My ongoing quest for a decent bite to eat in Vancouver past normal business hours led me to Kim Penh Xe Lua, which I found because Yelp had it listed as “Open Now” when I did a search at 3am. I’m not going to bother to try to pronounce the name but Kim Penh Xe Lua is rather easy to spot since it’s garishly lit by a plethora of neon and stands out especially well in the middle of the night.
Partly due to the being part of Dot Com Pho for years now or maybe just because I love Vietnamese noodles, I’ve had all sorts of pho from all over the city by now so I like to think I know what I’m talking about. My only other run-in with pho in the middle of the night (not in Vancouver) sort of scared me so I wasn’t expecting too much from Kim Penh Xe Lua. I mean, there’s no way anyone can cook a decent bowl of noodles at 3am, right?
I think I arrived somewhere in the vicinity of 3:30am and even then there were a few occupied tables in the restaurant, undoubtedly other nightowls like me. That was a good sign…since an empty restaurant is usually a sign that the place is terrible. At this time, the place was manned by a single server, who happened to be in the back when I popped in but showed up soon enough. I would like to say that I was sat without incident but after almost slipping in a puddle of grease, I should probably note that is something you should watch for. I noticed that the floor were glistening and I’m sure he hadn’t just mopped up.
The menus seemed well worn as I struggled to read what on earth everything was and how much it costs but soon, I picked out a bowl with brisket, flank, tripe, crunchy and fatty flank…mostly because I had to know what crunchy flank was…as well as a special banh mi, or Vietnamese sandwich.
My food arrived surprisingly quickly. It couldn’t have been more than five minutes which leads me to believe much of what goes into the bowl is made way ahead of time and reheated. My sandwich arrived about 10 minutes after my bowl of pho so I assume those aren’t made beforehand.
The pho is neither anything special or too shabby. The noodles were slightly too soft for my liking as I enjoy a bit more bounce to them but I’ve had much worse. The tripe was divided into one large piece and then a multitude of bits too small to pick up with any sort of efficiency with your chopsticks. Interestingly, the crunchy/fatty flank appeared to be flank with some tendon and fat attached to it and was delicious. The brisket was equally good. This was probably the first time in years I’ve had pho without rare steak in it but I think I made a good call since the flank and brisket, which is usually tough since beef cooked in this way tends to be chewy, were tender. The broth was merely okay.
My banh mi was not one of the better ones I’ve had. The bread was crispy and warm but otherwise, the sandwich was very, very average. The Vietnamese ham and pork roll were there but the pork liver pate, which is really what gives banh mi’s their signature taste, was either absent or in very small amounts.
There was also very little pickled carrots and daikon radish and no cilantro. Personally, I love fresh cilantro on my Vietnamese sandwiches although I know of several people that make it a point to pick it out before they dive into theirs. Not a great banh mi and I probably wouldn’t order it again if I happen to go to Kim Penh Xe Lua again.
Prices were on par with most pho places these days and my bill came to just over $10. Not bad even though the food is merely average and the excessive neon and florescent lighting was giving me a headache. No diamond in the rough discovery here when it comes to hole-in-the-wall dining but if you’re craving a bowl of Vietnamese noodles in the middle of the night, Kim Penh Xe Lua is a decent choice…even if it is one of the only ones you can make.