Never Heard Of It is a collection of reviews of the countless and often extraordinary hole-in-the-wall restaurants of the Lower Mainland that don’t get anywhere near the attention they deserve. Explore the NHOI archive here.
Even though Vancouver is blessed with good Vietnamese food (if you know where to look), the cuisine of the northern part of the Southeast Asian nation isn’t so easy to find. Rose Nguyen is on a mission to change that.
Hanoi Old Quarter is the third restaurant that Rose and her partner Hong Duong (the Mr. Red in “Mr. Red”) have opened in the last five years. The first was the word-of-mouth popularized Mr. Red Cafe in Hastings-Sunrise, famed for its uncommon and usual North Vietnamese dishes. They then followed up with a second location in Kitsilano where Mr Red became a certifiable hit – culminating in “Best Vietnamese” awards from Vancouver Magazine a few years running.
The small restaurant doesn’t deviate far from this winning formula. It sees a concise, well-curated menu; inexpensive, well-executed dishes using top quality ingredients; a clean space (less than 10 tables); and professional front-of-house staff trained to educate diners unfamiliar with Northern Vietnamese food. The menu here is even more straight-forward with a mere dozen or so dishes. I spotted a few Mr Red favourites, but about half the offerings are exclusive to Old Quarter.
I have eaten here a number of times now, accordingly making a substantial dent in the menu. Though it’s tough to pick out my favourites, here are some plates to get you going:
Start with the monster Special Appetizer Platter ($19), which comes served with an assortment of meat and herb fillings and rice wrapper. This is an interactive dish. Soak the dry rice wrapper briefly in water, then assemble a parcel with the toppings (sliced pork hock, blood sausage, various herbs and vegetables. Then dunk it in the funky mam nêm (fermented fish paste) dip.
Order the cha ca ha noi ($17) or fried turmeric battered fish served in a bed of fresh dill, peanuts and herbs. It’s one of the dishes that made it over from Mr. Red for good reason.
Gia an steam rice rolls with grilled pork patties and pork & prawn spring rolls ($15) is similar to bún cha – grilled pork meatballs and belly bathing in a light fish sauce “soup” – but served with rice rolls (bánh cuon) instead of rice vermicelli.
Banh Mi Sot Vang ($17) is the classic beef stew in a clay pot served with banh mi baguette.
Finish it all off with a Cà Phê Trung (egg coffee, $4) – bitter Vietnamese coffee topped with a sublime sabayon-like egg custard froth. This one is rich, sweet and thicker than every other version I’ve tried.
This strip East Van has been historically Vietnamese in flavour for decades. To date it remains relatively unsullied by Vancouver’s rapid gentrification, but it’s not completely immune. While some other communities are dissolving before our very eyes – Little India on Main Street and Little Manila on Fraser Street, for example, have largely pulled up stakes and moved out to the suburbs – it’s heartening to see signs that the Vietnamese community here isn’t going without a fight. Instead I think (and hope) that it may actually be doubling down – entrenching, evolving, and modernizing while maintaining their traditional flavours and eating culture. And wouldn’t that be nice?