PHO RUA VANG St. Clair (1776 St. Clair West, at Cloverdale, 416-656-1549) No relation to the identically handled Ossington boîte, this bright and cheerful Vietnamese noodle house specializes in broken rice plates and steamed savoury-stuffed banh cuon rice rolls. Impressive sweets, too. Complete meals for $9 per person, including all taxes, tip and an sweet iced Saigon-style coffee. Open Sunday to Thursday 10 am to 9 pm, Friday and Saturday 10 am to 11 pm. Unlicensed. Access: bump at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Most think of Pho, the delicious all-in-one Asian collision of aromatic soup broth, slippery rice noodles and fresh veggie garnish as lunch, dinner or post-clubbing nosh. But back in Saigon, pho is generally eaten for breakfast. Which explains why so many of Toronto's Vietnamese eateries open so early in the morning. Way west on St. Clair, where la dolce vita of il Corso Italia morphs into a down-at-the-heels strip of Salvadorean pupuserias and Jamaican jerk joints, I discovered a burgeoning enclave of intriguing Vietnamese restos near Old Weston Road, all located under the glow of the Church of God's neon Jesus Saves sign.
Pho Rua Vang is one of them. Subtitled The Golden Turtle Restaurant, it's a physically unremarkable space outfitted with cheap generic restaurant furniture and lit by fluorescent tubes, like hundreds of similar spots across the GTA. A small TV and a radio play simultaneously. An aquarium of salt-water fish adds needed colour. But who needs decor when the grub's this good?
We dig into a first-rate steaming bowl of Pho Tai (#11, $4.99 small/$5.99 medium/$6.99 large). Shaved rare-pink slices of deli-like beef ride a raft of crisp raw bean sprouts and slivered scallion on a sea of intense anise-scented beef broth. I'm all for Bung Mang Vit (#51, $4.99/$5.99), the house's special duck and bamboo vermicelli soup, its pearlescent broth glistening with just the right amount of fat for flavour and thick with chewy 'boo shoots and dissolving pillows of foie-gras-like liver. The crew find it stinky from nam pla fish sauce and yucky with duck.
Either way, go easy on the gut-wrenching extras - chopped garlic mixed with pickled green bird chilies and whole cloves in fiery vinegar - or you'll be in gastric agony by sundown.
Pho Rua Vang also specializes in broken rice dishes made with not-so- top-quality jasmine rice whose grains have been damaged during refining. Consequently, the rice has a softer, easier-to-digest texture. It's best paired with skinny grilled pork, chicken and shrimp (Com Tam Suon Ga Tom Cang Rim, #100, $6.49) or tasty chili-spiked ham, fried egg and sensational steamed egg custard (Com Tam Suon Cha Trung Hot Ga Op La, #108, $6.99).
Don't be put off by the sound of beef jerky salad (Goi Kho Bo, #1, $2.99/$5.99/$8.99). Instead, delight in slim threads of lime-marinated steak plated on a pile of crisp daikon slaw.
We finish with tumblers of strong iced Vietnamese coffee on the rocks sweetened with condensed milk (Ca Phe Sua Da, #114, $2.49), bowls of delicious Durian ice cream (#151, $2.49) - now, that's stinky! - and a fabulous faux rice pudding made with black-eyed peas, sweet sticky rice and frothy coconut cream (Che Dau Trang, #157, $1.49).
One door over, busy Banh Cuon Pho Ga (1772 St. Clair West, 416-651-3771) devotes itself to its namesake breakfast dish, banh cuon, the savoury-stuffed steamed rice wrap.
The versions available (#37 and #38, both $5) are virtually identical, five slender roll-ups full of minced pork and five-spiced cloud ear 'shrooms, sided with smoky sesame/bean sprout salad, mysterious peppered Vietnamese cold cuts (my guess: chicken) and sections of Chinese sausage-studded deep-fried muffin-dumpling-donut hybrid dunked into incendiary Srirachi hot sauce and vinegary sweet nouc cham.
Another door down, the otherwise charming server at Mi Gia Phung (1768 St. Clair West, 416-658-3993) warns us that we probably won't like the house special soup (Dac Biet Mi Kim Bai Kho, #322, $7). She's right. Nor do we enjoy the unfortunate Pho Tai (#310, $5.50), the steamed bok choy in bottled oyster sauce (Cai Hoi Dau, #416, $5.50 for about 30 cents' worth of greens) or glasses of sour preserved plums mixed with President's Choice club soda (Da Xi Mui, #224, $3). The sparklingly clean spot nearly gets Nasi Goreng right (#617, $6.95), although it's more like turmeric-tinged frozen shrimp fried rice than the famed Malaysian street food. EL RINCON CUBANO (256D Augusta, at College, 416-515-8164) Cute Cuban café offers delicately spiced Latin fare ranging from home cookin' to haute. As salsa tunes blast on the boom box, customers dig into mains that, though meat-heavy, feature lots of market-fresh veggies. Complete meals for $15 per person, including all taxes, tip and a coffee Cubano. Open Sunday to Thursday noon to 9 pm, Friday and Saturday noon to 11 pm. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: four steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
convincing hole-in-the-walls don't come any holier than tiny El Rincon, the three-month-old Cuban cantina in the Kensington Market storefront next door to La Palette. There, personable partners Lynda Sua and Manuel Torres (formerly of the original La Carreta on Danforth) offer high-end takes on Havana classics at lower than usual prices. The first thing you notice in this homey spot - besides the salsa blasting on the boom box and walls covered in customers' felt-pen comments - is the irresistible aroma of roasting pork. It's the foundation of Puerco Asado al Jugo ($6.99), succulent sweet pork sided with saucy black bean rice, and of a huge submarine-style grilled sandwich (Bocadito, $5.99) with more superb pork as well as ham, mozzarella, tomato, onion and sweet gherkin crunch.
Latin restos rarely give vegetarians any option other than salad. But El Rincon's simply named Mixed Vegetables ($5.99) - al dente garden green beans and zucchini contrasting with creamy boiled potato, topped with corn cob sections and gorgeous September-ripe tomato - makes a great vegan main when sided with the house rice ($3.99). Splitable, too.
And don't forget to add a few of Torres's rum-soaked pickled jalapeos for extra kick. Afterwards, smooth cheesecake-like coconut flan ($3.99) soothes any fireworks.