Calgary may not be as internationally diverse as other Canadian cities such as Vancouver and Toronto, but one of the more exotic cuisines it offers in spades is Vietnamese. After Vancouver, it has the largest number of Vietnamese restaurants per capita in the country.
That rumbling in my stomach that can only be satisfied with a piping-hot bowl of pho knows no bounds. I’d drive across this city on the snowiest of days for my favourite sate soup. I take my pho pretty seriously – even more so during the winter, when comfort food is of the utmost importance.
If you whipped out flashcards with bold statements such as “best sate broth,” “most inventive salad roll” or “best value Vietnamese dining,” I could shout out the answers – Pho Dau Bo, Pure Contemporary Vietnamese Kitchen and Bar and Pho Huong Viet – faster and with more conviction than a third grader being challenged with simple math.
The city’s newest Vietnamese eatery, Nam, is somewhat of a Cinderella story. Owner Nghia Ngyun also ran the Noodle Bus, one of the city’s more popular food trucks, for years. If you know anything of food-truck life, then you’ll know it’s not a great one. The margins are typically slim, and curbside success is dependent on weather and foot traffic. When I hear of a food truck opening a bricks-and-mortar location, I think it’s a lovely thing.
But it is hard not to expect big things of Nam when you first walk up to the restaurant. The splashy branding and modern design, which includes a white marble condiment counter, floor-to-ceiling wall graphics of Vietnam and funky light fixtures, have you expecting something bold and dynamic.
Calgary already has a handful of restaurants that fit within this realm of contemporary Vietnamese cuisine: Watercress Express and Raw Bar in Hotel Arts. They leave Nam feeling like the odd man out, its small menu not really offering anything memorable to set it apart.
You can order the seafood pho and be pleasantly surprised by the fresh ocean bounty of prawns, squid and snow-crab claw – arguably difficult to handle in its shell – floating in a clear chicken broth with rice noodles. After a few spoonfuls, though, it will need a healthy dousing of sriracha and a touch of hoisin sauce to liven it up.
The satay beef pho is more comforting by leaps and bounds. It has a subtle peanut flavour and generous portions of thinly sliced beef. Make sure to stir in crunchy bean sprouts, shaved green onion and torn basil leaves for a pleasant aromatic boost. Out of all the Vietnamese restaurants in the Beltline area, it’s one of the better bowls you’ll find.
That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of pluses to dining here. Nam’s service is friendly and efficient, the price point is fantastic and everything is made from scratch. The chicken and beef broths used in their pho are simmered for hours. The salad rolls are wrapped tightly with noodles and filled with beautifully grilled pieces of beef. Splash one into the house fish sauce, bite into the roll and you’ll find they taste like they were rolled minutes before your order.
I can’t deny that you leave here feeling full, but any discerning Vietnamese fan will also leave here wanting something more. Show me an inventive banh mi that gives a sucker punch of flavour with tender pieces of beef and sate aioli. Show me an imperial roll that makes me say, “Wow!”
Show me something, Nam, that will make me want to crave your food and not just eat it simply because I happened to be strolling by and the lights were on.
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