Above: City Caphe's owner Julie Vu (right) and her mother Quyen, in front of the cafe's wall of family photos
I've always enjoyed the fresh, soul-mending flavours of Vietnamese food, in those moments when dishes are made with sufficient care and patience in Singapore, London, Paris or elsewhere. Then I went to Vietnam, and came back utterly ruined (in a good way) by the country's street food. And anxious and mopey that I might never find anything close ever again. It didn't help that my Vietnamese friends here in London tend to simply make a disdainful "nowhere-we-just-cook-at-home" face when I ask them where they go for Vietnamese food here.
Thankfully in the months that we've been back here I have found at least a few delightful specimens. The pho soup stock at Viet Grill. The pillowy banh mi baguette (get it with extra pickles and cut chillis) and chao (rice congee) at Chao. The roast duck and pork belly banh mis at Keu. The banh cuon (steamed rice flour rolls) at Cafe East. Canh chua (a GORGEOUS brothy seafood soup) at Love Leluu's supperclub.
Above: City Caphe's banh mi and beef pho
But it was only at City Caphe that I finally regularly hit menu indecision. Babs and I would try to order different things and share each time to make our way through the menu. And every time we would find ourselves trying to sneak more of the other's food while trying to be subtle about protecting our own. Their pho has the most intense stock I've tried in London. Their spicy Hue-style noodle soup had me tearing and sniffling with chilli heat and weepy joy. Their bun cha (noodle salad with grilled meat) I could just go on eating for hours. Their banh mi isn't as light and pillowy as Chao's, but Babs is addicted. Their double-shot iced coffee is a wonderfully reliable afternoon booster.
I'm told there are customers that come here 4 or 5 days a week. Entirely believable.
Above: City Caphe's bo la lot, beef wrapped in betel leaves
And then one recent afternoon City Caphe owner Julie Vu introduces me to bo la lot -- spiced minced beef dolmas wrapped in betel leaf instead of grape leaf, then either deep fried or grilled over charcoal. Oh dear dear dear dear dear. A new addiction cometh.
"The food was actually the easiest part of setting up this cafe a year ago," Julie tells me, "We just make food that we eat at home. We just had to figure out how to make a lot more of it at one go while keeping the taste consistent."
And it's none other than Julie's Mum Quyen who makes sure that ingredients and techniques in the kitchen are faithful to home methods. Kitchen gloves and hygiene caps aside, the vibe in the kitchen does feel and sound quite homey when I peek in. Apparently much of City Caphe is staffed with the Vu's extended family and friends, all nattering away as they work.
"I don't know how they find so many things to talk and gossip about since they see each other every day, but they do!" says Julie.
Above: Photos of Julie's parents adorn the feature wall of City Caphe
The decor of the place is homey as well, with wall of photos of old Vietnam and Julie's parents in the days of their youth and at the refugee camp where they met.
Now, one year on, Julie wants to share more recipes from home. Given City Caphe is open only in the daytime, she wants to start hosting supperclubs and cooking classes on nights and weekends.
City Caphe's debut supperclub will be a team effort with Hackney's Banh Mi 11 on 3 and 5 November, and among other menu items will feature bun rieu, a crab pho which received rave tweets during City Caphe's birthday menu week.
While we're counting down, Julie's making the wait a touch easier by sharing her recipe for bo la lot. Enjoy!
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Disclosure: I'm the founder of Edible Experiences. Unless otherwise stated, I attend events as a paying guest
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