Thahn Xuan – Vancouver, BC
2200 Block of Kingsway at Nanaimo St
I love pho. It is a delicious, nourishing lunch time meal….however, I am in a pho phunk. I think may have had too much pho lately.
I live in an area in East Vancouver which is dotted with great Vietnamese restaurants. The Vietnamese triumvirate of pho, bun, and bahn mi are my usual suspects in this area…but I needed a change.
I have been aware of Thahn Xuan (literally a hole in the wall on Kingsway) for quite a while. It is located adjacent to a Pho Hoa franchise location, an adult video store and a massage parlour. I never thought much of it because it looked very much like the many Vietnamese “Cafes” (… often smoky gambling dens in disguise) that dot this section of Kingsway.
This place serves Northern Vietnamese food that is not pho-centric…as a matter of fact, in spite of the signage on their window that declares they offer pho, they don’t actually serve it. They have a small menu – less than ten dishes listed on the photocopies taped up to the wall. Their specialties are bahn cuon (Vietnamese Rice Rolls), bun oc (Freshwater Snail Soup) and bun rieu cua (Crab Cake and Seafood Soup). it.
I have to admit I felt some excitement (…these kinds of things excite me). This type of restaurant is not common here in Vancouver – a Vietnamese restaurant that doesn’t serve pho, com, bun or bahn mi? What is this? Here in North America, this type of place is more common in places like Westminster and Garden Grove, Vietnamese enclaves in Southern California.
I have been back a number of times since my first visit here a few weeks ago and have tried all their specialties.
Bahn cuon, a common breakfast dish in Northern Vietnam is their main specialty. Bahn cuon is rice roll stuffed with minced pork with a side of nouc cham dipping sauce and the requisite herb salad. From my observations, this is the most commonly ordered dish here. I have seen it at many other Vietnamese joints in town, though here at Thanh Xuan, they don’t use the usual premade Chinese rice rolls – you can watch them make the rice noodle sheets fresh to order in the back. These sheets are thinner, more translucent and chewier than the more commonly used Chinese variety. The herb salad is well appointed with about four or five uncommon greens.
Another dish I could recommend is the bahn rieu cua – soup with a seafood-stock base with house-made crab cake and various greens (notably the anise-flavoured Vietnamese celery). The crab cake is usually made by grinding or pounding whole mud crabs, shrimp, and pork into a cake-like consistency (see photo). The best bowls of bahn rieu I have had outside of Vietnam were served in Southern California and they also included cubes of pork blood, tofu puffs, and other accoutrement that Thahn Xuan’s version lacked. Still, this was a very good rendition.
The food here is good – but not exemplary (even compared to some Vietnamese places as far north as Seattle – and I won’t even bother comparing it to places in Vietnam). Still, this is a welcome addition to my list.
I am seeking more places like this – places that serve uncommon (for this city) Vietnamese dishes. Song Huong (whose proprietors are ethnically Hue – a people from the middle section of Vietnam – serves a killer Bo 7 Mon and some good Hue food. Co Do, which recently closed, used to serve great Hue food (they had a good bun bo Hue and nice little starch dumpling appetizers). Truong Thanh just down the road on Kingsway at Victoria is another very good Northern Vietnamese restaurant with a non-pho centric menu. (Look for an upcoming report on Truong Thanh here on Foodospsohy).
Anyone out there know of any regional Vietnamese restaurants that are worthy of a visit? I would love to know about them.