Sunday, May 6, 2012

Pho Express: A Fabulous Vietnamese Spot Strikes Back

Name Pho Express 
Address 149 Upper Street, Unit B, London N1 1RA 
Phone none 
Web site none
Main dish price range £4.5
Rating 4 Stars.  The best place we know to nurse a pho addiction.  

Recommended dishes: 
Someone's studying up on one of London's best banh mi places.

When we last checked in with Pho Express, this tiny, Islington outpost serving Vietnamese food and crispy banh mi was still finding its footing, experimenting with some new ingredients and tweaking the menu and sandwich seasonings with every visit.  Now, several months in, we feel the need to give our loyal and faithful readers an update.  Why?  This place has gone from being good to simply amazing.

One of the first things I feel the need to address is the actual pho itself, which last time, as you may all remember, Nick and I had yet to try. Now, it's worth noting that I have always not been the world's biggest pho fan. I'm never sure what to do when I get the varietals that have hoisin sauce and radishes in little containers on the side, and I've worried in the past that I've taken versions of the soup and either overly seasoned it or kept it so simple I was missing some of the key allure. So it's much to my relief that at Pho Express, the four types of pho on hand (£5-6 each) are made entirely by you for the staff-- and are unlike any I've had before with their amazingly delicate flavorings and quality ingredients. Here, the broth is a light, beef broth, loaded high with large pieces of meat (your choice of chicken, beef, prawn or chicken plus beef), tons of fresh cilantro, and bits of lime that give it a refreshing citrus finish.

Pho shizzle: The amazing beef pho (Pho Bo) at Pho Express. 
Adding to the giant bowl of goodness the staff will readily add fresh, green chilies-- a favorite of Nick's, but perhaps not recommended for the less tough among us. A thick glob of egg noodles sop up the broth inside. Not only have I come to appreciate this pho, I crave it-- and eat it-- on a multi-times a week basis. The staff tells me it's North Vietnamese, different from the kind you'd typically find restaurants. Whatever it is, it's delicious.
Pho fan, pho-ever. 
And the banh mi served these days is now an almost equally palette-pleasing treat. As I mentioned last time around, the best banh mi is a study in opposites-- the crispy, flaky toasted bun and the well-sauced filling and pate inside balancing it out with warm, gooey goodness. The team at Pho Express has always nailed the baguette, offering up the perfectly crisp type of bread product you'd expect to find at a French corner shop. After experimenting with different dry herbs and flakes, however, the team seems to have decided to stick with the more classic iterations of the dish that they do best. My favorite is the barbecue pork (£4), which has cucumbers and sweet, pickled kohlrabi and carrots on top, along with fresh green chilies, which must be asked for as an extra topping. The Special banh mi (£5) is also the perfect balance of tastes and textures with its thick pieces of barbecue pork, homemade pate, and dried pork floss. They even have a Thap Cam banh mi (the most expensive banh mi at £5.5), which is billed as an "all in one option"-- presumably with grilled chicken and pork as well as pate and floss. I've been so hung up on my current favorites, I haven't yet ventured to try it.

Taking in the local Angel scene, and the yummy banh mi.
Pho Express is certainly rapidly turning into a neighborhood star here in Islington, and certainly my favorite go-to lunch place.  In addition to the sandwiches and pho, the little spot also serves up Vietnamese rice bowls, including a Belly Pork and Spare Ribs in Caramel Sauce (£6). It's still short on seating space though-- besides a couple seats right in the window, they have a very low table with two seats sort of crammed haphazardly in front of the ordering counter, as well as a few seats outside-- relevant if spring would ever grace us with her presence. For now, I'm happy to slurp my soup and wash it down with a pitch-perfect, super sweet Vietnamese Iced Coffee (£2.50).  A nice bit of perfection.   
Believe the hype.

Pho Express on Urbanspoon

Mestizo: Yes, There are Good Tamales in London

Name Mestizo Restaurant & Tequila Bar 
Address 103 Hampstead Road, NW1 3EL
Phone 020 73874064
Web site
Main dish price range £9.80 - £24
Rating 4 Stars. It's got a 3-star dinner, a 4-star brunch, and a 5-star tamale 
Recommended dishes Tamales and Pastor Tacos

London, of course, is a long way from Mexico-- the land of Coronas, sun, and ceviche. And Nick, as many of you know by now, is originally from California, probably the best place to find perfect Mexican food in the United States. (I'm dreaming of taco trucks as I write these words.)  So, you could say we were highly skeptical when a group of charming London School Economics alums we met told us they'd found the spot where real Mexican nationals go to pick up their tamales and eat authentic Mexican food. Immediately, we were intrigued. Could this exist?  And... would it be the next best thing to tacos on the beach in Tulum?

The place our new friends recommended was Mestizo, a nicely appointed restaurant with red walls and white tablecloths just a five minute walk from the either the Euston or Warren Street tube stations.  Knowing it was slightly more sleek than the usual place we review here, Nick and I decided to first try this restaurant on Valentine's Day, and our meal there quickly started off on a real high note. The Tamales (£5.40), our first appetizer, struck the perfect balance.  Peeling back husk revealed a mouthwatering soft and lightly moist dose of masa flour, wrapped around a generous meat filling. For the two tamales that came with our order, Nick and I opted for the delicious puerco con salsa verde (pork with green salsa) filling-- which had the perfect amount of kick-- and also the queso con rajas (cheese with peppers), a classic. Our meal was off to an auspicious and authentic start.

Answering a craving: The delectable Tamales at Mestizo.

Next up, we chased down our tamales with the restaurant's Sopa de Tortilla (£6.50), a nearly perfect fresh tomato soup with bits of fresh, homemade, corn tortillas sprinkled throughout.  The accompaniments that came on the side were also a particular highlight, and we enjoyed the white, crumbly cotija cheese, as well as the fresh avocado and bits of dried chilies.  As loyal readers know, Nick is never one to turn down a good opportunity to devour his share-- and often my share-- of chilies, so being able to sprinkle them liberally is always a plus.

A good back-up Valentine's date: Mestizo's divine Sopa de Tortilla.
When it came to the main courses, however, we began to feel a little deflated.  I've always been a sucker for a good mole, a term that most Mexican lovers know can mean a whole variety of yummy sauces that typically blanket tender, moist chicken and fresh rice and beans. At Mestizo, Mexico's national dish is presented in its most popular and classic form: A deep brown mole poblano, made from chili peppers, almonds, and about 20 other herbs and spices, finished with unsweetened chocolate. Mestizo's Mole Poblano main course (£14) was definitely good, but it was a bit more watery and not as thick as the best iterations I've had of this dish. The flavoring also wasn't as complex and multilayered as I would have liked.  I'd definitely rank it a B, and a good way to answer your mole craving in London in a pinch. For £14 though, and used as the main attraction of the dish-- as opposed to a seasoning in a taco-- I wanted more.

More Mole?  I'm not so sure. 
Our second main course, which left us particularly unimpressed, may have been more of a strategic ordering mistake.  Nick and I opted for the Pollo Ticul (£14), a classic Yucatan dish.  The chicken is speckled with achiote seeds-- lending a slightly bitter, earthy sort flavor-- and then sweetened with orange juice and honey, covered with vegetables, and cooked in a banana leaf. While it seemed decently well-executed, it wasn't nearly as spicy as we'd expected and lacked the sort of flavors we crave most in our Mexican food.  The whole thing was rather bland, mushy, and unmemorable, sort of like something I'd expect at a high-street chain.  It also wasn't cheap.

Bring on the bland: Mestizo's Pollo Ticul is a unmemorable mashup.
Ready to put Mestizo in our good-not-great category, Nick and I contacted our new friends, and they then told us the real secret of Mestizo lovers-- the restaurant's £20, all-you-can-eat, Sunday brunch. We assembled a big group, and headed together to this giant orgy of Mexican food-- and this time, Mestizo definitely didn't disappoint.  The waitresses kicked off our meal by offering us a selection of aguas frescas (pitchers of sweetened, ice-cold, fruit juices), and then we descended on the buffet, which included both pre-made items as well as two cooks on hand to make ready-to-order dishes like huevos rancheros (runny eggs with tortilla, fresh salsa, and refried beans) and chilaquiles (mole-soaked tortillas topped with eggs). Mestizo's selection of classic tacos were also made on the spot, their tortillas warmed on a griddle. Classic flavors like tinga (shredded chicken with tomatoes), pastor (marinated pork and pineapple), carnitas (slow-cooked pork), and rajas con crema (poblano pepper with sweet corn) were all available-- and many of them were excellent.

When it came to the regular buffet food, there were also some real highlights. Cerdo en Pipian, a pork in green chili sauce, had a great flavor and was kept piping hot, and a chicharron en salsa verde was also particularly delicious. Bonus authenticity points go to Mestizo for also offering nopales, a type of cactus widely available in Mexico that our friend had yet to find anywhere else in London. The one thing I'd leave behind, however, was the flan dessert, which was soaked in an overpowering orange syrup that overshadowed the flavor.

Overall, Nick and I are definitely planning to return to Mestizo, most likely on a Sunday afternoon.  (Writing this now-- on a Sunday, in fact-- I'm hearing Mestizo's call.) Also worth noting for the younger and more party-minded than us: Mestizo also supposedly has a world class selection of 160 tequilas, served at a bar downstairs that Travel and Leisure magazine once dubbed the "sexiest" tequila bar in all of Europe. Party on, Wayne-- or better yet, Waynitos.

Mestizo on Urbanspoon