Many, many, many years ago there was a shop in Birmingham called A Too. It was a bloody good shop, ran by a painfully hip man called Ming. I used to go to that shop a lot; I had a decent job doing shitty things for a shitty bank, lived at home with my parents, and I had many girlfriends – often at the same time – using their goodwill and natural competitiveness to full advantage in letting them pay for me. I was an original Fuckboy. And a good one at that. I used to shop in A Too because it was the coolest place to shop. I say shop; I would sit in a chair in the middle of the room making small conversation whilst Ming buzzed around collating the latest in printed t-shirts and Japanese denim, giving me just enough discount on my purchases to make me feel special. This preamble is important because Ming plays an important part of this piece, and also because I want you to understand that I have always been an arsehole with an over-sense of entitlement.
A Too came to a sad end and Ming moved on to form Eat Vietnam, first with a number of pop-ups and then with a stint at streetfood. I tried both. The food at Stirchley’s Loaf was an attack on the senses that felt like the Vietnam I loved; no Pho or Banh Mi, but grilled bits of animal and curries that have woody notes and then kick out of the three count with lots of spice. The street food I was a little less taken with, mostly because everything seemingly was drowned in fish sauce. There is a sign in the new restaurant which reads ‘fish sauce is not for everyone’ that had me worried when we sat down. I can take it, just only in tiny quantities. Like sambucca. Or the company of Luke Beardsworth.
With a permanent resturant comes the most refined of his takes on this cuisine up to this point. Pho now makes an appearance, as does Banh Mi at the weekend, joined by more familiar dishes from Vietnam; papaya salad, fried fish, chicken wings, and curries. There is little to startle the people of Stirchley. From memory the food punches less now, coaxing the flavours out slowly, with the emphasis on freshness above all else. That papaya salad has nailed the balance of salt and sugar in the dressing, with loads of fresh, crunchy notes even if it does skimp a little of the amount of poultry. A plate of pork comes as thinly sliced bits of belly; skin taut and crisp, the meat dressed in something that has chilli, vinegar, and I think a little of that fish sauce. It’s a bloody good plate of food.
The pho is the only thing that doesn’t excite me. It’s the one time that it all feels a bit safe; the stock that makes up the soup is devoid of any real flavour, lacking the zip and zing that I remember so much from a country I hold so dear to my heart. I could personally take more herbs, more lime, more fish sauce if I have to. I ask for a half portion of the vegan curry with something called banana blossom; an ingriedient that is new to me. The curry is a delight; pugent and spicy, we scrape the last of the sauce out of the bowl using the rice, leaving the blossom itself which is an acquired taste that I doubt I’ll ever aquire. We finish on the tamarind chicken wings; plump bits of bird with crisp skin, a scattering of peanuts, and a sauce full of funk and umami. Order the chicken wings, whatever happens here.
They presently don’t do booze in the week which is a downer, though my mood is in a much better place when my mate picks up the bill and takes me over the road to Wildcat to carry on the evening. The bill for the above and two soft drinks falls a quid short of £50, which feels fair. I really like Eat Vietnam with its effortlessly cool love letter to the food of its native country and I can see us going back a lot. Ming comes over to the table to say hello and I spy a branded sweater hanging on the wall from the corner of my eye. All of a sudden I feel twenty one all over again.
Know how to say ‘A2B‘ in Vietnamese? Neither do I. Just make the correct choice and order them to get you here.