Owner/manager Hoa Thi Nguyen offers mammoth milkshakes for just three bucks at Pho Ai My.
PHO AI MY (221 Spadina, at Sullivan, 416-849-3631) Complete dinners for $25 per person (lunches $10), including all taxes, tip and a fruit juice. Average main $9. Open daily 11 am to 10 pm. Unlicensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Located halfway between low-rent Chinatown and trendy Queen West, the recently launched Pho Ai My on Spadina is an appetizing mix of both worlds.
One part dirt-cheap Vietnamese soup kitchen, the other chic pan-Asian lounge à la East or Café 668, this bright and breezy space opened only two months ago and is already doing a roaring lunch and dinner trade. These days, word of mouth travels fast when the grub's this delish and affordably priced.
You might remember the room as Dai Nam, the terrific Saigon-centric hole-in-the-wall that closed up shop here several years ago before changing its name to Krispy Roll and hightailing it to the wilds of Scarberia. Since then, the dilapidated storefront's been home to an anodyne discount shoe store.
Enter Vancouver restaurateur and chef Sang Nguyen. New to the Toronto resto scene, he's replaced the building's street-corner facade with floor- to-ceiling glass and added a curbside patio that's bound to be packed come summer. Inside, the 60-seat eatery is as monochromatic as a midwinter white-out: walls clad in pale quartz flagstone, floors tiled in colourless ceramic and faux-wood-topped tables flanked with white-vinyl-upholstered chairs.
Photo By David Laurence
Pho Ai My chef Trang's menu features over 250 items.
The extensive menu boasts more than 250 items, though most of the Thai dishes have been crossed out. (Just as well, judging by the kitchen's exceptionally pedestrian but ketchup-free spin on poor old pad thai - #267, $9.)
Starters, too, trawl familiar waters. Cold salad rolls (#40, $4 for two) come wrapped in raw rice paper, stuffed with leaf lettuce, rice vermicelli and shrimp, sided with hoisin and dusted with crushed peanuts. Deep-fried spring rolls (#39, $3.50) are bursting with finely minced pork, mushroom and carrot, while chicken wings (#47, $5) are crisply battered and liberally dredged with salt and pepper Chinese-style. For those who wonder, deep-fried squid paste (#45, $6.50) turns out to be a pair of fluorescent pink rubbery sausages.
But the true test of any Vietnamese beanery is its pho, particularly its broths, and Ai My's are stellar. Thin, rare slices of brisket swim in a luxurious beef bouillon thick with rice stick heaped with raw bean sprouts and scallion (#237), while the insanely intense chicken and rice noodle version (#248, both $5 small/$6 medium/$8 large) would have my sainted bubbe weeping with joy if she were Jewish instead of a Calvinist Scot.
Best of the bunch, stewed duck (#234, $6.50) finds a sweetly rendered on-the-bone leg and thigh awash in a deep mahogany stock subtly underscored with ginger, anise and honey. Finished with slurpable ramen-like chow mein, slippery Chinese mushrooms and vibrant baby bok choy, this impressive potage could well prove to be chef Nguyen's signature dish.
Not everything deserves such culinary kudos. Vegetarians get short shrift with stir-fried broccoli, bell peppers and napa cabbage in flavour-challenged Cantonese cornstarch gloop over deep-fried mein (#214), one of the few meat-free offerings on the card.
And turmeric-tinted rice-flour crepes laced with bits of shrimp, fatty pork and mystery meatballs (#215, both $7) are overwhelmingly oily until you realize you're supposed to rip off a piece of pancake and wrap it in lettuce along with some lightly pickled slaw and splashes of grease-cutting lime and nuac cham.
Couple them with a sugar cane juice ($2.50) or a medicinal pennywort milkshake ($3) and dining stylishly à deux can easily be done for less than the cost of a recessionary two-four of Laker.