Vietnamese cuisine doesn’t get much chance to shine in this town – the farangs are enamored with the local cuisine while the cosmopolitan young Thais have their own love affair with Japanese food. Maybe Vietnamese food is considered too close to Thai food without the same punchiness. Whatever the reason, it’s a real pity because the excellent Xuan Mai proves that Vietnamese cuisine deserves to be considered well and truly on its own merits. There’s some overlap with Thai food in terms of ingredients and flavours but the exquisite combinations at this much-loved Thong Lor shophouse are more subtle and yet more complex than at many Thai places.
So while it may be a useful reference point, it’s probably a mistake to labour the common ground between Thai and Vietnamese food.
Some of the appetisers will be familiar to those who have explored Vietnamese food before. The bun cha (B350), for example, are imperial rolls with barbecued pork served Hanoi-style. These pop up at most Vietnamese places but are elevated here by the gossamer thinness of the rolls and aromatic herbal sides that get bundled in with the pork.
Equally, the banh xeo (B250), a turmeric and shrimp crepe, manages to be delicate and entirely unpretentious at the same time. And if Vietnam has a national dish, it’s probably pho. Of the varieties on offer at Xuan Mai, the pho bo (B150), with beef noodles in the northern style, is the most prominent internationally. Here, there is a rich, refined broth, with an intoxicating herbal perfume. Again, an apparently simple dish is elevated with an inspired, authentic flourish.
The salads are another treasure trove in their own right. Try the honeysuckle flower salad with shrimp and barbecued pork (B200) – one of the owner’s original creations that you’re unlikely to find in standard Vietnamese places.
Among the mains, the spare ribs (B300) fall off the bone on to a bed of sugar snap peas (B300), while the grilled riverfish (B350) has a zingy seasoning that subsides into a herbal offset. If you’re not already convinced by this roll call of deliciousness, finish with the spectacular passionfruit creme brulee (B200). A Thong Lor stand-out.
351/3 Thong Lor | 02-185-2619
xuanmairestaurant.com | 11.30am-2.30pm, 6pm-10.30