese, we were left disappointed. I guess having the “Cambodian” in its subtitle means their food is a fusion, and we shouldn’t have expected only what you were most familiar with at other strictly Vietnamese pho places.
Complimentary jasmine tea and a side of bean sprouts came first, as we waited for the actual bowl of pho to eat them with to come. I believe it was complimentary, given that the bill was tallied on paper by hand, with no listing of what we had ordered or what their corresponding prices are, I can’t be too sure.
I appreciated the young male for not judging us on how much we ordered, and applaud him for having the moxie to ask if we wanted spring rolls on top of the four other dishes we already requested. I of course agreed to his suggestion. “Spring rolls” two rolls served cut up. Just by looking at them you could tell these weren’t your regular rolls. They weren’t wrapped in the deep fried until crisp orange wonton skins. It’s different batter looked crunchy and uneven, like they were coated in tempura mix. But it’s discolouration and taste resembled a wash in egg and flour. A messy job that allowed presentation to suffer. Either way it was good, but fell short of expectations. It was the bare minimum of crunchy, with a filling unidentifiable through continuous eating alone. It had a distinctive paste-like texture with a taste like no other. When you think and crave spring rolls you imagine a certain look and a specific taste, this was none of those things all wrapped up in a handy roll. On the flip side my non Asian partner said these were the best spring rolls he has had because they didn’t taste Asian.
“Special sub”. They had a few selection of “Bánh mì” sandwiches, (the Vietnamese term for all kinds of bread, used specifically to describe the above baguette sandwiches). Often filled with various ingredients, but consistently with pickled vegetables, meats, and cilantro. I asked for the most popular, only to not have it be the traditional one with cold cuts and pate. So got the one I wanted instead. These sandwich always have the best first bite, the surprise of having warm toasted bread with chillingly cold meats and vegetables in between. A crunch that has bites of crust and lots of bread crumbs falling on to your plate, the table, and your lap. My guest and I were rudely surprised by the jalapeño, hidden between all the folds of meat and strips of pickles. It’s spice took our breaths away.
“Grilled lemon grass chicken with rice”. The chicken was grilled with darken char marks that were accompanied by a pleasant smokey taste. For those who prefer white meat, this one isn’t for you. Although tender the pieces of dark meat were fatty with lots of nervous and extra tendons.
“Steak flank pho”, available in a small and extra large, we were happy with just the regular large portion. The beef came heaped, allowing slices to stay medium rare on top. For those wanting you can enjoy them as is, though I prefer giving them a dunk in the still steaming broth to further cook. Just looking at the soup I knew it would be tasteless. An almost clear and almost colourless mix, the brown sauce that comes with the table was indeed needed. This would be the first time I needed it in my pho, as I don’t use it anywhere else. The silver lining of the dish was the beef. The meat was tender and tasted of a descent quality. The portion was deserving of the large title with plenty of noodles and a bundle of bean sprouts on the side.
“Spring roll, grilled pork with vermicelli”. Out of the lot this was the most impressive looking dish. With plenty of colour and elements it was certainly the most flavourful. The spring roll was the same as the ones we has as our appetizer. The pork was cut into too small pieces with an uneven meat to noodle ratio. The peanuts gave a good crunch, and the pickled carrot and radish gave a good zing. We made the mistake of mixing in all of the fish sauce, it made the noodles a mushy mess and the entire dish too watery for a noodle dish meant to be taken without broth.
If you missed it, printed out and posted up, they “ONLY ACCEPT CA$H” in bold, underline, and exclamation pointed. The black and white sign sits on top of the host’s podium, and was never once mentioned in person. Luckily I carried enough cash with me, though what establishment only accepts cash? Ones that don’t want to pay the fees that make it convenient for everyone else?
Would I come back? – No.
Would I line up for it? – No.
Would I recommend it? – No.
Would I suggest this for someone visiting from out of town? – No.
The food was only good because we were hungry, not because it was actually good. I ordered what I knew and it still came out not as we had expected, nor did it come out like how they make it anywhere else. We left wanting more and not quite feeling satisfied. Although they do have their convenient location and their 24 hour operating time going for them. The food was as disappointing as the service from the staff. Although typical of Asian places, I still find it disappointing that they hardly seemed invested in the place or wanting to retain us for repeat business. There was no effort made to check on what we thought of the food, nor was there any effort made to be inviting with small talk. Instead they themselves were engaged in a personal conversation, where the young man admitted to not “giving a shit” in another matter. Overall unprofessional and deeply unsettling the food and service fell below my expectations. Don’t deny your cravings.
PHO EXTREME XE LUA
457 W Broadway, Vancouver BC, V5Y 4A8