There was a time, not so long ago, that the only Asian cuisine British people sampled was a monthly inhaling of regrettable batter-covered chicken served in a sticky neon sauce. No more.
The freshness and vibrancy of the Orient’s food has gone mainstream, and has branched out to cover Japanese, Indonesian and, increasingly, Vietnamese.
Street-food stalls and fast food outlets hawking baguette with Vietnamese fillings are supplying lunch all over London, while restaurant chains such as Pho are expanding with speed and bringing rivals along for the ride.
Like Thai, the cuisine strikes the balance between hot, spicy, sweet and sour, and uses a whole lot of lime, garlic, ginger, chilli and brown sugar. Unlike Thai, it’s minus the coconut milk richness – giving a sharper and more intense taste.
Banh Mi is the Vietnamese baguette sandwich, which emerged from the country's colonisation by the French. Take a classic crusty French loaf and fill it with meats, terrines, spiced vegatbles and fresh herbs for a classic collision of East and West. The Keu chain spcialises in this increasingly popular lunch snack and has added a Soho branch to its Hoxton original.
9 Poland Street, London W1F 8PY, vietnamesekitchen.co.uk/keu-deli/
Cay Tre, Soho
A second location for the chain that began in East London and is also behind the Keu deli (above), this busy joint does street food and main meals equally well. Dishes like monkfish (caught daily in Devon) grilled with Galangal, tumeric, dill, set it apart from identikit menus, and the meat and fish is fresh and sourced from the British Isles.
42-43 Dean Street, London W1D 4PZ, 020 7317 9118 caytresoho.co.uk
Com Viet, Covent Garden
An authentic restaurant in an expensive location is a rarity, but this little gem is both. Not much to look at from the outside, the interior is nicely decorated, the service is friendly and it executes the classics (noodle soups, summer rolls and stir-fried squid) perfectly.
2-4 Garrick Street, Covent Garden, WC2E 9BH, 020 7497 2779 comviet.co.uk
Mien Tay, Battersea
Named for the South area of Vietnam from which the owners originate, this homely, family-run restaurant has received no end of praise from professional critics and punters alike. Esquire's very own AA. Gill called their food “heaven,” and the incredible value for money (mains are all around £6.50) keeps a band of loyal regulars coming back for more.
180 Lavender Hill, Battersea, SW11 5TQ, 0207 350 0721 mientay.co.uk
The latest London opening of this rapidly expanding chain, which has also just gone up North with an outpost in Leeds. A small menu means that everything is done well, with fresh ingredients and sharp, zingy flavours. The stocks that form the base of the epoynumous Pho (a noodle soup that is the Viet’s national dish) are concocted over hours, to achieve an intense depth of flavour.
39 Upper Street, London, N1 0PN , 0207 559 5150 phocafe.co.uk
Based in the Hoxton Kingsland Road Vietnamese restaurant stetch, this is a fast-paced, eat-and-out affair. Beef Pho, chargrilled quail and the grilled pork mince with noodles are fresh, flavoursome and consistently brilliant.
134 Kingsland Rd, London E2 8DY, 020 7613 3222
This kitchen began life as small Broadway market stall in 2009, before their quick and delicious range of Vietnamese filled baguettes and noodle boxes brought them expansion and (localised) fame. Try the marinated crackling pork belly stuffed in a roll for the ultimate in lunchtime food bliss.
17 Elm Street, London, WC1X 0BQ, 0207 833 3876 banhmi11.com