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An underdog vs a splashy new opening.
One of the great joys of writing about food is the opportunity to champion the underdog, and as I walked through the door of Hanoi Old Quarter I couldn’t wait to sit down, eat and then shine some love on this small Victoria Drive spot. Frankly, the fact that it was even in the underdog category was a major headscratcher. It’s the new spot from Rose Nguyen and Hong Duong, and their two locations of Mr. Red Cafe have won the VanMag Restaurant Award for Best Vietnamese for the past few years. On top of that, they’re widely regarded as two of the sweetest people in the restaurant game—so how can they have opened a new spot in May and have it barely make a ripple on the popular food scene?
A few kilometres away, on Kingsway, is pretty much the opposite situation. Do Chay also serves Vietnamese food (of the vegetarian variety), and it’s also a new concept from an established owner—the Chay family of Yaletown’s popular, but not exactly lauded, House Special. But Do Chay has been slammed since opening, with regular lineups and page after page of online love (including from this magazine, I suppose I should note). What gives? When I walked into Do Chay, I had the opposite thought: this, it seemed, was a balloon that maybe needed some air let out.
So much for preconceptions. My initial thoughts about Do Chay were tossed out the second my first dish—the “chick-n-salad”—appeared before me. What a wonder: a freshly grated mound of shredded cabbage is studded with fresh Vietnamese mint and makrut lime leaves, then studded with fried chickpeas and topped with some gorgeous little oyster mushrooms that have been marinated in sesame oil. The entire affair is dressed with their “ish” sauce, a vegetarian substitute for fish sauce that delivers that same umami punch by employing fermented mung beans. It’s a beautiful interplay between sweet and salty, crunchy and chewy, and it’s a hulking portion for $13. It was finished with three large sesame rice crackers, and when our server overheard us raving about them, she sidled up and matter-of-factly told us they were available at T&T by the bag, and they were cheap.
And while rest of the meal couldn’t live up to that Usain Boltian sprint out the gate, it was still deft and light on its feet. The wrappers on the XO potstickers are much thicker than normal, but while purists might scoff, it frankly gave the $8 dish some heft and unctuous bite, with mushroom and cabbage subbing in admirably for the traditional pork. Spring rolls ($8) come with a plate of mustard-green leaves for wrapping and dipping into more ish sauce. And pan-fried daikon cakes ($8) were a dozen chewy daikon cubes imbedded into a small omelette and topped with perfectly crispy fried shallots. I was beginning to understand the reason for the lineups. The only dish that didn’t wow was the Desert Island noodles ($13), mostly because the challenge of making a vegetarian meatball ranks up there with perfecting cold fusion—it crumbled the second it came in contact with a chopstick, but, to be fair, the mixture of thick rice noodles, shredded tofu and plantains wasn’t an actual miss, it just didn’t keep pace with the starter dishes. If you were in fact on a desert island, you’d lose your mind over it.
Over at Hanoi Old Quarter, things unfolded at a more leisurely pace, service included. It’s a more bare-bones room than Do Chay, with the only nod to ornament being a large mural of a temple in a lake, flanked by what looks like a Vietnamese-inspired townhome development. The menu is wooden both in reality and in its reliance on tried-and-true Northern dishes, many directly from the much larger Mr. Red menu. But what popped out most were the prices: two of the starters clocked in at $15—not just higher than Do Chay, but higher than the multitude of neighbouring Vietnamese spots on Victoria Street. I go with the crab and pork spring rolls (nem cua be), a staple of the Mr. Red menu. They’re a hefty portion (and more square than cylindrical) but at $11 they’re heftily priced, too. They’re also lacking any discernable crab meat, and the flavour suffers in comparison to Do Chay’s more thoughtful, if arguably less authentic, approach. Another carry-over from the Mr. Red menu is bun cha Ha Noi, a meatball and pork-belly dish I remember fondly. But when it arrives, the two meatballs seem smaller, and there are fewer chunks of crispy pork belly. The flavours still sing with acidity and depth but, even with the small pile of vermicelli noodles and cucumbers, it’s not a dish that would fill me up at lunch and, for $15, it should be. The rest of the meal suffers from the same tension—the lemongrass chicken ($15) is tasty enough, but it comes with five florets of steamed broccoli without any seasoning and an overturned half bowl of plain white rice, served with a complete lack of presentation. I appreciate that Hanoi Old Quarter makes no pretentions about being modern or fancy—Mr. Red has always been about honest cooking by nice people and HOQ maintains these two pillars—but prices at all three spots have crept up and part of me feels that if you want to charge $17 for entrees, you might want to nod to some modern practices.
I was wrestling with these issues when my final dish came—the ca pho trung ($7), or egg coffee, an oddity dessert drink that’s popular in Hanoi. It blends classic black Vietnamese java with a thick custardy topping of hand-beaten eggs yolks and condensed milk. It’s served in a mug that’s placed in a bowl of hot water, and as the strong coffee mixes with the relentless creamy topping, it’s such a delight that I begin to chill out a bit. I came to HOQ expecting to be swept off my feet, and when what followed was a perfectly acceptable meal it somehow felt like a letdown. Down the street, I walked into Do Chay expecting to find some variation on a hipster hangout, but was greeted by an uber-friendly spot that makes light and focused veggie fare. The only underdog here, it seems, was an open mind—so consider me schooled in the ills of pre-judgement.
5207 Victoria Dr., 604-327-6789mrredcafe.ca
Price: Enteés from $13Best Dishes: Egg coffee, duck stew with green banana
1392 Kingsway, 604-225-8349dochay.ca
Price: Entreés from $13Best Dishes: XO potstickers, chick-n-salad, daikon cakes