Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Pho Express: Strong, New Banh Mi Offering In Angel

Taking in the Angel's Sunday scene, as well as its banh mi.
Name Pho Express 
Address 149 Upper Street, Unit B, London N1 1RA 
Phone none 
Web site none
Main dish price range £4-5
Rating 3.5 Stars.  Definitely go if you're in the neighborhood.  

Recommended dishes:  Banh Mi with either BBQ pork or shredded chicken

Please note: This review has since been updated.  Check out our latest musings on Pho Express here. 

My husband, Nick,  is definitely one picky person when it comes to banh mi, the Vietnamese sandwiches on toasted French bread that sparked a NYC mini-craze a couple years ago.  A native of Oakland, Nick remembers eating the warm sandwiches when he was still in high school, popping out of work with a Vietnamese co-worker to go buy them on International Avenue. So, to say the least, when we first moved to this country we were both been pretty disappointed with the incarnations of our favorite Vietnamese treat on offer in London.  The Banh Mi Bay restaurant near Holborn, while definitely cutesy and British looking, wasn't spicy enough for our taste-- and like a lot of Brit sandwiches, went a bit too heavy on the spread (in this case, pâté). The places setting up shop in Broadway Market definitely nailed the iced, Vietnamese coffee, but the their bread didn't have the toasty, flaky texture that makes banh mi such a study in the joy of opposites-- ie: moist, wet veggies on hot, heavily-toasted, crunchy bread. 

The new owner  is always ready with recommendations at Pho Express.
So we were clearly only cautiously optimistic when we learned that a banh mi place down the street from our house was getting taken over by a pair of Vietnamese cooks with family ties to the Que Viet restaurant on Kingsland Road in Hoxton. The banh mi place, a tiny, take-away sandwich counter with three seats inside-- and only a few tables on the sidewalk out front-- quickly changed its name from Ca Phe to Pho Express. The owners also went on a major charm offensive, smilingly engaging with customers, lengthening their hours late into the night (new, late-night tipsy food, people!), and often describing to anyone who would listen how their goal was to bring authentic bahn mi and pho to the neighborhood. They even tacked a map of Vietnam up to the wall inside for good measure.

And the good news is they've definitely improved substantially on East London's banh mi options.  The shop's four banh mi sandwiches-- Classic, BBQ Pork, Garlic Beef, and Shredded Chicken (all £4)-- all now boast heftier portions of fresh, hot meat, served on nearly perfect, toasted French baguettes.  Instead of just relying on Sriracha sauce to give a spicy kick-- as good as that is-- fresh chilis are now also available, along with a whole host of fresh vegetables marinating behind the counter. Blissfully, they're also still serving Ca Phe's divine Vietnamese iced coffee (£2.50), which adds the ideal, sweet milky coating to your mouth to give you at least some feeling of immunity when you start piling on the chilis. 

For now, we're leaving the restaurant in the three-star range, simply because the menu still appears to be constantly evolving-- with occasionally mixed results.  On one recent visit, for instance, they dusted our sandwich with fried pieces of onion, which was good, but somehow didn't entirely work to improve the overall flavor combination. We also haven't yet tried the two flavors of pho that the restaurant-- true to its name-- now sells for £5 (available in shrimp or beef flavors). The owner told us when asked that he gets up at 5 am every morning to go and cook up the fresh pho stock at the kitchen at Que Viet-- a perfect encapsulation of how hard he appears to be working to make this place a London-wide standout. As the weather gets colder, you can bet we'll be back to give a try.  Stay tuned, eaters!


Islington Eater said...

This place is fantastic - and the guys are really friendly. Love the fresh chilis.

Toby said...

I can't remember ever having banh mi but this place sounds like it would make for a great introduction to the dish!

Anonymous said...

The coffe and banh mi here is the best in london... Love it....

Danny said...

Not sure how the banh mi compare to New York versions but they're on a par with the real deal you'd find in Hanoi. Limited and simple menu but the best Vietnamese food I've found in London.

Unknown said...

Looks Delicious! Love breakfast cafes in london to taste, can i have more pics so that i can checkout their website and visit thier patisserie.