Pure Juice Bar + Kitchen opened in the office tower…
Pho Rua Vang / Golden Turtle
323 King Street West
Kitchener, ON N2G 1B8
Seven course dinner for two with tea: $35
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The pho experience can be a tetchy one. Most people have very definitely formed ideas about what their favourite broth should taste like. When you challenge that, things can get ill-tempered.
Ultimately, though, the pho experience is one of tremendous pleasure, some fetishitic routine and just about always hedonistic pleasure. Mix sauces, tear basil, squeeze lime … inhale aroma, slurp soup, and sigh out loud. My, my that’s so good.
Located in Kitchener’s “West End Eats” or “Innovation” district near King and Water streets, Rua Vang / Golden Turtle Vietnamese and Thai Restaurant is a refurbished Pho 95 that was there for years. It’s been cleaned up a bit (just a bit) — an odd and quirky stucco-ness remains. The tables and chairs have been refreshed, but the decor remains purely functional and completely uninteresting, but who cares here?
A small chain (with Golden Turtle sisters in Toronto), it has the usual few hundred dishes that you select and order by number on a sheet of paper that you hand to waitstaff. That waitstaff, by the way, are usually extremely helpful and will do whatever they can to supply you with information about their menu items — to wit, a wandering into bò 7 món or bò bảy món dinner for two. About that in just a moment.
Their pho tai (rare beef with rice noodle) and pho tai gan (rare beef and tendon), I find, are both consistent and very good. They are light, refreshing, and not overburdened by the harshness of white onions. There is a sweetness to the broth and a flavour that is inflected with a cinnamony five-spice. The price on these soups is easily under $10.
Pho bo Thai lan — a classic tom yum soup — has the requisite hot, sweet and sour balance with a decent amount, if not a bit too many gnarly bits, of chicken. The first tom yum sampling was perfect with lemon quality and fish undertones, while the second visit found the broth somewhat oily. It’s good enough, however, to bring me back for a third try some time soon.
Repeated visits to Rua Vang found the fresh, or “summer” rolls (goi cuon tum) of cool vermicelli with shrimp, pork and mint — or a combination thereof — found rolls that were curiously flat and under-seasoned.
However, I much prefer the deep-fried cha gio rolls: they are delicious and crisp and sop up so well the fish sauce with the bits of carrot garnish. These pork and noodle rolls might sit atop your bun (vermicelli bowl), a lovely cool “salad” of noodles and veg which you can douse with that delicious fish sauce. The quality is on par with other local bun dishes.
Now back to bò bảy món. Ultimately, dining out should be an experience, a small journey, an adventure. You should learn something about the food you’re eating, the culture that you are, physically, putting into your body. You should learn something about yourself too. That is all possible when you visit restaurants like Rua Vang.
Bò 7 mòn Rua Vang is a traditional Vietnamese seven-course beef dinner often served at weddings, and it’s a bit awkward logistically. The Rua Vang version for two ($30) started with a rice vinegar hot pot (bo nhung dam) and a gas burner for cooking your raw beef (compare: a fondue) and rolling it in rice paper sheets that you temper and soften in an inexpensive plastic contraption of warm water.
Accompanying this is some fine rice vermicelli and scallions and an immense platter of bite-sized vegetables: carrots, cucumber, mung bean sprouts and daikon, along with some lettuce and mint. There is an order in which the dishes should arrive; they didn’t arrive in that order, but let’s not stand on some silly ceremony.
Your task — should you choose to accept it — is to warm and soften the rice paper wraps while your raw beef is enjoying its vinegar bath; next, you place the meat and some vermicelli, veg, lettuce and mint onto the wrapper and roll it up like a thick cigar.
You can then dip it in some fish sauce (nuoc nam) or a very different tasting pineapple-sweetened and fermented fish sauce (mam nem) which is very, very fishy indeed. Very fishy.
Other courses include beef satay (bo sa te) — a pretty heavy duty cut of inside round but that is grilled and seasoned nicely for bo lui. Perhaps the most interesting morsel was bo cuon la lot, a seasoned ground beef mixed with onion that is wrapped tightly in a grassy leaf (lolot) that gives a slightly and pleasantly charred flavour to the dish. The restaurant called them mint leaves, but I did not get any mint flavour out of it: if it was lolot, it was perhaps akin to a grape leaf.
Add to that bo cuon mo chai, a sort of beef sausage that is rolled, traditionally, in caul fat; the waitress said that they had run out. No matter: though I love things swaddled and basted in caul fat, there was some good taste here anyway.
If you didn’t think our Vietnamese friends enjoy the odd gnaw of “beef jerky” from time to time, think again. One course of the seven is goi bo kho, a crunchy salad of a vermicelli-thin green papaya and shards of Vietnamese-style beef jerky with a consistency, I would estimate, like a very chewy salami or very dry summer sausage. With a fishy soy sauce and brown sugary quality to the dark brown dressing, it is again a different kind of salad — and a quite scrumptious one.
My favourite dish was one of the last to arrive: beef congee. Chao bo is the final course of bo bảy món, and it is simply delicious. A Vietnamese breakfast, it might also be consumed in late afternoon when hunger strikes and in order to tide one over until the evening meal.
Traditionally thought of as a dish for the poor, it is a true shame to think of congee as that. Instead, think of it as a savoury rice porridge (chao trang) cooked slowly down to a creamy consistency — imagine soupy grits — with bits of beef and some scallions. I love it, and it is very versatile in accepting a variety of ingredients. And there is somewhere, I believe, a seasoning hidden in Rua Vang’s congee that makes it to me irresistible. Some might say that the dish is an acquired taste and that might be so.
But there you go; now we have all learned something about ourselves: it’s just one thing a restaurant visit is supposed to inspire.
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