Fresh & Fantastic Northern Vietnamese Food at Mr. Red Cafe

“It’s the Quintessence of Vietnamese cuisine, Jerry, THE QUINTESSENCE!”, is how I imagine a scene from Seinfeld playing out. It’s an alternative version of Seinfeld, of course, with food bloggers playing all the main characters. Alexandra Gill would play Elaine. Yup.

“Quintessence” means “the most perfect example of”, and I think it’s a pretty fitting description of this place. Mr. Red Cafe showcases the subtler flavours of northern Vietnamese cuisine, which I find exciting cuz most Vietnamese restaurants in Vancouver are southern Vietnamese (think Hanoi vs Saigon). This place opened quietly this year in the spring but gradually generated a big buzz, then finally exploding with Alexandra Gill’s Globe & Mail review. I think they initially couldn’t deal with their new-found popularity and service suffered but from our recent visit, things seem to have smoothed out and they’ve hired additional staff to deal with their new normal. Still, everything is prepared fresh, so having a bit of patience when eating here will serve you well.

ADSCF9556

I’m finding myself in this East Village area more and more these days. Basho, Rocio’s Salteñas, Tacofino Commissary, Red Wagon Cafe, etc…there’s tons of reasons to hang around this neighbourhood.

ADSCF9570

It ain’t a Viet restaurant without some sort of moving water feature!

DSCF1035

Wicca wore this jade thing she got for our wedding more than a decade ago. It seemed to fit with the environs.

DSCF1036
As always, click to embiggen.

Enjoy the new Mr. Red Cafe menu. I believe they’ve tweaked things from the previous menu, like making the crab spring rolls a regular item instead of a weekend-only thing.

DSCF1037

Appetizers.

DSCF1039

Soup noodles.

DSCF1040

Banh mi, sticky rice and rice rolls.

DSCF1041

Desserts and drinks.

DSCF1043

Why “Mr. Red Cafe”? It was the male owner’s nickname back in Vietnam!

DSCF1044

Tableside condiments: sriracha, chili oil, and (a new one to me) pickled raw garlic slices.

DSCF1047

Their tea tastes great! It’s infused with pandan leaves. A wonderful extra touch.

DSCF1049

Cuz I can’t type Vietnamese, I’ll just call this by the English description, Special Sticky Rice with Paté & Chicken. Amazing and eye-opening dish. Served with pickled daikon and carrot (same kind you’d find in most banh mi).

DSCF1057

Another view of the sticky rice. Soft sticky rice topped with mung bean (stuff that looks like clumps of super pale brown sugar), paté (looks like ground meat), bits of chicken, fried shallots and what I think is pork fluff/floss. The sticky rice had this exquisite softness and freshness to it. Quite different from Cantonese dim sum-style sticky rice. The fried shallots tasted fresh and not stale. Even Wicca ate them and she usually picks out ANYTHING having to do with onions, garlic, shallots, etc. Oh, she loves the flavour, but just hates biting into pieces of anything to do with the onion family.

DSCF1066

Cross-section. On paper (or even in photographs) this dish doesn’t seem like much but once you eat it you’ll know. I’m familiar with all these elements separately, but when combined it’s magic. Taste, texture and even aroma coming together in a new way. My favourite part is the paté. It tastes SO DELICIOUS in combination with the rice, and is for me the critical element to this dish. Who knew pate on sticky rice would taste so good? This housemade paté is different from the paté you might’ve had in banh mi. I suspect most places in Vancouver use Kim Chau Deli paté, and their stuff is good for banh mi, but this paté was different and super-tasty. But then, with this dish, if any one element were gone, I think you’d miss it. A must-try!

DSCF1076

Stir-fried Beef Rolls Wrapped in Fresh Rice Paper. Menu description is a bit off because I’d categorize the wrapping as flat rice noodle, not rice paper. Think of Chinese chow fun but instead of layered strips forming thick noodles, imagine a single layer of rice noodle, steamed then used to wrap these rolls. My grandmother used to make a somewhat tangentially-related Chinese version of this except instead of beef and Vietnamese herbs, she put in ground pork, dried shrimp and chopped-up water chestnuts. It’s served lukewarm. I didn’t enjoy this dish as much as the others but it was great to try. I appreciated the Vietnamese elements in it. Wicca liked this one way more than I did. With a dish like this, I’ll always think of my grandmother, so…yeah…we bring our own particular tastes and experiences to the table every time we eat. In Asian families, our deepest emotional connections between each other form through food, and I just couldn’t shake the taste memory of what my Grandmother prepared for me.

DSCF1078

Wicca’s Soy Taro Milk. Tastes good enough but sometimes Wicca wants the world. I’m pretty sure they use taro powder to make this drink but Wicca hoped that they used fresh taro. Her bar for Asian drinks and desserts is so high…sigh… I’m like, they’re concentrating so much energy in making all the food fresh that they don’t have time, space or energy to prepare fresh taro JUST for one drink on the menu. 😛

DSCF1087

Their famous Deep Fried Crab Meat Spring Rolls. Yes, Moyenchow, they do use rice paper for these rolls. 😉 It’s just really well executed.

DSCF1091

I think this is just the way food like this is served in the North — arranged on a platter instead of the more familiar bun served in a bowl where you mix up all the ingredients and pour fish sauce over top. Here, you sorta grab bits here and there and dip as you eat. We were given a couple side plates so it was a bit easier to eat…we could grab bits from the platter and make mini-mouthfuls as we ate.

DSCF1100

To be honest, the crab flavour didn’t really stand out amongst all the other ingredients in the spring roll. They do put a fair amount of precious crab meat in there, but it doesn’t quite come out as strongly as one would hope. Still, I’d order this dish again any day because it’s so fresh-tasting, not overly greasy, executed very well and tastes amazing. The fish sauce in particular is very well balanced…so much so that I think I could drink it straight! Somehow not bland or weak in any way, not too sweet, not too anything!

DSCF1103

Spicy Fried Chicken Wings with honey & butter sauce.

DSCF1110

Fresh, juicy, carmelized. The butter adds richness. I had minor issues with the frying. I got hard, crunchy bits around the outside when I was expecting a thin and crispy outside. I tried eating a slice of pickled garlic with it and it made it a bit more interesting. Wicca appreciated it for what it was. I think I must’ve been expecting some platonic ideal of fried chicken wings or something.

DSCF1112

I definitely want to come back to have more of that paté, maybe in the Spicy & Crunchy Paté Banh Mi!

Mr. Red Cafe scored big with this first visit. Overall, we both got a sense of how fresh and freshly-prepared everything tasted. It’s the critical difference between eating charred, grilled meat straight off the grill versus something that’s been sitting around losing its life essence. The owners seem 100% committed to the QUINTESSENCE, Jerry! The QUINTESSENCE of Vietnamese cuisine!

I’m confident that our future visits will be just as good.

Mr. Red Cafe on Urbanspoon

6 thoughts on “Fresh & Fantastic Northern Vietnamese Food at Mr. Red Cafe”

  1. That looks amazing – I have to try it! Especially the sticky rice… I looooove sticky rice 🙂 the crab spring rolls also look promising, interesting shape.

  2. Thanks for this Dennis (and the Devil’s Elbow overview). Nicely done as always and to be honest neither was on my radar. (I’m just not paying enough attention to other sources of info these days!)

    By the way and o/t -sorry….what was the name of the ramen place in Richmond mentioned a few days ago on Chowhound (that got snuffed due -I’m assuming- to the mention of a dreaded blog)…..sigh….

    Keep up the good work!
    Chris

    1. Thanks so much for reading, Chris! It flatters me that ANYONE would spend their precious time reading my food stuff. So thanks!

      I haven’t been totally following the action on Chowhound lately…so…I assume there was a thread about ramen and it got deleted by the man behind the curtain at Chowhound? The only newish ramen place of note in Richmond that I know of would be Yah-Yah-Ya Ramen. You can read a bit about it here:

      http://vancouver.eater.com/maps/vancouvers-top-10-try-before-you-die-ramen/yah-yah-ya-ramen

      NOTE: there’s a tiny mistake in that writeup, and the author is well aware, but it just slipped through the cracks. “Le Kei” is actually supposed to be “Ie Kei” (capital “i”).

  3. Gave this place a try after reading your post. Couldn’t agree with you more, the food is amazing! I’ve paid 2 visits to the restaurant, all within the span of 1.5 weeks.

  4. I’ve turned into a stalker, watching the space on Broadway near MacDonald where the Kits location of Mr Red Café is SLOWLY taking shape. Can’t wait for it!

Leave a Reply