Café East, 100 Redriff Road, London SE16 (020 7252 1212).
Meal for two, including wine and service, £30
I can't recall exactly which night it was that finally pushed me over the edge. Drunkenness is a bit like that. It could have been the vodka gimlet party, or perhaps the vertical tasting of sherries which left us horizontal. Whichever it was, I awoke one morning in my early 30s and realised, with a deathly sigh, that I now hated hangovers more than I liked being drunk. That was not the end of my relationship with alcohol. But it was the end of a relationship with alcohol which lead inexorably, the next morning, to a mouth that felt like a cat had slept in it and a head that felt like it was being battered by Lemmy from Motörhead.
It was a relief. All that said, a Sunday lunch at Café East in Surrey Quays made me quite nostalgic for those wretched mornings after the night before. For I am in no doubt that the food served at this sweet, brisk Vietnamese canteen – crunchy summer rolls stuffed with crisp vegetables, pristine seafood and rice vermicelli, huge steaming bowls of a deeply aromatic beef broth called pho, bobbing with slivers of meat and wide rice noodles – would prove a perfect cure. The head pain would ease. The pitch and roll of the stomach would steady. A gentle, soft comfy cloud of wellbeing would descend. And all this for not very much money at all.
It would be good now to be able to say that the place was heaving with bleary-eyed twentysomethings. In truth it was full of Asiatic – Vietnamese? – families, merely proof that not enough of other ethnic groups have found it yet. Then again, it isn't easy: it occupies a spot in the car park of a mammoth bowling alley, in a complex that has the dreaded word "leisure" in its title. No matter. Seek it out.
Once upon a time Café East was, apparently, located in a much smaller space in nearby Deptford. Now its home is a low-slung old brick building. Inside is a broad, white, modern space, filled with utilitarian tables, clothed in paper. The menu is a garish picture-led wipe-down affair, which is probably a help to neophytes. To start, order banh cuon (rolls of slippery steamed rice pastry encasing minced pork and chopped mushrooms) or goi cuon – the aforementioned summer rolls. There are crisp, meaty spring rolls and with all of these a spicy peanut sauce or a sweet fish sauce with a hefty chilli kick. None of these costs more than a fiver and each is enough for two. Move on to a swimming-pool-sized bowl of wondrous pho, yours for £6.50. The beef broth has that sort of intensity and depth of flavour which suggests it would set as a jelly when cold. Alongside comes a platter of greenery – mint and coriander, basil and something with a profound anise flavour, leaves of iceberg lettuce for flavourless crunch, and a small bowl of finely chopped fresh red chillies, to give it a bit of oomph. It is that F word – fresh – which dominates. Nobody eating this stuff could feel that they were doing anything other than being good to themselves.
We ate a few other things. There was an intriguing beef casserole served with a baguette, a hangover from French colonial rule, the liquor to which had a subtle ginger and garlic end so you knew which part of the world it came from. There was long-braised pork belly on a pile of sticky rice quickly soaking up the sweet, dark juices. There was a seafood soup with thinner noodles that made your scalp sweat. But it is the memory of the pho that lingers.
There is just one criticism. We asked for tap water and were refused. Bottled water or nothing. Being an ignorant fool I thought this was illegal, but it turns out it's not. I know Café East is bloody cheap, but a glass of tap should be a right. Whinge over. That aside, Café East is the best kind of cheap restaurant: a place of emotional safety.
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