Tuesday, 12 October 2010
Café East, Surrey Quays
There are unlikely locations, and there are unlikely locations. And then, in the corner of a car park next to an ugly great cinema and shopping mall in a desolate area of Surrey Quays, there is Café East. To say it's in the middle of nowhere is being kind - I imagine it's a special journey for people living in Surrey Quays - and were you to pass it by on the way to Hollywood Bowl or park your car up next to it for a trip to the Odeon I doubt you'd give it a second glance. Its competition is a Burger King, a Frankie and Benny's and something called a West Coast Bar & Grill, which I hadn't heard of previously but whose menu reads like one of my worst nightmares, and although I was here on a number of pretty solid recommendations, well, you can't blame me for being suspicious.
But here we were anyway, surveying the large - in physical size if not number of dishes - menu with its handy photos and well-written descriptions. I don't know why I should find photos of the food a pleasant help on Asian menus but a sign of weakness on Western ones, but for some reason I do. Perhaps it's just that Asian food photographs better? Either way, the pictures were good enough to prompt us to order two starters and two mains, and a weird sweet dessert drink called Sam Bo Luong, which had coconut milk and beans and jellied sweets and all sorts in. It tasted a bit like something an overenthusiastic toddler might make for his or her parents as a birthday "treat" out of whatever they could find in the fridge, but was pleasant enough.
Vietnamese spring rolls (Cha Gio) were crunchy and soft in all the right places, and came with a delightfully diverse array of accompanying veg, including sweet basil, bean sprouts, mint, chopped red chillis, coriander and iceberg lettuce. I wasn't sure quite how to combine the salad and the veg to the desired effect, but wrapping one up in iceberg with a bit of coriander and dipping it in the vinegary chilli dip seemed to work pretty well.
Banh Cuon was even more fun. Cheung-fun style steamed rice pastries contained mushroom and minced pork, and were arranged into a neat pile topped with crispy, caramel-y fried shallots and salty slices of luncheon meat. In my tragic foodie way I was perhaps more impressed that I'd never seen this on any other menu before than the actual taste of the dish itself, but it was nonetheless very good, with addictive texture contrasts and a fantastic meaty filling inside the silky pastry. A bargain, too, this amount of food for less than £5.
Mains were even more impressive, in size and flavour. An enormous deep bowl of Bun Bo Xao contained gorgeously rich, sweet stir-fried beef, vermicelli, bean sprouts, sweet pickled carrots and God knows what else along with a spicy fish sauce. After I had thoughtfully picked at each of the component parts for a few minutes my companion lost patience and mixed it all up together with her chopsticks, as I'm sure is the intended style. It was still good, with that mix of textures that the Vietnamese get so right, and particularly bouncy noodles.
And what kind of blogger would I be if I didn't try the house Pho, which with its deeply beefy broth and mix of cooked and raw beef slices ticked every box in my admittedly-not-too-exhaustively-researched What Makes A Good Pho checklist. Like the Bun Bo Xao it was generous in size as well as flavour and surely the best way to spend £7 in a restaurant this side of Shadwell. Actually perhaps that's not much of a compliment. This side of Kingsland Road, then.
Stuffed to the gills, faces flushed with chilli and happiness, we paid our paltry £15 a head bill and waddled off home across the windswept car park towards Surrey Quays Overground. On the way out though, we had a quick peer into the impressively large kitchens, where vast gleaming stockpots bubbled away and a surprising number of chefs worked at the various things chefs do in kitchens. It made sense that food of that standard should come out of such a professional operation, but it is extraordinary just how many staff can make their living in a restaurant charging such tiny prices for such huge portions of excellent fresh food. But I'll leave fretting about operating profits to someone else. Café East was doing a roaring trade last night, and of course it's no miracle that it's popular, despite the herculean effort to get there. They serve brilliant Vietnamese food, smartly, pleasantly, and for not very much money. That, and there's no competition for miles around. Clearly somebody there knows what they're doing.