When it comes to food, you could say I’ve been around the world. If you live in the culturally diverse city of Toronto, you likely have too. When I can I choose restaurants with a cultural flair – a menu that’s off-beat or one with items I can’t pronounce. Indian, Ethiopian, Thai, Japanese and Middle Eastern are a few of my favourites. What you don’t see on this list is Vietnamese. For some reason, it’s one that doesn’t particularly appeal to me. My disinterest in soup might have something to do with it, since Vietnamese food seems to be synonymous with Pho (aka a massive bowl of soup).
I’ve strolled by Hanoi 3 Seasons a number of times since we moved, and each time my curiosity kicks in. It looks interesting, clean, has good reviews but there was little enticing me to walk through that door on Queen Street. If it were Sushi or Thai or Indian, I would be a regular by now. I now needed to stop sulking and make the best of the cards I was dealt. It was time to give Vietnamese another shot.
LOCATION: 1135 Queen St East (Leslieville)
The authenticity of this place comes through in their menu with things like “Khai Vi” (Appetizers), “Mon An Dac Biet” (Main Dishes) and of course, the infamous “Pho” (Rice Noodle Soups). Call me a hippocrate, but as much as I love menus with dishes I can’t pronounce, I also appreciate when they’re complemented by English descriptions or photos. At Hanoi they have the former – fairly detailed descriptions of each item so it’s not a complete shock when the dish lands in front of you. Prices are very reasonable and as you’ll see in a moment, portions are generous. A rare combination in this city.
So far, so good. Now I’m crossing my fingers that all goes well with our order. I really really wanted this place to work out and make it our new go-to.
Goi Cuou – Fresh Shrimp Rolls ($3) – If there are fresh spring rolls on a menu, you’re safe to bet your weekly salary that Keith and I will order it. Especially when it’s only 3 bucks! The rolls were good, but not great – especially in comparison to the ones I had tonight at Golden Thai (I’ll save that for another review). These rice paper rolls were dominated by the vermicelli noodles and not enough veggies to compensate for the flavour deficit. I hoped the dipping sauce would bring out the missing flavour but it was also bland. My taste buds must just be used to the Thai sweet and sour sauces.
Pho chay – Soup with Mixed Vegetables & Tofu ($7.50) – Having soup in place of a real main meal does not interest me. It’s an appetizer and nothing more with my appetite. In any other establishment, I wouldn’t waste time contemplating soups on the menu, but I was at Vietnamese restaurant. So when in Rome…you eat Pho (a Vietnamese staple). So when the waiter (who was very friendly by the way) came by to take our order, I reluctantly responded with the word “Pho” .
My first sip of the piping hot broth reconfirmed my sentiment toward liquid based meals - not my cup of tea (or should I say soup). The lemongrass, lime-flavoured broth didn’t jive with my taste buds, although I seemed to be alone on this one. Everyone around me was happily slurping away at their Pho. It’s clearly a personal taste, so please take this review with a grain of salt.
Taste aside, I was impressed with the size of the bowl and the substance within it. It was teeming with bok choy, tomatoes, onions, strips of tofu, and rice noodles tucked underneath. I admittedly had to call it quits 75% of the way to the bottom of the bowl because it was so filling. Clearly a bowl of soup can suffice as a main meal, contradictory to my earlier comment. Allow me to put my foot in my mouth now.
Ga Nuong Xa Sua Dua – Chicken with Lemon Grass & Coconut Milk ($10.50) - Keith was debating between this dish and the Garlic Chicken (below). In the end he got to try both – and not because he was hungry. Things were going well on the other side of the table until I spotted an unwelcome surprise mingling with Keith’s rice. It was long and black and belonged on someone’s head. A hair. As soon as we brought this to the staff’s attention they were quick to apologize and offer us a complementary meal. We were impressed.
Ga Xao Rau Cai – Garlic Chicken & Stir-fried Bok Choy ($10.50) - Despite the above, this worked out in Keith’s favour. He got to try this dish after all. A large portion of meat and bok choy cushioned by a bed of vermicelli noodles came out 5 minutes later. Keith isn’t a lover of sauce, so this was up his alley. A little low on the sauciness for me, however something that can be remedied with the bottle of hoison at every table. The chicken in both dishes also reminded me of the “mystery meat” you see in chinese restaurants on Spadina. You’re just not quite sure if it’s really chicken. Some pieces were a little fattier than others.
THE SCENE: Casual and cozy. I was in my Lulu Lemons, runners and a hoodie, yet didn’t think I stuck out like a sore thumb. The waiters were also very pleasant and attentive, constantly coming by to refill our glasses and check on our meals.
THE DAMAGE: With the free meal it came to $15 or so. We felt badly about this because they treated us so well, so left them a decent tip.
YOU SHOULD GO IF:
- You’re looking for attentive service.
- Your cupboards are stocked with Campbell’s Soup. You’ll get more nutrients and flavour out of their Pho.
- You like a little hair on the side. Kidding!