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steamed whole sea bass with ginger at Huong Viet

steamed whole sea bass with ginger at Huong Viet

Despite Huong Viet’s relative inaccessibility by tube (it’s a 15-minute bus ride from the closest station), Jon and I used to eat there once a month. The “hanoi” beef pho, the prawn banh xeo (Vietnamese pancake), and the whole steamed sea bass at low low prices made the 40-minute bus-and-walk journey from our flat worthwhile. 

Jon and I weren’t the only ones who loved Huong Viet – Hardens, TimeOut, and the Good Food Guide tripped over themselves singing HV’s praises. 

BUT, the thing with Huong Viet that Jon and I always worked hard to overlook was the service. It’s not that the servers are nasty, but they’re just totally harried. In a country where I think restaurants are often under-staffed, Huong Viet took server inattentiveness to new heights: there just were never enough servers for the *crowds* that fill the dining room. A meal at Huong Viet always seemed to turn into the night’s main activity because it was impossible to get in and out in under two hours. (Weird for a restaurant that you’d assume works on a turn-those-tables-fast profitability model).

A few months ago, Jon and I stopped going when, after waiting ages for some white rice, we were informed that the restaurant had run out of white rice for the evening. How does that happen, really? And why could nobody make more?

Well, as proof of how delish and cheap the food at Huong Viet is, last Friday, Jon and I couldn’t resist the memory of the resto’s fragrant, hot pho and their crispy banh xeo. We braved the monsoon, caught the No. 30 bus to Dalston, and walked the fifteen minutes down to Englefield Road, dreaming of good stuff.

prawn banh xeo (crispy Vietnamese pancake)

prawn banh xeo (crispy Vietnamese pancake)

I remembered the prawn banh xeo (£6.50) bursting with massive, juicy prawns. How sad that after our months-long hiatus, Jon and I returned to HV only to find our beloved crispy pancake filled with half-cooked yellow onions, a few crunchy bean sprouts and some shriveled-up, microscopic bits of overcooked prawns. The yellowing, limp slices of iceburg lettuce on the side (can you see it in the upper-right-hand corner of the prawn banh xeo photo above?) further depressed.

pork and prawn cha gio (spring rolls) at Huong Viet

pork and prawn cha gio (spring rolls) at Huong Viet

Thinking maybe we should go to an old, reliable standby, Jon and I ordered pork and prawn cha gio (£4). These were at least tasty, though horribly disfigured (i.e., burned and misshapen). Maybe I can’t even credit them with being tasty . . . a spicy-sweet-tangy nuoc cham has a way of hiding all manner of sins.

Thank god the hanoi pho with beef (£5.60 for a large) still came through for us.  I’d be sad if nothing at all were as I remembered at Huong Viet.  The steamed whole sea bass for £8.50 was still fragrant with ginger and scallions.  And the corkage charge is still a reasonable £1.50 per person, so HV is still the place to be for an inexpensive, boozy meal out with friends. 

Overall, though, it may be months before I make the journey over there again.  Well-priced sea bass and pho aren’t big enough pulls to overcome the travel time from my flat and the indifference of servers.   Not when I have Viet Garden two minutes from my flat and the joys of more-easily reached Kingsland Road to eat.

Huong Viet, An-Viet House, 12-13 Englefield Road, N1 4LS, 0207 249 0877; closest tube stations: none, really.  Huong Viet is about a 15-minute bus ride from either Highbury & Islington or Old Street stations.

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