From the family that brought you the well-regarded Green Lemongrass and Broken Rice restaurants comes their new modern take on Vietnamese food at House Special in Yaletown. For some interesting background on the people and the restaurant, read this handy Georgia Straight article (informative writing, horrible photos).
This early review is a compilation of three visits. I still feel like I need another visit to fully understand their breadth (and try a couple of their soup noodles), but I have some travelling coming up so I feel the need to put this review out there first and revisit this place in July when I get back.
TLDR: Great beer list, some really great dishes, a few of the modern takes are less successful, restaurant still finding their legs. Worthy of your time.
House Special opened up mid-May 2016 and it’s already a darling of local Instagram foodies. This space in Yaletown has been a restaurant black hole, so let’s see if they can pull off a “House of Dosas”-type trick and finally nail the right kind of mix for this space.
I like their minimal, tasteful branding. If anyone can identify that typeface, that’d be awesome (it’s not Helvetica Neue Condensed Light/Bold).
The dinner menu cover is a stroke of Asian genius. Gold foil and red. Classic Asian classiness that evokes banquets, celebration, and good fortune.
Another nice touch are the old family photos in the hallway leading to the washrooms. Acid wash and mullets. Hilarious and touching.
Really, back then there wasn’t much choice for beer. How times have changed. Speaking of beer…
Very impressed by their craft beer list. It’s nothing too wild or crazy, but it’s admirable. Their eight taps are all very crowd-pleasing, quality choices with a good range and no senseless duplication.
No pictures of the food menu this time. Their full lunch, dinner, and drink menus are available online. In the 3-4 weeks that they’ve been open, they’ve tweaked and expanded their menu. I expect them to tweak further as times goes on, and maybe even inject some seasonality as well. I hope they bring back that Vietnamese corn dog cuz it sounded great!
Yellow Dog Take a Walk Wit (4.6%). Light flavours of lemon, orange peel, and spice. Bubbly body, vaguely reminiscent of a blended Orange Julius drink. Yellow Dog Brewing are definitely one of the top tier local craft breweries doing great work across the board, especially their Play Dead IPA and seasonal fresh hop variations.
In the background: Bourbon Blood Orange Wheat Ale (5.5%) by Bridge Brewing. This is one of the Bridge Brewing beers that I’m ok with. Bourbon element is very subtle and the blood orange is just enough so you can taste it, but overall it’s a mild, sessionable, accessible beer. Side note: By far their standout beer is their juicy and turbid Side Cut North East IPA, which I hope they keep on making and maintain the same quality.
Steel Toad IPA (7%). Not sure how they got this beer because I’ve only seen Steel Toad available at the Steel Toad brewpub. A great IPA with huge pineapple aroma and bittersweet flavour. One of the challenges here I think will be for House Special to keep their beers fresh. Inevitably some beers will sell faster than others, and the ones that sit around the longest will just degrade. This is especially important for IPAs because they degrade the fastest. Luckily this Steel Toad IPA was still smelling and tasting great. I applaud them for installing eight taps where other places might only have two. Hopefully there’ll be enough turnover to keep them all fresh. FINALLY a good craft beer list at a Vietnamese restaurant!
Rice Paper Chips ($3). Part of the “Bar Snacks” part of the menu. It’s Vietnamese rice paper (bánh tráng) that’s been fried until it puffs up — similar to frying up shrimp chips (prawn crackers).
Light, crisp, tasty, and not greasy. The seasoning tasted like smoked Spanish paprika and skews a bit towards the sweet side rather than salty. Would totally pop in for a beer and a bucket of these.
Their Instagram-famous Son-in-Law Eggs ($6). Panko-crusted soft-boiled egg with aioli, dried chili and tamarind jam, onions, and cilantro. This is their take on a Thai dish but here they’ve added a coating to it, making it sort of like a hybrid Scotch egg/Son-in-Law egg. Sweet, sour, a tiny bit spicy, and VERY punchy. I loved it.
Great contrast between the crunchy panko coating, soft egg white, and runny egg yolk. If any restaurant wants to burn up the Internet, just include a runny yolk dish on their menu.
Spring Rolls aka Chả Giò ($7). Served with nuoc cham (fish sauce dip), lettuce, Thai basil, and mint. Amazing.
Truly the best spring rolls I’ve had in a Vietnamese restaurant. The wrapper is rice paper (versus egg roll or Chinese spring roll wrapper) and somehow they’ve got it really crispy and blistered, and it doesn’t stick to your teeth when you chew it! The loosely-textured filling is shrimp, pork, wood ear fungus, carrots, and other goodies.
I still find it a bit strange to wrap my spring rolls in lettuce. Before dining at Anh + Chi (review here), we’ve only eaten spring rolls on their own with nuoc cham or in a vermicelli bowl — never wrapped in lettuce with herbs. While it’s a nice touch, I’d still prefer to eat these without the greens so that nothing distracts from the crispy spring roll goodness.
Confit Duck Frybread ($7). House-made sesame frybread (banh tieu), five-spice duck confit, Asian slaw, and hoisin. A totally new creation that really works. Take those sliiiiightly sweet Vietnamese Donuts that you might’ve seen at some Vietnamese markets around town (e.g. Chong Lee, who incredibly have a website now), but stuff them like a pita pocket! An innovative idea that tastes good too (thank god).
Note: three variations (duck, mushrooms, fried chicken) are available during lunch and a “daily selection” is available during dinner.
Suggestion: ditch the mixed greens and use shredded cucumber instead, to bring in more of that Peking duck flavour.
Baby Clams on Rice ($13). This is a lunch-only dish, which contains Huế-style braised baby clams with banana blossom (Hoa Chuối), fried shallots, peanuts, and a black sesame-studded rice cracker (Bánh Tráng Mè). My first time ever having this dish. As far as I know, nobody else in town does this dish. The clams are seasoned with fish sauce and have a bit of sweetness, and are basically a flavourful topping for the steamed rice. A very Asian way of eating and I liked this dish a lot.
Those baby clams are so tiny! Never seen baby clams this small before. The rice cracker was crunchy; similar to the rice cracker you get at Hoi An Cafe.
Banh Xeo Tacos ($10) with 7-spice pork belly, shredded banana blossom (bap chuoi), pickled carrots, lettuce, nuoc cham, and herbs. Actually, I didn’t see or taste any herbs (other than the microgreens on top). The slices of pork belly were tender and really flavourful…the best part of this dish. But I was missing herbs like mint, cilantro, and perilla. If you want to evoke the feeling of banh xeo (Vietnamese crepe), I think herbs are critical. The crepe part is not quite to my taste… I like my banh xeo super crispy but these crepes were soft and spongy, which works as a tortilla substitute but I craved that caramelized crispiness.
However, Wicca LOVED this dish, especially when dipped into the fish sauce that came with the spring rolls. How do we stay married?
These next two dishes are where I feel that House Special stumbled a bit. They’re both dishes that use Asian flavours presented in a modern context:
Tamarind Duck ($17) – Pan-seared duck breast, roasted beets, Vietnamese pickles, and red wine reduction. The carrots were way undercooked for my taste, appropriate more for a salad than for an entree. I did like the roasted garlic clove though.
The duck itself was imho overcooked for this kind of presentation. Paradoxically, the fat wasn’t rendered enough and the skin wasn’t crispy. A fellow blogger mentioned that they’ve had this dish before and the skin was crispier. Aside from that, I didn’t taste much puckery tamarind at all. If you’re going to list it on a menu, you should be able to taste it. This trend continues in this next dish:
Saigon Steak ($20). New York steak, caramelized nuoc cham potato, pho reduction sauce, and dressed pea tips with pickled onions on top. Requested medium-rare but received very rare. I like that they included pea tips instead of those boring mixed baby greens. However, I struggled to find the Vietnamese flavours in this dish. The danger with a lot of “fusion” dishes or modern takes on Asian cuisine is that the original flavours get toned down, washed out, or have its sharp corners rounded off. I’m afraid that’s what’s happened here. As a steak dish it was fine, but as something that tries to be modern Vietnamese, it disappointed.
The potatoes are purposefully undercooked and remain a bit raw and crunchy (or as some people have said, “al dente”). This is similar to the undercooked carrots on the duck dish. I think it’s a lost opportunity to get more caramelization and pull more flavour out of the potato. For something described as “caramelized nuoc cham potato”, I expected something more intense — like the caramelization on a really good lemongrass pork chop that was marinated in nuoc cham. Transfer that level of flavour and caramelization onto these potatoes, and now you’ve got something.
Related story: I was at a catered event recently where there was a dish called “Korean Beef Flank Adobo”. Aside from the slightly confused am-I-Korean-or-am-I-Filipino name, the flavours ultimately fell flat and limp into my mouth. Wrapped in a flour tortilla (which they called a “charred roti”, and was neither charred nor a roti) it was the epitome of the mainstream blandification of ethnic cuisines. There must be a way to modernize Vietnamese food without losing sight of the building blocks of Vietnamese flavour.
Uncle Hing’s Chicken Wings ($12). The menu description shows their sense of humor, which is sorely missing in the restaurant scene: “Family recipe spicy nuoc cham free-range chicken wings, originating from the remote village of Houston, Texas.” 😀
Thankfully, these wings were killer.
A bit like Korean fried chicken in its preparation, where the wings are battered, deep-fried, then sauced. The amazing inspired bit is the addition of pickled celery, which brings in a buffalo wing-type influence. Crushed
shrimp chips(?) rice chips form the base.
Crispy Ribs with Tamarind Jam ($12). Twice-cooked crispy pork ribs with the same dried chili and tamarind jam that’s in the Son-in-Law Eggs. Menu also says it includes “pickles” but I couldn’t find any pickles. I do not like the mixed baby greens on the side. I feel they’re unnecessary and are just there to fill space. No one touched it. The huge pieces of mint were great though, because herbs are a huge part of Vietnamese cuisine.
A couple people thought the sauce was too sour for this dish but it didn’t bother me. Tender meat but not as crispy as you might think. Still, great flavours though.
Disclaimer: This was a custom dessert that was complimentary.
This dessert was an amalgamation of their Lemon Bar + Meringue ($8) and their off-menu Coconut Pudding dessert. The lemon bar part is described as “lemon butter bar, crushed pandan meringue, lychee berry compote”. Beautiful Insta-worthy presentation, but overall the flavours in this dessert were very mild, and our reactions were all pretty blasé. We weren’t given any clean utensils to eat this, and when we requested cutlery were given spoons. Ever tried eating crumble off a plate using a single spoon? You just end up pushing it around your plate if you don’t get your finger in the game 😛 Wicca absolutely LOVES pandan but it gets relegated to third fiddle in this dish. If you like mild desserts (not totally incongruous with Asian cuisine) you might like this. But we’ve had modern interpretations of Asian desserts that were much more impactful, like the dessert platter at Octopus’ Garden, desserts at Miku…
I know this post might seem like it ends on a downer, but I think House Special has some great dishes right now and big potential. The Son-in-Law Eggs, spring rolls, stuffed frybread, chicken wings, and Hue-style clams on rice are all unique, flavourful dishes. But right now their Vietnamese part is stronger than their Modern part.
A word about service: the restaurant needs to improve their cutlery situation. Our place settings included a napkin, bowl, and chopsticks but no forks, knives, or spoons. We’d often be served a dish but had no way to split the dish hygienically between the four of us. The servers, while enthusiastic and postive, need more practice and perhaps some dry-runs to get used to anticipating how people are going to be eating and sharing these share plates and seeing if they need additional cutlery or knives. They also shouldn’t remove plates if they still have food on them. Grrrr! We’re Asians who don’t like to waste anything!
Transparency report: We booked our table under an assumed name but they still graciously gave us a discount on the bill and comped our dessert.