Street Food from Saigon – Keu

London, unsurprisingly, is full of little crooks and nannies. Take a random turn and you’ll find yourself lost in new and unfamiliar territory. The Photographer’s Gallery is no exception to this rule. Plonked right in the middle of Oxford Street, but if you blink, you’ll miss the turn in. Funny that a place dedicated to the visual arts is hard to spot. But anyway. . . I once took a random turn, a right from the main entrance of the Photographer’s Gallery towards Poland Street and the gaggle of second-hand record shops. In fact, opposite Phonica, there is Keu, been hiding there since 2016.

I love a front of house kitchen thing you get in places, shows a lot of trust.

To be brief, Vietnam is famous for its street food. A personal favourite of Anthony Bourdain, who pedalled the easy, attainable nature. You can see why. Bread is filling, throw in a few vegetables or slices of meat and you’ve got a half-decent meal already. Put a sauce to finish and chances are it’ll be rememberable at least. It’s no wonder that pretty much every corner of the world has their own take on it. But how many cultures and countries elevated the sandwich to such an artisanal form?

Keu’s website talks about this accessibility, mentioning importing hand-pulled noodles and promising authentic Saigon street food. They even use the phrase ‘grab & go‘. And a quick google tells me their name translates to “Love”. The smell inside is gorgeous as you walk in. Homely; baking bread, and roasting meats, and sauces and marinades. Light, polite indie rock plays. (“I can’t tell if it’s bloated, later era Rolling Stones or early Arctic Monkeys” a cohorts says) with a few soul ballads and sporadic hip hop thrown in. A polite, jovial man stands at the front to guide you to a seat. The menu you get on site is far, far more extensive than the one online which I feel sells it short. Far more variety means more things are available. If you’re anything like me and enjoy a peruse of the menu to a place in advance, a curveball like this makes you rethink what you wanted. Along with the five banh mis that they advertise online you end up having to look through a larger selection. Hardly the worst thing, yes, and it’s only a small thing, but it’s still more options that we weren’t unaware of.

“. . . The dynamics work so well as a balancing of hoisin and chilli and the sweet, fat of the duck. . . “

Soz about the huge shadow. But as you can see, far bigger menu than online.

Now I’m fighting Bourdain’s Corner

I get the feeling that the decour fits the tone perfectly. It’s basic but in the best way. The room isn’t small, but it’s spaced out well. With benches around the perimeter and two long tables closing it in a little. And in the centre two long benches stretching through the room. It’s spacious, no clutter, which means there’s room to think. Beach wood against the signature lime green-teal. And it’s compact enough that one waiter can – bravely – take the whole floor to themselves. It’s the sort of place that doesn’t need or rely on gimmicks. Here’s the menu, here’s the food. Hold it. Handle it. Gobble it. Because it goes fast.

Orders came to tables pretty quick. There are actually two kitchens: one downstairs where a lot of the cooking seems to happen, and the one in front of the customers which seems to be more of a prep station (Although I could be wrong.) The waiting staff seemed friendly if a little awkward; a bit scarce on eye contact even when I complimented the food as he collected the plates.

Everything is bare bones; the interior is spaciously basic.

It’s a Friday and it’s late lunchtime. Gaggles of office workers and (presumed) media types come in to unplug from their laptops by spending a lunch hour looking at their phones. Less than 15 rapid minutes our plates came, seemingly fresh from the oven. I say that specifically as you can taste and feel the benefits of the gently warm and toasted bread in your hands and mouth. And each of the dishes gave off the smell of freshly cooked aromas. Gorgeous.

First up, we have the Canton Roast Duck. The duck is used a little too minimally, but firm and tender, and the sandwich comes fully packed with the other stuff. There are slices of chilli as well, which gives that sour-sweet hoisin something to play against. Keeping it company in the bun is radishly daikon, pepping it up with leaves of fragrant coriander. It comes with a salad filling of fresh spring onions and a few grated carrots which cool it too. And you can taste that hoisin flavour, the duck benefits from it. Cutting through that fat of the meat. The dynamics work so well as a balancing of hoisin and chilli and the sweet, fat of the duck.

“. . . the five spice based sauce, which makes the meat smokey. . .”

Original banh mi. £8.25 for a full baguette.

And the original: pork belly, chicken pate and ham terrine – a mix of three different meats with spicy mayo and mortadella sausage. That seems a little overkill yet Keu nail it. A beautiful mush of crunchy umami. I’m told the Vijitio is strong. “Head knockoffable.” No holding back here; bursts of currants and citrus. Not a million miles away from a tequila sunset. Deliciously strong and strongly delicious. It comes with slices of lime that give it a sharpness as well. They also sell a few pale ales and IPAs and the usual cokes and soda water bottles.

BBQ pork. (£8.20). Definitely the dish of the day.

The BBQ pork banh mi (£7.80) was the best one. The vertically cut slices of cucumber and lemongrass add a cooling tang to the five spice based sauce, which makes the meat smokey. The fresh herb – (coriander?) – sticks out just a little but make no mistake; this is amazing. Part comfort food, part salad but all parts delicious pork belly fat to bring that fat and flavour that brings it together. I’d be curious to try it with some shitake mushrooms to complement the meat’s flavour too.

Coconut Chicken curry banh mi. (£7.80)

The coconut chicken curry banh mi (£7.80) comes wafting of its spices. Lot more savoury. Nutty. It certainly holds its own. The sauce tastes almost coronation chicken-like. Only with a mix of fresh root veg mix. The meat is tender, chewier with the sauce coating it. And how can a curry sauce go wrong with scallions and slices of fresh chilli? However, I’d honestly love to see them kick up the spices a lot more, make it a far hotter sandwich to stand out. Maybe next time I’ll ask for extra spice.

Canton Roast Duck banh mi (£8.25)

Perhaps I’m being suckered but all the sandwiches had that delicious fragrance of fresh ingredients, they just tasted so much more, well, alive? Unspoiled? And let’s talk briefly about the bread. The Banh mi are delicately warm and crusty; freshly baked. And even when you squeeze the sandwich no sauce drips out. Compare that to the horrors of The Sail Loft’s burger, and about 9 quid less too.

Vijito. Rum and passion fruit liqueur and purée and mint. £8.50

Well, to sum up, I loved this. Now I’m fighting Bourdain’s corner. It’s not too filling, so you leave not feeling so bloated. Portion sizes are pretty-well judged. A perfect brunch kind of thing. I honestly wanted to try everything all at once. Sadly I left lamenting this fact. What of the crispy pork belly dishes? The aubergine and tofu vegetarian banh mi? The my tho noodle soup? All of which looks and sounds incredible on the menu. I guess one benefit is that being smack in the center of London, it’s always easy to make the excuse of a detour. Let’s just hope to get lost here again soon.

*

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