Anne DesBrisay is the restaurant critic for Ottawa Magazine. She has been writing about food and restaurants in Ottawa-Gatineau for 25 years and is the author of three bestselling books on dining out. She is head judge for Gold Medal Plates and a member of the judging panel at the Canadian Culinary Championships.
Here’s to the curative powers of a steaming bowl of fragrant pho. The head throb eases, the throat is soothed, the spirit lifted, and the wallet lightened (but just a little).
The trick is finding good pho. The sort that doesn’t lift the spirits temporarily and then keeps you up all night, jittering and guzzling buckets of water — nor the kind that requires many squirts of hoisin and hot sauce to find flavour. Last week, deflated and defeated, post-Christmas shopping for man-boys, bags bulging with athletic socks, I discovered Asian Alley on ByWard Market Square. I plunked down at one of its three communal tables, ordered rolls and beef noodle soup, and within minutes I was a new woman.
It’s mostly Vietnamese on offer at Asian Alley, but they toss in a pad Thai (plus something they call a pad Thai summer roll), to be competitive, I suppose. Must. Have. Pad Thai. It’s the sweet noodle plate that is to south east Asian restaurants what butter chicken is to all Indian. The star player, the blue plate special, the must-have-for-the-occidentals dish. Why? I have no idea. But Asian Alley distinguishes itself from all other Asian fusion type places in this city by what it doesn’t offer — specifically, a seven page menu — and by the uncommon depth of flavour in its pho.
And I suppose, by its penny floor. One hundred and fifty thousand now-useless pennies, repurposed, laid out by hand, beneath a shiny lacquer, surrounded by a commissioned graffiti skyline by local artist Sssnakeboooy and friends. (Check out this post on the Ottawa Mag Facebook page for a peek at the mural.) “I gave them free rein,” owner Hoang tells me. The long, narrow room vibrates with colour and edgy-charm.
A steaming cup of Genmaicha tea (green tea with roasted rice) arrives with the grilled pork and chicken rice wraps. Clearly made to order, the meat is fragrant and warm (makes all the difference) within the soft packages. Lettuce gives them crunch, green herbs (basil and cilantro) lend perfume, and the peanut sauce is more savoury than sweet, clearly not made from the usual Skippy jar.
The food on the one page menu (hurrah!) was good enough to bring me back for dinner — Bun cha ca and lemongrass pork, firecracker shrimp, and vegetarian spring rolls. Plus another bowl of pho, the dark broth brimming with those warming spices, the chunks of meat from the flank clearly a cut above, the big blue bowl filled in with al dente rice noodles, shredded cabbage, carrot, bok choy, and Thai basil, served with a side of chili oil. Full marks.
We like the housemade fish cakes — thin medallions of minced fish and shrimp, flavoured with dill and chili oil — soft but with bouncy chew, though the shrimp within their over-sized crackling covers were small and tough.
The grilled meats had marvellous flavour. Boned and flattened, with big grand hits of lemongrass, ginger and garlic, the pork and chicken both had good char, and came with rice, salad and a bowl of nuoc mam.
Hydration (for now?) is restricted to juices, pop, and tea.
Soups, rice and vermicelli plates, $11 to $14
8 ByWard Market Square, 613-860-9889 www.asianalley.ca