On hindsight, the fact that 75% of the menu was dedicated to Chinese takeaway standards should have tipped me off, but I guess my hunger over-ruled my (gut) instincts...
Now, I'm not an expert on Vietnamese food, but I've eaten plenty of it over the years, and I've eaten enough food to form an opinion on what I think constitutes good food. And our dinner at Hoa Viet in Camberwell certainly wasn't.
Feeling flush with the takings from my stall on Saturday (thank you Christmas shoppers!), I insisted on taking the Mancreature to dinner on Sunday night. He decided it might be a good night to try the food at Hoa Viet, a sparsely laid out Vietnamese place we'd often passed by on the way to Morley's (fried chicken and ribs, more on that next time). They have tinted windows out front, which always gave me the impression that it was dimly-lit inside, so I was fairly pleasantly surprised to be confronted by bright fluorescent lighting when we entered. I like seeing what I'm eating, and it helps with photography.
Upon perusing the laminated menu, though, I was shocked to see a large portion of Chinese takeaway dishes (lemon chicken, various sweet and sour meat dishes) taking up a substantial portion of the menu, with the Vietnamese portion relegated to the last 2 pages. Hidden, if you will. The ubiquitous summer rolls (vermicelli, prawn and pork bits wrapped up in rice paper with a dipping sauce) weren't even on the menu. Right...okay, your sign says 'Authentic Vietnamese Cuisine' and yet you haven't even got summer rolls?
Things weren't looking too good when the waitress came over to take our orders, and seemed confused by what was on the menu. A few looks of puzzlement were exchanged between us before we managed to get our choices across. The Mancreature and I split three starters - banh xeo, the aforementioned summer rolls, and some dumplings. We also ended up ordering two bowls of pho - I asked the Mancreature if he wanted to share a bowl and he claimed he'd be able to finish everything.
I didn't get a picture of the dumplings, so just believe me when I tell you that they looked like any other pan-fried dumplings. Basically just pork bits wrapped in a slightly stodgy, thick dough wrapper. The innards were fairly dry, without tasty porky juices oozing out when we bit into them. I also didn't detect the presence of any vegetal matter, which I like in a dumpling as it helps provide a bit of crunch.
The banh xeo (rice flour pancakey thing with stirfried prawn, chicken and veggies) was the second dish to arrive, and I hesitated for a bit before biting into it. The few times I've had banh xeo, the dish usually comes with a dipping bowl of sauce (usually fish sauce, sugar and water) on the side. I though the waitress had simply forgotten to carry it with her this time, and so waited for a bit, but she didn't seem very forthcoming with sauces, and we weren't sure if that was how they served it there, so we just left it at that. (Can someone tell me if it's usual to have a dipping sauce with banh xeo? I've always been served one whenever I've had it, but maybe it's a regional thing? I don't know!)
Although the bright orange shade of the pancake was fairly shocking (how did they get it so orange? Turmeric? Curry powder? There wasn't much discernible flavour) the stir-fried bean sprouts, prawns and chicken stuffed into were nicely seasoned and had a good, fresh factor to it.
It was a little greasy, but the fresh lettuce leaves and pickled salad on the side helped cut the grease immensely. The best (and messiest, at least in my case) method of eating it was to break apart a chunk of the pancake and stuff it into the lettuce leaf, with a forkful of the pickled salad on top of it all.
Next up were the summer rolls. They're one of my favourite dishes, and I've been known to eat a helping of eight fat ones for lunch. And it's safe to say that these two measly rolls we were served were the WORST ones I've had. Not that they tasted really bad or anything. They were just very...meh - the rice paper wrapper was slightly dried out, and the fillings were simply anaemic. Even the dipping sauce didn't taste like much - I think it was hoisin with a blob of hot chilli sauce, possibly Sriracha as there were bottles dotted around on the tables, although all we could taste was hoisin. Blah!
Lastly, our much-anticipated bowls of pho. The wind that night had been bitingly chilly, and I was looking forward to a steamy bowl of pho to warm me up. It looked promising enough - thick, greasy broth covering a generous helping of rice noodles, with finely sliced beef - still slightly pink - perching on the noodle mountain and swimming around in broth.
Our waitress also put a plate of garnishes down, which again led me to utter an inward sigh - the plate contained only bean sprouts, and two lemon wedges. Where were the other garnishes - the fragrant basil, sprigs of mint, freshly cut onions? It was unlikely that they had run out, after all, it was fairly early in the evening, and the restaurant hadn't been very busy or full when we arrived.
Another factor that added to my irritation about the whole evening was that just as I was about to tuck into the pho, a pink-haired alterna-wannabe strutted in with her old pseudo-hippy parents. She then loudly announced to the waitress in such a loud voice that everyone in the place (which by this time was fairly noisy) could hear her, that she couldn't eat gluten, and then went through the whole menu for at least 10 minutes talking about other things she couldn't eat. Her voice was so loud the whole time we were in there that I almost went to punch her in her stupid head. I didn't, because she told her parents (and the whole restaurant) her new address, down to the postcode, and it's near where I live, so I'm just going to go by and drop off a little flaming bag of turd. Isn't it fun having such intense hatred for a stranger?
Anyway, after that talk about flaming turds, let's get back to the food. As I often do, the first thing I did was try the noodles. I think it's because that always takes up so much space, so I want to find out if it's any good because I move on to the other ingredients. These rice noodles were, frankly, pathetic (almost as pathetic as you, alterna-tryhard that I'm pretty sure is studying at the art school nearby). Limp, grey, stodgy - they just didn't have the delightful sproingy texture of most rice noodles. They tasted like they'd just been sitting in warm water for ages. The broth was also rather flavourless, though it did warm me up. The Mancreature and I ended up just finishing up the beef, although he gave up on his dish before I did, even though he was the one who'd decided that he could devour a whole bowl of pho on his own.
So, although it did warm me up, the meal left me rather disappointed, as I don't like wasting stomach space on medicore food. I didn't leave them a tip, haha!
42 Camberwell Church St