A trip to Vietnam planned for this fall has me on high alert for Vietnamese restaurants. And that’s a very good thing because it’s my second favourite Asian food (the first being Japanese) and pho is one of my favourite comfort foods. Golden Garden was a suggestion from The Sun’s Asian food writer, Nathan Fong, who has better radar than me when it comes to Asian restaurants.
More often than not, once you start talking to owners of Vietnamese restaurants, you find they fled Vietnam under terrible circumstances after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Melvin and Kim Quach, the brother and sister who operate Golden Garden, are no different. (Another brother runs Asia Market on Hastings at Gore St.)
The restaurant is on the border of Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside, a block south of the Carnegie Centre. Melvin says lunch is busy with Chinatown shoppers and office workers dropping in from the neighbourhood. Not so with dinner, though. “Write about I have lots of dishes for dinner,” he says in creative English. “Make more people come.” Well, honestly, you could do worse than pay $6 or $7 for a big bowl of delicious pho or $4 for a Vietnamese sub sandwich (banh mi).
When we visited for dinner, tables were occupied by single diners reading books, a family, and a few couples.
The restaurant got its start 18 years ago as Kim’s Saigon Sandwich, which explains why the name’s still on the sign, along with Golden Garden. It’s a handy advertisement for the uniquely Vietnamese sub sandwiches, banh mi, which means ‘bread,’ a legacy of French colonial rule.
When Melvin joined his sister in the business a year and a half ago, he expanded the menu with family dishes. “More than a hundred,” Melvin says when I ask how many dishes there are. I only grazed the surface of his offerings and of what I tried, I’d recommend the comga hai nan, a cold, steamed free-range chicken dish with two hot dips on the side and a rice. A good deal for $9, wouldn’t you say?
The Vietnamese crepe, like Indian dosa, looks a few sizes too big for its plate. It’s filled with a couple of fresh prawns, a fistful of bean sprouts and basil as well as cucumber and lettuce — refreshing for a summer meal.
The baguette for the banh mi wouldn’t impress the French and some fresh basil or pickled carrots would be nice but I don’t expect perfection for $4 (or $3.25 for take-out). My chicken banh mi featured spicy chopped chicken, and there are five other fillings to choose from.
The pho is delicious with a light broth made from beef bones, beef (flank), ginger, and other spices and simmered for a day. I detected a hint of anise.
The hard-working immigrant family, like so many in the restaurant industry, adds so much to this city.
If you’re in the neighbourhood or passing through and you’re hungry, just as Quach said, he has lots for dinner and at such agreeable prices.