Edmonton Restaurant Review: iPho and Grill Vietnamese Cuisine

#91 Special Combination 5 Vermicelli Bowl

I was really waffling on what to eat and where to go for dinner last month. Ultimately, I picked iPho and Grill Vietnamese Cuisine located along Calgary Trail at 6104 104 Street. We showed up right around six o’clock on a Saturday night without a reservation, and we didn’t have any problems getting a table. It was busy when we arrived though. A number of the tables were already occupied, including one with a large group of about ten people. It meant service was a tad slow, but thankfully, we weren’t in a rush to go anywhere else after. Despite the wait to order, the booth was comfortable and the space was new, clean and modern.

To drink, I ordered a Fresh Fruit Mango Bubble Tea ($4.45). Contrary to the name, the beverage doesn’t include any tapioca pearls in it for the base price, so you do have to add them for an extra cost ($0.75). I actually found that the mango tasted more artificially flavoured than fresh, but the consistency was smooth and there was a decent ratio of pearls to smoothie, so I didn’t run out of either before the other.

Fresh Fruit Mango Bubble Tea & Spring Rolls

As his starter, Kirk opted to go with an order of the Spring Rolls ($5.95). These rice paper wraps were freshly fried to a crunchy, thin, golden-brown and filled with a mix of ground meat, veggies, and vermicelli noodles. I didn’t eat any of his, but a couple of pieces came with my own food, and I thought that they were delicious. For the appetizer, they served the spring rolls with a side of fish sauce for dipping. Kirk wasn’t a fan of using it, but I think that the funky sweet, salty, and fishy taste married well to create a nice balance of flavours, amping up the spring roll ingredients.

Kirk’s main dish was the Specialty Chicken Noodle Soup ($10.95). He requested that they make it spicy for a dollar more. It would have been nice to try the broth before it was altered, just to see what it tasted like in a more pure form. All I can say is that the spicy version was HOT. The soup was piping temperature-wise, but the heat on the palate from the spice was even difficult for Kirk to handle. I had two spoonfuls of the broth and, while I enjoyed the flavour profile at first, it definitely kicked you in the throat at the end and the spice really lingered. Otherwise, I believe that the bowl could have used a little more of the chicken as there wasn’t a whole lot of meat, and the same goes for the noodles.

So much food in the #91 Vermicelli Bowl!

Whenever I go for Vietnamese, I usually turn to the vermicelli bowls and their Special Combination 5 (#91 on the menu; $15.45) didn’t disappoint. It had a well-portioned combination of noodles, bean sprouts, lettuce, cucumber, and carrot to form the base of the meal. It was topped off with copious amounts of grilled beef, chicken, pork, shrimp, and spring rolls. A small dish of fish sauce was provided to coat everything (I used all of it). The veggies were crisp and juicy, the noodles had a nice bite to them, and the meats were all prepared nicely. Occasionally, I find that the beef at other restaurants have a lot of tendon running through the pieces, making them chewier, but I didn’t have that issue here. The beef also had a distinct lemongrass flavour. The three meats were tender, and I was especially happy with the shrimp, which were surprisingly plump and perfectly seasoned. I devoured the whole bowl and went home very happy.

Once we were fully satiated, we head over to the counter to take care of our bill. I’m unsure whether or not they will take payment at the table, but we noticed a number of other patrons walking up to the till, so we did the same¬† thing. Overall, iPho and Grill was pretty good; however, if you aren’t certain that you can handle something truly spicy, you’ve been forewarned about their soups.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Mai Vietnamese Fusion

The exterior of Mai Vietnamese Fusion.

Had I not strolled by Mai Vietnamese Fusion along West Edmonton Mall’s Bourbon Street earlier this year, I never would have known of its existence. Intrigued, I searched for it online and found that the restaurant itself had no website or Facebook page. The only trace of it came through reviews left by patrons on Yelp and Zomato. Their only social media presence was on Instagram and even that hadn’t been updated since the summer of 2016.

Those reviews I’d seen weren’t very flattering either. Yet, a Groupon deal was all I needed to forgive any negatives and give Mai Vietnamese Fusion a try. I waited almost the full four months before I went to redeem that voucher on a Saturday night. When my boyfriend and I walked up to the host standing outside the front of the establishment, we indicated that we needed a table for two people. She seemed disorganized and asked us to wait while she ran inside to find an empty space (shouldn’t they have a seating chart at their disposal?). When she came back, we were told that there wasn’t anything available, but something would be ready within ten minutes or so.

The entrance into the restaurant.

As we waited, my eyes explored the room, and I have to say it was designed well. A giant Buddha greets patrons as they come in through the door. To the left hand side of the entrance is a whole wall of smaller figurines of the same in a variety of colours. On the main level, there are a couple of semi-private rooms for larger groups as well as some more intimate tables for couples. Up a few steps on the right hand side are a number of large velvet-lined booths overlooked by a handful of portrait paintings. Overall, the aesthetic was modern with just a touch of the traditional.

Condiments at the table along with fresh basil and bean sprouts.

Once we were seated, we reviewed the menu. Initially, I thought it was a bit expensive in comparison to other restaurants that serve the same type of food. However, I do understand that the cost of rent at WEM is much higher than it would be anywhere else, so I’m assuming that is reflected in their prices. Ultimately, my boyfriend opted for the large Pho with Steak ($15.70) and I went with the Grilled Beef & Spring Roll with Vermicelli ($16.20).

It didn’t take much time for them to prepare everything because, before we knew it, our bowls were brought out to us, along with a plate of fresh basil and bean sprouts. Then we went to work devouring it all.

Pho with Steak

The Pho with Steak was very generous in size. There were plenty of noodles in the bowl and enough steak that my boyfriend nearly failed to finish off the meat (unheard of). The soup wasn’t particularly hot, but it was warm enough. Fattiness was apparent in the broth with bubbles of oil at the top, yet it didn’t seem greasy when consumed. It was a nice, simple soup. I wish I could give a true sense of what it tasted like on its own though. Unfortunately, I only had some after my boyfriend added in a bunch Sriracha sauce to it. Arguably, that added a delightful heat that also elevated the flavour of the dish. Of course, I won’t know for sure how pure the soup is until I go back and try the pho again without that alteration. In any case, it was good enough for me to want to keep drinking the broth.

Grilled Beef & Spring Roll with Vermicelli

My portion of the Grilled Beef & Spring Roll with Vermicelli did not disappoint. Sure, it wasn’t as big as the pho, but it was all noodles, veggies and protein. I almost had a hard time stirring the components together for fear of anything jumping ship out of the side of the bowl. In the end, I managed to get the fish sauce mixed in well though. Again, they did not skimp on the noodles (as a cheap ingredient, they shouldn’t be). The ratio of vermicelli to beef was almost perfect. I especially enjoyed the meat as it was marinated really well; the lemongrass flavour definitely came through and there was a pleasant charring from the grill. The two spring rolls were deliciously crisp and filling, too.

Our only issue with the restaurant was the service. Each staff member that we encountered came across as friendly, and, as I mentioned before, our food was presented pretty quickly. Despite that, there was still a sense of mismanagement. With several people working that evening, two tables, including ours, never received our requested glasses of water. Both of us had to ask random employees for our drinks towards the end of our meals because we couldn’t find the person who was supposed to be our server.

Otherwise, it turned out to be a decent dinner out. I think I understand why the restaurant doesn’t necessarily have the greatest reviews out there. Nonetheless, if someone can see past possibly subpar service and they happen to be at West Edmonton Mall with a hankering for Vietnamese cuisine (and other Asian-style dishes), I would tell them to give Mai Vietnamese Fusion a chance.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Pho Boy

The interior of Pho Boy.

Aiming to bring authentic pho and Vietnamese street food to Edmonton, locally owned and operated Pho Boy opened on Whyte Avenue and 100 Street in December of last year. They focused on a soft launch menu until the restaurant’s official grand opening in February, meaning the time was taken to hone their selection.

My friend and co-worker has been a fan since the beginning, and I would see her food posts from Pho Boy on social media frequently. Everything always looked so good. Therefore, when I happened across a Groupon deal, I jumped on it. Rather than use it immediately, I set the voucher aside until August. I knew I’d be hanging out around Old Strathcona during the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, so it’d be the perfect time to go. Plus, by then, I hoped that any and all growing pains would have worked themselves out of the establishment.

The entrance is tucked away past the somewhat hidden front patio space.

Between shows on a Sunday afternoon, my boyfriend and I ambled towards the address. I had recalled driving by the building on a previous occasion and seeing their round, bright yellow sign hovering above the sidewalk, but as we proceeded east, it didn’t stand out. In fact, I almost passed right by. The entrance is kind of masked by a somewhat gated front patio space. It’s actually a cozy sort of outdoor dining area that’s a bit tucked away from the pedestrians and traffic. However, it wasn’t nice enough that day for us to sit there, so we headed inside. One of the servers saw us a minute after we arrived. She seated us along the booth bench. Being later in the day, no more than a few of the other tables were occupied.

Playing the Street Fighter II arcade game.

The space is fun and well thought out. A sunset mural of Vietnamese farmers covers the one wall, while the other is plastered with vintage looking posters and the “Pho Boy” scrawl. The furniture consists of heavy, dark woods that keep the focus on the rest of the art and the unique lighting. There’s even a Street Fighter II arcade game sitting in the corner with a large TV screen hanging above it for other diners to watch players beat the high score.

Design aside, I was there for the food. At first the menu confused me because the Legend Vermicelli was listed under two different pages, but after consulting with the server, she pointed out that one included the regular spring roll with pork and the second was a vegetarian version without any meat. Either way, I was somewhat dismayed at the shortage of beef, chicken, pork or shrimp options that one would typically see at a Vietnamese joint. The only way of getting anything like that was with the Hero’s Feast ($17; it includes lemongrass beef and a shrimp skewer), which I was warned about in terms of portion size.¬† Regardless, I went with the latter. My boyfriend opted for the regular size Pho Boy Phoenix Special ($10).

While we waited, two other plates were brought out. One had a couple of large shrimp chips on it. The other had the usual pho garnishes: basil leaves, bean sprouts and a wedge of lime. Each ingredient looked fresh.

Our dishes arrived shortly after. To my dismay, the Phoenix Special was covered in cilantro (it’s my nemesis). Although the herb isn’t my boyfriend’s favourite either, he said he didn’t mind it this time. He stated that the heat of the soup made the flavour less apparent, and it worked well with the shredded chicken. I also think that his generous dousing of Sriracha sauce into the chicken broth may have helped to mask it. When I first took a spoonful of the soup to try it, I thought to myself that it had quite a pleasant kick of spice to it. That is, until I put two and two together and realized he’d already mixed in the Sriracha, so to be honest, I have no clue what the true broth tastes like. It seemed pretty clean though. There weren’t any grease bubbles in the bowl; it was just an aromatic and savoury soup that was perfect for a somewhat chilly day.

When it came to my Hero’s Feast, I was bracing myself. I thought that there was no way I’d be able to finish it. From what I was told, it would be huge. But, it showed up and I knew it wouldn’t be much of an issue. To start, I will contend that they do not skimp on the rice noodles or the veggies. There was a mountain of bean sprouts and julienned cucumbers, carrots, cabbage, and lettuce sitting atop the vermicelli. Yet, I had my eye on the prize. After I poured every last drop of the fish sauce into the bowl and tossed the components together, I worked my way through the dish. Admittedly, the shrimp were lackluster. The texture of the crustaceans was rubbery. The kitchen fared much better with the lemongrass beef; well-marinated, a little bit charred, thinly sliced and still tender, the meat, along with the crispy Legend Rolls were the star of the show. Initially, I didn’t understand why the eatery would offer the Legend Vermicelli with nothing other than spring rolls. From all past experiences, the spring roll is sort of the after thought to a vermicelli meal. Here, they were pairing it with the noodle bowl as the single source of protein. After trying the Legend Rolls, I get it. They are succulent and they provide that umami flavour to the dish without having to go the distance that other Vietnamese restaurants so often do. On my next visit, I know that the spring rolls will be enough to satiate my hunger.

Did Pho Boy wow me? They excelled in some ways (the crunch of the Legend Roll was unlike any other spring roll I’ve had) and there’s certainly room for improvement. Overall, I’d say it was decent. The food was satisfying, the prices were fairly reasonable and the service was stellar. Like their menu, Pho Boy is just slightly off the beaten path, but it’s one that is worth taking at least once.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: XO Bistro + Bar

Lunch time at XO Bistro + Bar.

XO Bistro + Bar opened in the Ice District late last year. Situated on the main floor of the new Ultima condo building on 103 Street and 102 Avenue, it’s not far from my downtown office.

Still in its infancy, I finally stopped by for lunch last month. When I showed up for my OpenTable reservation, my friend was already seated in one of the booths by the bar. The space isn’t all that big, but it’s modern in design and it looked like there were stairs by the doors that led up to a second level.

At one o’clock, it was pretty quiet. The lunch crowd must have already dissipated by that time of day. The server brought over some water and, after giving us a few minutes to check out the menu, she came back to take our orders.

The lunch menu is quite succinct with several appetizers and various iterations of Vietnamese pho, vermicelli and bowls as well as a handful of other options. The main difference between most simply came down to the toppings selected.

In our case, my friend chose the Combo 2 Rice Plate with Grilled Chicken and I decided on Combo 3 with Vermicelli, Grilled Beef and Grilled Chicken. Both dishes were served with a spring roll. The food was quickly prepared and we were able to eat without much delay.

Combo 2 with Rice, Grilled Chicken & Spring Roll

My friend’s plate looked nice with a dome-shaped portion of rice, two large pieces of grilled chicken and a side of julienned veggies. The server had dropped off a couple of sauce bottles along with our food, but neither was soy, so my dining companion had to track her down for that. Other than that minor hiccup, my friend enjoyed the meal.

I found my vermicelli to be very filling. There was actually a lot of food crammed into the bowl. I poured the entire amount of fish sauce provided into the noodles and attempted to mix everything together without losing anything over the sides of the dish. It was a bit difficult. However, I was happy with the overall portion size. Anything less and I may have been disappointed because it’s a bit pricier than other eateries that serve Vietnamese cuisine.

Combo 3 with Vermicelli, Grilled Beef, Grilled Chicken & Spring Roll

Here, a bowl with one choice of protein and a spring roll cost about $17 after tax and tip. Whereas, places like Pho Hoan Pasteur and Delicious Pho are about $2 less and include a variety of toppings like grilled pork, chicken, beef, meatballs, shrimp and the spring roll, so there’s more value with the others. Regardless, the grilled beef and chicken at XO Bistro was flavoured well with lemongrass and had that lovely charred taste to it. It meat was thinly sliced, so it cooked quickly to the perfect texture and chew. The spring roll was also crisp on the outside and not too greasy.

Honestly, I’m not sure that the downtown lunch crowd is who they’re catering to. They seem to be more of a late night venue with a fun cocktail menu and bar bites, so I’d be inclined to come back to check that out another time.

Granted, that’s not to say it wouldn’t be worth trying XO Bistro + Bar on any other occasion. On the contrary. It was wonderful to be there when it was quieter and not too busy. Their service is decent. Plus, the food is tasty, albeit nothing that really differentiates it from other Vietnamese restaurants.

All-in-all, I think it comes down to convenience and preference. If I’m looking for somewhere stylish to eat this type of food in the downtown area, XO Bistro + Bar will probably be one of the first places to come to my mind. It’s also an ideal location for anyone popping by Rogers Place for any shows or games as it’s literally minutes away by foot.