Vietnamese

Eat Vietnam, Stirchley

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.

8/10

Know how to say ‘A2B‘ in Vietnamese? Neither do I. Just make the correct choice and order them to get you here.

Pho, Grand Central, Birmingham

For a country that gets as hot as Vietnam does, Pho really is a curious national dish for them to have. It is, when you strip it back, a stock soup and noodles. Yes you can add chillies to give it fire, finish it with the sour crash of lime juice, or freshen it up with numerous herbs, but what lies at the heart is a dish as consoling as Jewish chicken soup with matzo, and as comforting as Heinz cream of tomato soup with crusty bread. Eating Pho in Vietnam is visceral, a cheap affair that usually involves tiny plastic chairs at roadside. The humidity and air pollution pushes the sweat out though the pores of the skin, the hydration replacement a cheap bottle of Saigon beer. You want nourishing; need it even. The environment demands it.

It is only when you take it out of natural habitat that you see it in all its glory. Pho is the Lego of stock soups; you can build it as you please. In Vietnam I added everything, whereas now I tailor it to the seasons. Always herbs and beansprouts, more lime and fish sauce the hotter it gets, more chilli sauce and oil to clear the cold from my bones. As a dish it is more versatile than Gareth Barry; it’s just a question of playing it in the right position from game-to-game. I think I’ve nailed it.

My point of call is always its namesake. There are other places, but they tend to deploy the Asian route of cooking the protein until the point it becomes a bushtucker trial, as opposed to dinner. Here the only thing that is anglicised is the meat, which is decent in quality and spared of boiling point. Today my airways call for a regional variation from the Imperial city of Hue. It has chicken stock that tastes of chicken (a rarity of late), with delicately cooked chicken, and noodles that have bounce and bite. The dish is stained red with large quantities of chilli oil that sends it scuttling northwards into the Sichuan region of China. It is a bloody good dinner. As good as stock and noodles and meat gets in this city, a statement that will upset those who believe that chains can never be as good as independents. Rubbish. Good and bad exist in both sectors of the restaurant industry, and Pho is firmly in the former category.

Now prior to this we had greaseless spring rolls that with pork and veg, and gobstopper sized deep fried balls of pork and lemongrass that are just about gummy enough to remind me of Hoi An. How I miss you, Hoi An. And then, whilst I am elbow deep in the pho, my lovely girlfriend is smashing through fried noodles with chicken and prawns. It tastes authentic. I could almost be in Vietnam if it wasn’t for the train announcements happening on the level below. And the cold wind howling through the door. Very nearly Vietnam.

Before I get to dessert, a word on my alcoholic tendencies. Being a day of the week, I get stuck into the booze. The pick is the martini/Vietnamese coffee hybrid cocktail that has me all weak in the knees, though its lovely to have Saigon beer and Beer Lao so readily available. Dessert is banana fritters with honey and ginger ice cream. The batter is sturdy so that the fruit inside has a chance to cook through, the ice cream rich and sweet. It is a great way to finish a meal.

Now my adoration to the country of origin means I eat Pho more than the next man, and I come here a lot. I come because the service is sharp and the food consistent. It allows me to dip in and out of my favourite country in the world. It’s not perfect, but then neither is Vietnam. Pho as a chain get it; they take the memories of Vietnam and put them in one spot; the noodle soups and the wok dishes, the Vietnamese coffee thickened with condensed milk, those crisp beers that work so well under the sun. I’m a fan. They have a product that very clearly works.

Transport was provided by A2B Radio Cars. Download the app here http://www.a2bradiocars.com

MinMin Noodle Bar, Birmingham

Soon I am off to Vietnam for a well earned holiday. For three weeks we plan to do a whistle-stop tour of Hanoi down to Phu Quoc, with stops in all of the usual places and a seventeen hour train ride thrown in for good measure, just because her-indoors knows how much I despise train journeys. With any luck I will return bronzed ready for our one week of Summer, with a cheap suit barely holding its shape and two stone lighter due to the inevitable food poisoning. I will throw myself into the local cuisine and let it do its worst. Onwards and upwards. Inward then probably quickly outward.

And yet, despite the holiday rapidly approaching, I am still to try authentic Vietnamese food. I read up the staples and familiarised myself with a few recipes online: Pho mostly, which is in the most basic form noodles in a broth made from pork stock. I appealed on social media for a good Pho; one friend offered his mothers services whilst another suggested MinMin, a lucid coloured cafe at the back of Birmingham’s Arcadian. If you’ve read this from the top you will know which option I took; after all the post isn’t titled The Home of Trung’s Mother.

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MinMin is a canteen-esque expanse of lime green and white glossy plastic. It is deceptively simple, which is more than can be said of the menu; a vast bounty of dishes with pictures for the more usual offerings and just words for the less enticing pigs ears and chickens feet. We started with chicken spring rolls that avoided both greasiness and any real flavour. It was a subdued start that needed the sticky chilli dipping sauce to some add punch and heat. Mixed skewers came coated in panko breadcrumbs and deep fried, the pick being a large juicy prawn, opaque in the centre. There was another of a white fish that neither we nor the waitress could recognise and some veg that included a clumpy slice of red onion.

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Crispy squid was well executed with the batter offering a little yield and the cephalopod still tender, the dish benefitting from the extra seasoning from the noodles dressed lightly in soy. A giant bowl of spicy broth was filled with noodles, pork belly and roast duck. The broth was key; the lingering heat eventually giving way to a delicate meatiness which found its way onto every strand of noodle. The cubes of pork belly were tender with crispy shards of skin; a treat, which is more than can be said about the duck.  I feel bad for leaving any animal unconsumed, especially duck, but I am not going to put my dental plan at risk by chowing down on a mixture of gristle and bone.

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Twenty minutes into the soupy noodles I gave in, leaving enough in the bowl for at least another person and meaning that dessert was well out of the question.  In my pre-conceived mind I wanted to love MinMin; it came recommended by people I trust to offer a style of food I am not massively au-fait with.  Shamefully I have used Wagamama as a reference point, with the food here being no better than there. Let’s hope that Vietnam fares a lot better.

6/10

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