Back when I originally left London for a dose of the sunshine in Australia I spent 4 weeks exploring Vietnam from top to bottom (liking it so much that I then did a month in Cambodia followed by a month in Laos). The one thing that will always resonate with me was that first bowl of pho. Think tiny plastic tables with tiny plastic chairs in the scorching heat with only beer to keep the temperature in check. Then a massive bowl of steaming pho is placed in front of you and a garden’s worth of herbs and chilli banged down beside it for you to make your own mix up.
I lived off eating pho for breakfast, lunch and dinner for that whole month (and pretty much the two months after while travelling) finding the different nuances in broth from vendor to vendor and town to town. It’s an experience that’s hard to translate when I invited my family and chef friends along to a pho place in Richmond, Melbourne (actually it became the very first blog post in this website). They sat there baffled wondering what all the fuss was about while I happily slopped noodles, then soup, then meat, then herbs in by the mouthful.
Don’t even get me started on what else not to order when you go to a standard pho restaurant – these are places that do one thing well. Testament to the appalling spring rolls or anything else you try you luck on when you put your order in. Not so at Bánh Bánh.
It was only until nearly 5 years later then that chef mate set up shop in Singapore and eventually visited Vietnam that I got a text message simply saying “I finally GET pho!!!!”.
My ear pricked up when I recently heard news of a new Vietnamese restaurant in a Peckham called Bánh Bánh, owned and run by the Nguyen family. I liked the idea that the brain trust behind Banh Banh is the five siblings, all born and raised in the Peckham area, with a little help from their grandma, a chef In Saigon during the 1940’s. Grandma’s hand written recipes are the inspiration behind every dish Banh Banh serves.
The space is generous and airy and this little corner of the world hides some of the best food in SE London – Mr Bao across the road, Pedler for your all day dining a couple of doors down plus Old Spike Coffee who make the best flat white in Peckham.
The menu’s divided up into smallish, biggish and classic plates which helps define the order of things but the sister who runs the floor is on form and is the perfect person to walk you through what to have and when they should arrive.
We had 4 people so we decided to see if we could smash the menu. We didn’t manage everything but we gave it a body good shot. Here’s the skinny:
Summer rolls (£5) were the first out of the kitchen. These can sometimes either be too dry due to the rice paper not having soaked long enough or otherswise too claggy. The delicate rice paper rolls at Bánh Bánh are filled with aromatic paddy herbs and lettuce that’s served with a home made hoisin dipping sauce and topped with peanuts.
I was a little shocked that the papaya salad (£7) is served mild but can be dialled up depending on your level of heat that you’re looking for. I would have hoped that it was the other way around ala Tem Ban Thai and Som Saa. We had a bunch of lightweights in the group so we had it medium. This version is young green papaya that’s been shredded, tossed and tangled with chicken and prawns, topped with peanuts and crispy shallots with a little heat running through it. Good but next time I’m getting ‘Thai spicy”.
Opposite of the frozen things they serve you at other Vietnamese places, the pork and prawn spring rolls (£6) are fat little things stuffed with shiitake mushrooms, glass noodle and taro.
Onto the Biggish Plates and we were high-fiving when the banh hot pancakes hit the table. These are a house special so they need to be on your order not matter what. These little pancakes are mini savoury turmeric and coconut pancakes (£9), each encasing a tiger prawn, topped with spring onion and sprinkled with shrimp dust. It’s served with a bowl of herbs and lettuce to wrap around the delightful morsels and then dab on a nuoc cham sauce to add some zing. A word or warning that it’s a boiling hot skillet so it does take a while for the pancakes to cool – bike (as I did) early at your own risk!
The bo kho stew (£9) is a light stew of dry aged beef shin slowly cooked with lemongrass, carrots and green beans. The stock it’s sitting in could happily be drunk by itself if you need a palate cleanser at the end of the meal.
Classic dishes rounded out the meal with the bun noodle salad (£9) impressing even the vegetarian in our midst. It’s a noodle salad with a paddy field of herbs, vermicelli noodles, charcoal barbecued pork patties pickles, cucumber, topped with shallots, peanuts and a spring roll. I like the Laos version of this dish where you get all the ingredients and combine them to a huge lettuce leaf to stuff down your gullet with a cold Beer Laos to wash it all down (check out our post here). Though I’m not going to deny I used the remainder of the leaves that came with the pancakes to do exactly this….
The final stop on our journey was pho (£9). Without doubt this is an amazing bowl of pho and it’s good to know one will be on hand in Peckham for when the cold and flu season hits next week (we all know summer ain’t sticking around). In this bowl they use their Grandma’s recipe of flat noodles in a hot noodle broth that’s been bubbling away for the past eight hours. Very decent indeed.
The good news is that you can book. Apparently this is contradicted on the website but trust us – book as most people were being turned away at the door as they were completely full from opening. Finally a decent Vietnamese place that you can stray wildly from the safe options on a menu. Get down, get booked in then return to hit the rest of the menu.
Contact: Banh Banh – 46 Peckham Rye, London SE15 4JR. Website