Even if there were legions of Vietnamese restaurants in Glasgow, The Hanoi Bike Shop is so charming, so moreish, that I suspect it would still be the best on offer.
A sister of two of Glasgow’s gastronomic institutions in the Ubiquitous Chip and Stravaigin (the Hanoi Bike Shop is on the former site of Stravaigin 2), it’s little wonder the place has got its ducks in a row, but the level of professionalism is also matched by a profound sense that the staff at the Hanoi Bike Shop love their work, and this in turn is translated into good food and an outstanding dining experience. In fact, in its casual-but-focused ambience, it rather reminded me of eating at the spartan but remarkably authentic Vietnam House Restaurant, Edinburgh’s only venue devoted to the cuisine. Comparisons can often be invidious, but not in this case.
From the time you wander along the cobbled lane and see the quaint little two-storey former mews house with two ancient and decrepit bikes lying outside, there is a sense of anticipation. Once inside, you’re in a relatively cramped space, but the hubbub of chatter and the way the staff weave in and out of the tables holding large trays makes the place feel like a hive of activity.
We were immediately led to a tiny table about the size of two laptops, with Bea seated on a bench and me perched on a small wooden stool. Once our waitress had established that we were newbies, she talked us through the menu at length, explaining how many dishes we should order and attempting to give us a sense of the likely spiciness of each. At this stage Bea’s ear pricked up, spiciness being next to godliness for my better half.
With one eye on the need to roam as widely as possible across the various categories on the menu, we ordered significantly more dishes than advised and didn’t regret it. After we’d started with prawn crackers and a surprisingly restrained peanut and chilli dip, and ordered beers – a nice crisp bottle of Saigon for me and a heavier-duty Hue for Bea – the dishes started to arrive. From there on a new one would magically arrive every couple of minutes.
Apart from the staple pho noodle broths, which you tend to keep to yourself, eating Vietnamese food is generally a communal and convivial enterprise. So it was here, with the succession of dishes being placed in the middle of the table where Bea and I picked at them with chopsticks.
As a teenager I found myself stranded, penniless, in a Middle Eastern town, and while I waited for money to be wired, I took a job washing up in a Chinese restaurant, partly for the pittance I was paid but primarily so I’d get fed each evening. But that meal turned into quite a contest as the family all ate together and would pick expertly at one fish in the middle of table. Inevitably, hunger meant I quickly became an adept at using chopsticks – but as a result, sharing an oriental dish with me isn’t Bea’s idea of fun.
We started with a selection of the smaller sharing dishes. First up was the squid with black pudding and a herby noodle salad, followed by sesame-crusted chicken livers and a noodle and carrot salad with lemongrass dressing. All three were as inventive as they were excellent: the home-made black pudding was pungent and created a novel combination with the salt and pepper squid; the chicken livers were melt-in-the-mouth succulent; the salad was fresh and zesty, and scoured the palate as effectively as any sorbet.
Then we were into the main courses, which included an unexpected dish from the specials board: caramel mackerel. If that sounds disgusting, think again. I know from spending time pottering about catching mackerel on the west coast that this is the most underrated fish there is; cooked fresh, as this was, it has a wonderfully meaty texture and a gorgeously subtle, almost sweet taste. Combined with the very faint caramel flavours, it made for a surprising and memorable dish.
The pick of the two big set-piece dishes off the menu was the galangal and lemongrass coley roasted in a banana leaf. The white flecks of fish fell off the perfectly done carcass, the lemongrass adding a pleasant zestiness. If there was a disappointment among the main courses it was the signature dish, the spicy pork belly and beef flank pho, which is a speciality from the imperial city of Hue and is consequently known as the Royal Pho. Once again there were strong tones of the ever-present lemongrass, but it was the sheer volume of chilli which put me off this version of the noodle broth. Needless to say, Bea, having a far greater tolerance for fiery food, loved it.
We rounded off with mediocre puddings. People don’t go to Vietnamese restaurants for dessert and now we know why: the five-spice pudding was essentially a dry sponge and the lemongrass panna cotta was deeply ordinary.
We couldn’t let such an enjoyable meal finish on a bum note though, so we ended with two glasses of Vietnamese coffee, made in the traditional strong style with condensed milk. Marvellous.
Indeed, the whole experience was a joy. Sensibly priced, atmospheric and authentic, I’d heartily recommend this to anyone who wants to find out more about Vietnamese food.
Main courses: £7.50-£10.50