Upon finishing our occasional weekend west-side ‘house visit’, JH and I decided to make the 6PM open of Pinky’s Ca Phe, a Vietnamese-inspired snack bar. Across the street from Doma on 53 Clinton Street, the restaurant is located in an old house, and is pretty nondescript from the outside. It has no obvious signage, so the restaurant looks to be making its way via word of mouth (and all the Yelps, BlogTOs, Toronto Lifes of the world). When we got there at 5:58PM, we were the first to arrive, but shortly after there were about 3 to 4 groups lining up behind us. The restaurant filled up rather quickly, so word of mouth is definitely working for them. Also backing them is the fact that the restaurant is from the same owner and chef of the already successful and delicious OddSeoul and Hanmoto restaurants. Hanmoto is still my favourite of the three (with that beautiful dumpling stuffed chicken wing).
- Mood – Incredibly tired. I need to go to bed soon.
- Focus – Vietnamese snacks.
- Craving – Pinky’s Ca Phe’s ceviche.
- Feedback from the husband – JH dittoed my sentiments. He also made the connection first with “Ca Phe” and “cafe”. My smart man.
The decor of the restaurant is definitely unique. It looks like an old war-time Vietnam Saigon bar – everything from the really dim lighting, Vietnam flags, the lanterns strewn about to just the general funky ‘cool cat’ vibe. Not that I am any expert of old war-time Vietnam Saigon bars, it just felt reminiscent of Miss Saigon. I absolutely loved the red floral-patterned stools, especially against the green and pink walls- the combination really added to the atmosphere. When we asked our waitress about the name of restaurant she noted that the Chef had travelled extensively through Vietnam, and had noticed that Vietnamese women have very fair complexions caused from hiding from the sun, and that they wore a lot of pink blush. I remember this from my own travels. Vietnamese women desire fair skin, finding it to be attractive. JH commented that my tan in Vietnam must have been considered disgusting. I must have looked like a disgusting monster. In some ways, given the mish-mash – yes I did.
The restaurant is not that big. There is a sun room at the front with natural light – two tables, and a small tight row of seats with stools. Inside, there are a couple of tables and the bar, and the kitchen at the the back (there appears to be a kitchen downstairs as well, and the grill outside). When we got there, the restaurant was not full yet, so we asked to sit in the sun room specifically at a table. Our waitress was fairly insistent (“we can’t let you sit at a bigger table because we might get slammed”) that we sit on the stools, even though there were no groups at the tables. JH and I really did not want to be difficult, but knowing that we would eat fast, we really wanted to eat at the more comfortable tables. The tables also had better natural light. Anyhow, after some insistence, we managed to convince the waitress to let us sit at a table with the caveat that if they filled up, they could put two others at our table. We managed to get out before that scenario was required. It was really dependent on them to push out the food. We got a dish only one at a time, and our last dish actually took a bit longer to come versus the others. If not for that last dish, we would have beat the arrival of the three groups who were seated at the sun room. We ate as fast as we could.
At this point, we understood with it being a small restaurant that the waitress tried. But for the most part, we found service to be a little non-engaging comparatively. She gave us water and asked how we were. But we noticed that with other tables, the other waitresses seemed to be much more engaged and detailed. Other waitresses proactively asked about allergies, provided descriptions about ingredients when dishes arrived, and just seemed to smile overall. We could have asked for all of these things, but it was just a bit off-putting when we saw that other tables were seemingly treated better. This is not the fault of the restaurant, but just one server really. And I mean, JH and I have had much worst service in our lives, but it just was something to point out, especially since they are a new restaurant. No matter how full or popular they get, service should always be on point. I have been a waitress before, I am not making this up.
Now to the food. The menu is divided into a couple of sections really – appetizers, sandwiches, noodles and rice, and then the grilled meat (which is supposed to be their “thing”). There were also specials (which the waitress describes), one of which we ordered. There are no descriptions so you need to rely on service to guide you through the menu, or at least have them answer “yes” to your guesses of what a dish might be.
JH and I ended up ordering:
- The Tiger’s Milk Ceviche ($12) – This was essentially a chips-with-dip dish. The chips were made of taro and had a good crunch. The ceviche had lots of lovely tangy and sour notes and we enjoyed this dish. We tasted coconut milk, lemon grass, and fish sauce. The ceviche was comprised of yellow fin tuna, bits of surf clam or what might have been octopus, jalapeño, avocado, cilantro, and purple onion. It was a good ceviche with the right amount of acidity. This was probably my favourite dish of the night. I am glad we ordered this because the alternative was fried broccoli (JH’s pick for a dish), but the waitress said this was one of the more popular dishes.
- The Special – Claypot Eggplant ($10) – The claypot was cooked over their charcoal grill. It was a warm, earthy dish, though the seasoning was a bit less obvious (than the ceviche). It tasted really good though with bites of shallots and peppers. The eggplant was smoky and tender, and really cooked down. I would have preferred this dish with rice perhaps to make it a claypot rice.
- “So Fly” Rice ($15) – This reminded me a bit of a bún dish, because there was a salad-ish base. The fried rice had bits of broccoli, fish roe, jalapeño, and onions. It was topped with strips of egg. We think it might have been served with fish sauce (the sauce on the side). Once again, we should have been more aggressive with asking the waitress for a description (because their menus have no descriptions). I think the dish needed some sort of heat. It was a bit lacklustre. It is a good portion for two, but I can either order a bún or a fried rice dish at a Chinese restaurant for considerably less.
- “Luk Lac Beef Short Ribs ($18) – This was our last dish. It took a little longer to come versus the other dishes, but I had read in other reviews that with the charcoal grill cooking, it takes a little bit longer. Admittedly, I did not like the dish at all, even though I have had similar dishes before (think dim sum short ribs, or Korean barbecue). The dish was served with lettuce, carrots, and daikon, with the appearance that you should eat it as a wrap. However the ribs are on the bone, and not tender at all. You need to pull the meat off with your teeth and hands, and deconstruct it. By the time you do this, you are basically chewing the meat already, and the lettuce, etc. becomes an afterthought. The meat was also pretty fatty other than being tough. I wish we had ordered a sandwich or another noodle dish instead.
All in all, I always find Asian-fusion restaurants to be a bit of a hit-or-miss (case in point, Jackpot Chicken Rice, Dai Lo, etc). I really enjoyed Hanmoto, but this experience was a bit off for me. I think at the back of my head, I was thinking of eating at a regular Vietnamese restaurant for half the price, or in Vietnam for a margin of the price (in all my travels – and I also thought it was missing some of the snacks I loved in Vietnam, like Banh Khot), so the $70+ bill (after tax/tip) just did not feel worth it. Some of the flavours were good (the ceviche and the eggplant), but this happens every time I go to a hipster Asian-fusion restaurant in Toronto. I feel disappointed, and would rather go to somewhere full-on-Asian & cheap/cheerful in Chinatown or Markham, etc. Our less-than-enthused waitress did not help.
Anyhow, the decor was really pretty and if we were in the mood to drink alcohol I think the drinks might have been good – they looked good from afar. The vibe of the restaurant was nice, and there were some nice flavour combinations, but overall, the meal just wasn’t worth it. As we were leaving, the table next to us questioned what Banh Mi and Vermicelli were. The one guy said “vermicelli is like a noodle, like udon”. That was a bit funny to me given how multi-cultural Toronto is, but I guess some people stay in their comfort zones. So, this would definitely be a great place for people who have no idea what Vietnamese food is. I get that this is a Vietnamese snack bar, and not meant to be a Vietnamese restaurant. But, at the end of the day, I would rather go to Bun Saigon or Pho Dau Bo or Bach Yen….and the list goes on. Of course, this is just my personal preference. The owner looked really nice and said thank you on our way out. They look like they are doing well, and we still hope (unless the restaurant really treats us like crap, which they didn’t at all) they do well given what we thought were kinks. However, I don’t think we will be back.
Other little details:
- Parking – We parked for free along Clinton Street.
- The restaurant, as mentioned, is in a nondescript house with no signage.
- There is no dress code – this is a casual snack bar. The vibe appeared to be even more pronounced inside, but I wanted the natural light of the sunroom for pictures.
- We got there at 6PM, and left shortly after 7PM. They had a line forming by the time we left.
- We just walked in. I don’t think they take reservations.
- They take credit and debit, but would not take JH’s Amex.
- Social Media – Instagram