Lunch Quickie: Com Vietnamese in Richmond

It’s hard not to talk about CơM Vietnamese Restaurant without comparing it to the other Vietnamese elephant in the room, Anh + Chi. But after three years after the opening of Anh + Chi, the restaurant landscape has changed. Food costs and rent have only gone up. Paying more for a meal out has become the new normal. But “ethnic” food is still battling the perception that it should always be cheap (see Eddie Huang’s “full fucking price”). Vancouver has gotten used to its cheap but often mediocre hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurants but places like House Special, Anh + Chi, Chau Veggie, CơM, DD Mau Chinatown, Dundas Eat + Drink, and others are slowly trying to carve out a space for “fancier” Vietnamese with cocktails and designer interiors. Whether they are actually offering something new that’s worth the higher price tag or simply presenting the same food in a cleaner, more Instagrammable environment is up for debate.

In a nutshell: good (but not perfect) Vietnamese food in a comfortable space but awkward location. More positives and negatives. Large menu deserves another visit.

CơM is located in an awkward spot at Alderbridge & Lansdowne with no immediate street parking. There’s a small free parking lot in the same building which helps tremendously, but I can see the lot getting full during peak periods. There’s a map with additional parking options on their website.

This is near the Richmond Oval/T&T/Fortune Terrace/RONA area. I never drive in this area, and the confluence of Alderbridge, Elmbridge, and Gilbert Road always mess up my sense of direction.

It was only mid-March but it felt like a hint of summer already. Glorious.

CơM are open seven days a week but closed between 2:30pm and 5:00pm on weekdays.

The design/branding/interior was a collab between Glasfurd & Walker and Ste. Marie Design Studio (who also collaborated on Kissa Tanto, St. Lawrence, Savio Volpe, etc).

My impressions from CơM’s Instagram was that this space might be too fancy and overkill for the food, but after actually being in the space it just feels clean and natural. Not overwrought at all.

I loved being able to put down my murse and not worry about it getting sticky or dirty or infected.

Every Vietnamese restaurant has a mini-shrine, if you look hard enough.

Love the high ceiling and copious natural light.

The design/branding is very clean with a tight, consistent colour palette. Hints of Indochine/Chinoiserie style.

Full menu is also on their website.

They don’t push this angle very hard, but they use organic/free-range meats, poultry, and eggs here. Something to consider when you make your price/value judgements.

The menu is quite varied. There’s some rarely-seen dishes like Bánh Mì Chảo (which is a common steak & eggs breakfast in Vietnam, also called Bò Né).

Vegetarian section. They even use vegetarian fish sauce.

The server mentioned that the owner also had a couple small Vietnamese restaurants in New Brunswick(!). All family recipes. Wicca’s mom would totally make stuff like this for family dinners (Canh Chua, Ca Kho, Thit Kho, etc). Truthfully, these dishes taste great whether or not you use organic meats, but they’ve made the decision here to go organic, so naturally it’s reflected in the price.

Their nod to Vietnamese drinking culture (i.e. sitting on plastic stools drinking watery bia served with ice, with snacks to nibble on — any chance of stinky-as-hell grilled dried squid?).

Nice little section of add-ons.

Wicca and I decided on trying their Cá Kho Tộ ($22), caramelized mackerel…

…and Bánh Xèo Sàigòn ($19), crispy Vietnamese crepe.

Not done with the menu porn yet! Here’s the drinks menu. Cocktails by superstar Shaun Layton (Como Taperia)!

Good crowd-pleasing, accessible beer selection. Dat Juice!

Zero-proof.

Wines.

Wicca’s bra matches the dessert menu 😛

No room for dessert today, but good to know.

Dry Sparking Soda – Blood Orange ($5).

It’s basically pop with less sugar, making it more “dry”. Actually a great idea cuz removing alcohol from beer generally leads to disastrous results. Removing some sugar from pop makes it less cloying but still flavourful without resorting to icky fake sugars.

Cá Kho Tộ ($22), caramelized mackerel with a sticky, reduced fish sauce caramel sauce with bits of pork belly and bird’s eye chilies (which Wicca warned me were killer-hot today).

This arrives at the table with a wooden lid, which the server removes to reveal a bubbling caramel. There are lots of variations of this dish. Some people like it strong and reduced like this, some people (especially when cooking it at home) make it less reduced.

In any case, this dish is meant to be eaten with lots and lots of rice. A humble, homey dish born out of poverty.

You’re not going to need a lot of that sauce. The fish was plenty flavoured without adding too much of it. Today the sauce skewed a bit too sweet. I’ve heard from a friend that it skewed too salty when they had it, so I think consistency is something every restaurant needs to work on.

Cá Kho Tộ in other Vietnamese restaurants is usually made with cheaper fish like basa (meh) or catfish (if you’re lucky). It was quite a treat to have this dish made with mackerel. Those pieces in front of the mackerel are little slices of pork belly for extra awesomeness. Very delicious dish, very Vietnamese, but it did get a bit cloying towards the end. Pulling back on the sweetness would help. But overall still a good dish.

Bánh Xèo Sàigòn ($19), a “crispy” rice flour pancake/crepe with pork, prawns, green onion, and bean sprouts. Comes with green leaf lettuce, Viet herbs, and fish sauce for dipping. When the menu says “crispy”, they mean it! One of the crispiest/crunchiest banh xeos I’ve had.

The herbs were perilla (tía tô) and Vietnamese balm/cockscomb mint (kinh giới). Great to see those but I’d also like to see mint or at least cilantro included in this dish. For $19 I think they can afford it.

Good strong colour on this one! So much so that a few bites had a bitter burnt flavour. But I’d trade a floppy, wet banh xeo for a crispy one with a hint of burnt any day. Besides the touches of burnt flavour here and there, the only other negative was the slightly watery and too-sweet nước chấm (fish sauce dipping sauce). More fish sauce to balance it out and give it more flavour please!

Wicca asked for no green onions, which was fine by me. You can see the bits of pork and small prawns in there. An “ok” amount of filling. Pricing is a bit high, but considering how crunchy they got it, I thought it was worth it.

I’d come back for this crunch! The kitchen just has to watch for that burnt bitterness.

Wrap, dip, enjoy, and repeat.

A note about their napkins: their paper napkins are the most absorbent, thickest, and strongest I’ve seen in a restaurant. You could wear a single layer like a bandeau and have no nipples showing through. Trying to rip all four layers at once is like ripping a phone book! (Millennials be like, “what the fuck is a phone book?”)

Even though we only tried a couple dishes during this initial visit, we felt the positives outweighed the negatives and would come again to try more things, preferrably with a beer and a cocktail!

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