In a word, phwoaar.
I’ve stayed in Manchester so many times over the years it often feels like a second home comedically. The city itself is always pulsing with life and possibilities, and it’s no wonder it holds such a central role in British culture and sport, not to mention what I will quaintly refer to as my record collection. Inevitably you gather a collection of favourite haunts and, in my case, eateries.
Manchester has often been singled out as lacking in the culinary department when you consider how much of a renaissance it has had in other areas over the thirty years since, funnily enough, ‘I Am The Resurrection’. This feels as though it has genuinely changed over the past decade as every kind of pop up, niche cuisine hostelry, fine dining establishment and bespoke burger joint has opened up, especially around the Northern Quarter which is where I usually stay when I’m in town.
Personally, I have a special affection for Vietnamese food in general, and the national dish, pho, in particular. There is a blog on here called Pholympics which I initially intended to be an updated list of all the phos I had, but it somehow became abandoned, possibly after a rather good one in Hamburg which I failed to write up and, like so many projects, it dwindled to a quiet halt. One of the few great joys of the last few years in the UK is you can now guarantee you’re within spitting distance of a decent noodle soup almost everywhere, and Manchester really seems to have taken off in this regard. A firm favourite is I am Pho just behind Piccadilly Gardens which is a very functional underground room seemly run by teenagers who do an excellent version (as you would hope from the name) and I went down there for my fix only yesterday.
Slightly nearer my hotel is the rather more jazzy Nam, which I visited on a previous stay and found mildly disappointing – a bit mouth and no trousers and a little dear for what it offered. None of these problems affected Viet Shack, which is literally so close to the hotel it might as well be part of it, but, with all due respect to the Travelodge franchise, is literally on another continent when it comes to food.
I had been once before and had a perfect pho and summer rolls (my default order when no morning glory is available,) but this time resolved to be a little more adventurous. It was more than worth it. Famished from a morning run and no breakfast I was warmly welcomed through the doors at 12pm to a fairly quiet restaurant, all a bit funky hipster and wooden tables and metal chairs. There’s a lot of that about in Manchester.
Somewhat surprisingly for a girl of Asian ethnicity working in a Vietnamese restaurant, my delightfully friendly waitress said she didn’t like spicy food, and warned me the charred cauliflower was a bit pokey. Apparently the crispy aubergine was a little easier on the palate, especially if you had it with the peanut sauce, so we decided to meet in the middle and I ordered both, alongside a plate of Nâm Xào – mixed mushrooms on steamed rice. If that sounds a little prosaic it was anything but. The cauliflower, with a good colour but still a perfect al denté texture, was dotted with chillis on a bed of crushed avocado. It was stunning – a little spicy, but nothing for a man who has braved a Norwegian Som Tum. This was staggeringly good cooking – a perfect blend of tastes, textures and temperatures, and actually beautifully offset by the aubergine. This came in crispy chunks, again with the odd chilli, but more importantly a perfect, smooth, unctuous peanut sauce, so good I ordered another small dish of it as the original portion was a little parsimonious.
The Nâm Xáo contained slightly less fireworks but was no less enjoyable. Thick slices of various Asian mushrooms, like a slippery but deeply satisfying veggie fillet steak in an oyster mushroom glaze, packing some serious umami on a bed of steamed rice with a crunchy salad alongside. Delicious. At this point another waitress tried to take the remnants of my peanut sauce away, but I held on to it like a small child with a favourite toy as I wanted to use some of my remaining rice to mop up the last few slicks. As I did so, I actually heard myself audibly whispering the word ‘Magnificent!’
God I’m getting old.
By this time, what had been a fairly quiet restaurant was suddenly packed to the seams, and I heard my waitress apologise to another table that their food might e half an hour. They didn’t complain, and having just finished mine, I could rather smugly agree they were right. I paid the outstandingly good value £22 bill (including impeccable service) and walked out past an ever expanding queue of punters clearly keen to enjoy the good times as much as I just had.
There is a well known phrase, often employed by Mancunians, that on a certain day, god created Manchester. A quick google leads me to conclude there is some confusion over whether this was on the sixth, seventh, or maybe even eighth day. What is perfectly clear however, is that it may have taken a little time, but she has now also created an absolutely outstanding Vietnamese restaurant.