Mr. Red Café is not the only North Vietnamese restaurant in Vancouver. But Hanoi's herbaceous flavours are so seldom found you would be forgiven for thinking that it was.
This clean, cute mom-and-pop shop is a stellar new addition to the diverse culinary calling card of Hastings-Sunrise neighbourhood (already home to Red Wagon Café, Campagnolo Roma, Tacofino Commissary, Moccia & Urbani and Tamam Fine Palestinian Cuisine).
Owned by chef Hong Nguyen and his charming wife, Rose, who runs the floor with equal parts warmth and well-deserved pride, this high-quality kitchen has quickly become a food-blogger favourite for cooking every dish from scratch and offering something new and exciting.
North Vietnamese cuisine is lighter than its southern counterpart, the tastes more subtle. Mr. Red's bun cha is an excellent case in point. Originally served as a weekend special when the restaurant opened in April, this luscious soup is now available every day.
Bun dishes always involve some sort of rice vermicelli. Here, the noodles are served on the side in a basket also stuffed with bean sprouts and fresh herbs – lemon balm, mint and cilantro, none bruised and all carefully destemmed. The soup, served in a communal bowl, is filled with a clear, sweet-and-sour fish sauce expertly balanced with sugar and vinegar. Tender pork balls and smoky slices of grilled pork belly float in the broth alongside pickled carrot medallions, daikon ribbons and fiery red bird's eye chili seeds.
Take a separate bowl and fill it to your taste with the dry ingredients. When you ladle the soup over top, the warm broth releases an intoxicating floral aroma from the herbs. You can adjust the seasoning with nuoc cham, a salty fermented fish sauce that comes with every dish. Or add a little rice vinegar, a traditional North Vietnamese condiment, which sits on the table in a jar filled with chilies and garlic cloves, giving the tang an earthy twist.
Mr. Red Café also serves pho noodle soups, including the relatively rare Hue style with congealed cubes of pork blood. But again, the broth is lighter than your typically murky southern-style pho. We tried the bun ga doc biet, a vermicelli soup bobbing with big shiitake mushroom caps, shredded free-range chicken, mushroom-chicken balls, chives, cilantro and kaffir lime leaf. Green, lean and wonderfully fragrant, it was the perfect soup for a humid summer night.
The special pâté banh mi was another delightful discovery. Instead of being stuffed like a sub, the French baguette is golden toasted and served open-face, smeared with chicken-pork pâté, squirted with spicy Sriracha and sprinkled with crispy fried shallots. One of my dining companions called it Vietnamese bruschetta.
The pâté, made daily in-house, is smooth and creamy with none of the chalk funk that you too often find in bargain banh mi. Try it with sticky rice, another common dish from the north. The pale yellow rice is steamed with freshly extracted tumeric juice and topped with powdered mung bean. When you add a little rice vinegar, the mildly gamey pâté melts like butter.
The dishes here are all beautifully balanced with herbs, heat, sweetness, sour, salt and bitterness. But in each bite, you will find an element of surprise. Stir-fried beef rolls are brightened with mint. Steamed pork-and-shrimp dumplings are bundled in glutinous shells that are more silky than gummy. A yogurt coffee drink is refreshingly sour.
The only disappointment was the crab roll. The filling – fresh crab mixed with wood ear fungus, mushrooms, herbs and green onions – was moist and chewy. But the deep-fried rice paper wrapper was oily and heavy. One friend who had tasted it on a previous occasion, when it was as light and airy as phyllo pastry, wondered out loud if the kitchen was having a hard time keeping up with its sudden popularity.
The 25-seat restaurant was packed the night we went. Fortunately, we had a reservation. And the servers, although incredibly friendly and knowledgeable, were slow to clear plates and bring the bill.
This is often the problem with secret gems. They are great until the word gets out. I almost feel guilty writing this column, knowing that Mr. Red Café will likely be slammed next week. But the food here is so interesting and delicious, I simply had to share.