The Vietnamese Cheung Fun is excellent and the rare beef pho is quite good, but the question is whether the trek to Café East in Surrey Quays is worth it.
I recently went to Surrey Quays to check out the Vietnamese restaurant Café East. If it wasn’t for all the positive press Café East has been getting, I would have procrastinated about going. When it comes to Vietnamese food, I tend to stick to my Kingsland Road comfort zone, and anyway, the thought of spending time in Surrey Quays is debilitating. The problem is that Surrey Quays looks and feels like some drab North American suburb. It is one large industrial unit after another, so not the kind of place for walking. What you need is a pimped out SUV which you can ride on into the fenced off development and then proceed to hang out with your buddies in the parking lot, exchanging tips on sound systems. The “leisure park” consists of a Hollywood Bowl, a Frankie & Bennies, a Pizza Hut, Odeon cinema, and the Vietnamese restaurant Café East.
On a Friday night in mid January, I arranged to meet at Café East with three other foodie friends. They had been doing research via Twitter on what the must-have dishes were and I must say, I had high expectations. Café East don’t take reservations on Friday nights so we took a ticket and waited to be seated. Unfortunately, the waiting area has no bar and when I enquired from the waitress if I could order a few beers she said that they don’t serve alcohol and you can’t bring your own booze either. It was probably about time that I had a dry Friday night so no biggie really. After about fifteen minutes we were seated. The restaurant is a large and bright open plan room with clean cream coloured walls and light wooden flooring. The light wooden tables with marble effect tops and exposed brick pillars add a touch a contemporary sophistication.
To start, we go for some fresh summer rolls with poached prawn, pork, herb salad and vermicelli rice noodles and Banh Cuon (Vietnamese Cheung Fun). The Banh Cuon was very tasty: wonderfully silky with a delicate mince pork and mushroom filling, served with a tangy fish sauce dip. The summer rolls on the other hand were disappointingly dry and bland. They tasted like they had been pre-wrapped some time ago as the rice wrappers were quite rubbery and the filling very dense.
For our mains, two of us went for their specialty, the Pho Tai or rare beef Pho. I went for the vermicelli salad with lemon grass pork (Bun Cha Nem Thit Nuong) and the last person in our group went for the vegetarian equivalent. The main course portion sizes were very generous, and the pho got an overall nod of approval. The texture and flavour of the thin slices of pink beef was a definite highlight. The vermicelli salad with lemon grass pork however was disappointing. The pork was chewy and flavourless and even when we tipped the accompanying fish sauce on the salad, it was bland. The salad, which consisted of a heap of vermicelli noodles with some shreds of iceberg salad and some bean sprouts was also unseasoned.
In total, we only paid a very reasonable £13 per person including a soft drink and tip. The menu at Café East is quite large and I left wishing I’d tried the Com Khau (pork belly) or the Bo Kho (beef casserole) instead. I’m not sure if I’ll be back soon to try out those other dishes because there are Vietnamese restaurants of better quality in the Kingsland Road district. If I get that SUV I’ll be back.
Café East, 100 Redriff Road, London SE16 7LH. Tel: 0207 252 1212