If you limit your search for a bowl of noodle soup or a plate of lemon grass chicken to Somerset Street’s string of Vietnamese restaurants, you’ll miss Huong’s. But head a couple of blocks south on Booth Street and there, in an upper room of no particular interest other than the very good people who run it, you’ll find this “Vietnamese Bistro.” The three-year-old Huong’s stands out by virtue of accomplished cooking, immensely likable service and solid value.
It took one bite of a jicama roll to know I was in for a treat. Wrapped in a chewy rice paper casing was a strip of Chinese sausage and one of omelette, a spicy salad of jicama greened with lettuce, basil and mint, crushed peanuts and dried shrimp, plus hoisin and hot sauces. All bundled in one yummy package were the flavours and textures of the perfect roll-up – salty and sweet, hot and cold, crunch and soft, plus shots of summer freshness in the green herbs, and some fire at the centre. It cost me $3.50 for an order of two. I could have had eight. So I returned the next day and had a few more. Just to make sure they were really that good.
Among other fresh rolls that Huong’s team cooked are vermicelli and herbs with prawns and peanut sauce – a great combination, to be sure, but not as striking as the jicama rolls. Huong’s deep-fried spring rolls are thicker than the usual crisp cigars you get at other places. Stuffed with crab, pork and vegetables, they are also much better than what you get at other places. Nuoc cham – sweetened and spiked vinegar, and Vietnam’s ketchup – is the dip for these spring rolls.
Try the beef wrapped in betel leaves, the bitterness of the dark-green leaves in contrast with the sweet meat. Shrimp-wrapped sugar cane (cha tom) is tasty, if you like that arrangement. Barbecued quails are flavourful, if a bit dry. Better are the green papaya salad with shrimp, and the banh xeo, a crisp pancake studded with onion, shrimp and pork.
We ended up with many busy bowls of soup next. (This because I had trouble ordering from the wall board of specials: written only in Vietnamese – and despite service that was beyond helpful – I just kept nodding as our waiter tried to make the puzzling understandable.) Other than lemongrass chicken on steamed rice, livened with a ginger-garlic brew, we faced a table full of liquid things. I’m not complaining, for it was all very good.
The pho here is a formidable meal in a bowl, especially the bun rie (crab noodle soup) which is hot and rich and packed with yummy bits and pieces, including the unmistakable flavour and texture of real crab. Beef noodle soup (pho bo) is redolent of cinnamon, anise, pepper and fish sauce, and crowded with noodles, cabbage, cilantro and bean sprouts. We add the usual aromatics that must be tossed in at the end so none of the fragrance is lost. The crowd-pleasing Thai soup, tom yum with shrimp (called tung yum tom here) is a sour, spicy broth, and a serious notch above.
Fried cuttlefish cakes are house made, the fish hand-cut and mixed with red onion and fresh dill. These float in a vibrant tomato-tamarind broth crowned with crispy fried onion, filled in with rice noodles, onion, vegetables, and more dill.
French heritage seeps in with banh flan – a classic crème caramel, with nary a nasty bubble to disturb the smooth, cool custard of eggs, milk and sugar.
No liquor licence, or at least not yet (this isn’t clear). We drink tea, some of us drink juice or mango shakes, and others are left to long for a beer with this good food.