Phở Asia 21
1208 King Street West
Dinner for two with all taxes, tip and beverage: $30
My immediate neighbourhood is not well known for its fine dining. Sure, there’s a couple of awesome Ethiopian places within walking distance, not to mention The Gladstone, The Drake, Beaver Cafe, and some interesting Tibetan restaurants if I’m willing to trek a bit. But anyone who’s ever found themselves at King & Dufferin looking for good food will know it’s a bit of a wasteland.
Once you rule out the two fast food burger joints and the two fast food sub chains, what you’re left with is a pretty awesome roti shop (Island Foods), a decent greasy spoon (The Gate) and a passable sports bar (Shoeless Joe’s). Which is why we were happy to see that a Vietnamese place had opened up around Christmas.
Located in half of the former St. James Tavern (the other half is a dollar store), the décor can only be called “ice cream sundae Medieval”, as the once-dark carved woodwork on the walls has been painted out in pale blue and cream. A mirrored wall is brightened up with flower boxes of fake posies and greenery along its length, and the chairs and tables are your typical sturdy tavern furniture with much faux leather and rivets.
Our first visit left us underwhelmed, mostly because the vegetarian pickings are minimal and are all pretty similar. Disappointed, we didn’t bother going back until recently when both my husband and I came down with the stomach flu and our recovering bodies spurned all things vegetable in favour of things made with dead animals.
We heeded the call of the phở and trekked around the corner one lunchtime to discover that our little neighbourhood hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese joint was packed solid, with a line-up that went out the door and down the street. At first we concluded that it was simply the Liberty Village crowd who had all realized it was a good place for a cheap lunch. Then we sat down to a bowl of phở ($4.99, small) and figured out the real reason for the crowd.
Hands down, no other contenders – best damned phở EVER!
Now, it’s been a long time since I had phở, that pesky vegetarian diet doesn’t leave a lot of room for beef soup, but this, this was a swimming pool-sized bowl of heaven. Whereas every other version of this soup I’ve had has been greasy and rank, yet bland at the same time, this broth was infused with herbs and lightly spiced, earthy and wholesome. During a later visit, we tried the vegetarian noodle soup ($6.99, large only) which was also delicious – vermicelli noodles fill the bottom of a massive bowl topped with a light but flavourful broth and the whole thing is topped with tofu, mushrooms, broccoli, carrots and celery.
Not content to just have soup, we revisited the vegetarian stir fried tofu with lemon grass and chili ($6.99 with rice) and found it to be much more flavourful than on our original visit. Crisp tofu and peppers come in a sinus-clearing lemongrass sauce that is anything but bland.
Cold vermicelli noodles arrive with a variety of toppings including pork-filled spring rolls ($5.99) or grilled chicken ($6.99). This is enough food for two people and the spring rolls are crisp and flavourful without even a hint of grease. The chicken is a boneless leg, grilled in that awesome Vietnamese barbeque sauce, and all versions of the vermicelli are served with a sweet flavourful fish sauce. The chicken alone has made me doubt my devotion to a vegetarian diet and if I end up cheating again, it will be for this dish.
The fresh vegetarian and tofu roll ($3.99) is packed with sprouts, tofu and Thai basil and is served with a thick peanut sauce. Shrimp on sugar cane ($4.50) is a perfect starter; shrimp is ground to a paste and then wrapped around sugar cane skewers and steamed.
The meal wouldn’t be complete without beverages and we enjoyed a couple of “drinks” that easily doubled as dessert. The green bean, red bean, jelly and coconut milk drink ($3) was a parfait glass filled with layers of red beans, green bean paste, strands of vibrant green grass jelly (made fresh and hand-cut in-house!) and coconut milk. Served with a bubble tea straw to accommodate the whole red beans, it was incredibly fun to eat. A lychee drink ($3) was half a dozen pitted lychee fruit, more of that vibrant green grass jelly and lychee juice. A soursop milkshake and some kickass Vietnamese coffee ($3) were less “fun” but equally delicious.
As previously mentioned, Phở Asia 21 gets extremely busy at lunch during the week, but there are usually tables to be found at dinner and on weekends. Based on three separate visits, everything we tried was superb, and while I’ve mostly gone back to my vegetarian ways, there are still a few dishes on the menu that I need to try – there’s a deep fried catfish calling my name and eventually I will have to try the pork chop, just because.
So while the fine dining options in this corner of Parkdale are non-existent, that doesn’t mean there’s a dearth of good food. There’s no need to resort to crappy burgers and subs when the best phở in the city can be found right here.