Previously located in Deptford, near London’s Greenwich neighbourhood, the family-owned and -operated restaurant moved to Surrey Keys, in 2008. Ever since then we were regular visitors. It is just twelve minutes’ walk from Bermondsey Jubilee line tube station. Quite a few of our friends are ethnic Vietnamese, and Café East was their go-to destination. Thus it became our go-to destination for Vietnamese food, too, often joining our friends, but equally on our own. Over the past dozen years we must have visited at least once per year on average.
I remember how my first visit with Ms B was a true revelation. Up until then I had never had outrageously brilliant Vietnamese food, only ever very good Vietnamese food. Then, over the years, we kept on coming back, and each and every time the food had gotten just a tiny tad less impressive. From a clear 5 out of 5 (heck, 10 out of 5) in 2008 notch by notch to about 3.25 out of 5, when we visited end of last week.
Don’t get me wrong, that is still a pretty good rating and we will return for more, like we always do. But it is a bit sad to watch this. We swore an oath that when they crash through the 3 out of 5 barrier that will have been the end of it for us. We’ll cry ourselves to sleep for a few months, we’ll eat nothing but stale bread, but eventually we’ll get over it. It is bound to happen, and we’ll be mentally prepared.
The Guardian’s moody food uncle, Jay Rayner called it “cheap, fresh and delicious” in 2011. Tripadvisor used to rank it highly, but during recent years it has slipped down to a thoroughly unimpressive, roughly #4,000 out of 20,000 London restaurants.
However, first things first. The restaurant does not do reservations, so when we arrived on a Thursday night at 7:30pm, there were about 15 people queuing ahead of us, as expected. As usual the staff were not overly friendly or eager to serve their customers, but in the end we did get a paper-slip with our queue number on it. After watching a large number of empty tables remaining uncleared for new customers for about 20 minutes, we were led to our table. The waitress came back quickly to take our order, which was great as we’d been nursing our hunger for too long.
For starters we decided to go for one portion of giant Goi Cuon summer rolls to share: fresh rice paper rolls filled with prawns, pork, salad, rice & noodles, served with yellow bean sauce, topped with crushed peanuts (for a very reasonable £6.50). For mains we opted for Pho Dac Biet, well done marbled beef (they also offer completely rare lean beef), free range chicken & juicy king prawns with flat rice noodles in beef broth (£10), and spicy Bun Bo Hue, thick, round vermicelli rice noodles with beef brisket in beef broth (£9).
The venue does not serve alcohol (which is fine, of course), so we decided to be adventurous and chose Che Ba Mau, a three-colour drink made with sweetened red kidney beans and green jelly, topped with coconut milk over crushed ice for £4, and Sam Bo Luong, a traditional Chinese herbal tea served with fresh longan fruit, Chinese dates, seaweed, jelly, and lotus seed (also £4).
It took at least another 20 minutes, until the starter and the drinks arrived. The summer rolls were decent but contained too little prawn and pork in comparison to the rice, rice noodles, rice paper, and lettuce, which basically left them without much flavour, a shortcoming which the yellow bean sauce could not cure. The two drinks, on the other hand, were truly fascinating. I remember vaguely having tried them before, but they still struck me as completely and utterly out-of-this-world, like squeezed Martian aliens three ways or something. Very impressive and memorable.
When it took 15 minutes for the waitress to pick up our empty starter dish and another 15 minutes before our mains arrived, we were starting to be a bit upset. To top it all, they forgot to bring Vietnamese spoons for our phos (at least that issue was resolved in under one minute, possibly because Ms B can be very unambiguous and straightforward when she’s upset).
The broths of both phos were absolutely delicious. I loved my brisket, even though they could perhaps have removed a few of the distinctly stringy and chewy bits. I realise that it is rather common not to do so in Vietnamese cuisine. The chicken thighs in Ms B’s pho were dry and the thin beef slices tasted like they’d been sitting around for too long, with a bit of an aftertaste.
We always enjoy the no-frills, busy atmosphere, and the fact that they still attract so many members of the Vietnamese community, university students and couples on date night, just the same as larger groups headed by the family patriarchs. The food presentation was better than ever. Just a pity with the food.
For much better Vietnamese cuisine, check out Phat Phuc in Chelsea. Other Asian restaurants we like include our favourite Korean, Kimchee, or New York Chinese dumpling paradise RedFarm in Covent Garden. We have reviewed The Yellow House, less than 10mins walk from Café East in Bermondsey, Beso and Mamie’s in Covent Garden, Bonnie Gull, Pachamama’s and Berners Tavern, all in Fitzrovia, and Coco Momo, Kensington.
For travel and adventure inspiration, feel welcome to eyeball our posts about our Norfolk seal safari, our hiking holiday on the Jurassic Coast, or the times we went horseback riding and kayaking in the New Forest, jetlevving and powerboating near Cambridge, and ziplining in central London. We have also done a group collaboration where some travel blogger friends write about the favourite holiday destination in their respective home country.