FOOD REVIEW

Vietnamese fare at An Chay meat free and just fine

It took a while for me to stop in at An Chay, a Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant just west of Edmonton’s downtown core, even though I pass it almost daily on my outings.

'The flavour did not disappoint'

The pho at An Chay was one of the most delectable Twyla Campbell has ever tasted. (Twyla Campbell)

It took a while for me to stop in at An Chay, a Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant just west of Edmonton's downtown core, even though I pass it almost daily on my outings. 

There is still a voice inside my head that snickers at vegetarian food, as in, 'How good can it be?' — which surprises me, because some of my best dining experiences in Edmonton this year involve vegetarian and vegan food. 

If I am thinking this, how many others are feeling the same way about meat-free fare? Judging by the amount of empty seats in An Chay on all three of my visits, apparently, there are a lot of us with that attitude. 

Pho worship

From the moment the first dish was placed on the table, I knew what a mistake it was to have stayed away for so long. 

The bowl of soup was more beautiful than any other I recall having in my 30 years of pho worship. 

A thin wheel of lotus root floated among hearty noodles, long strands of blinding white enoki mushrooms and glistening nubs of black fungus (a mushroom also called cloud ear or wood ear fungus and common in Asian dishes). 

Bright orange carrot discs floated in a heady five-spice broth alongside bunches of baby bok choy, blocks of ivory tofu and shards of savoury cilantro. It was as beguiling to the eyes as it was to the nose. 

The flavour did not disappoint, nor did the fulfilment factor. I was so stuffed, I regretfully left a third of the soup behind. 

Leftover pho does not travel well, but fresh rice-paper-wrapped rolls do and knowing that I gladly asked to have the remaining two marinated curry tofu rolls boxed up to be eaten later that night as a snack. 

The rolls here are wrapped with an expert hand. All the ingredients — julienned cucumber, carrot, pickled daikon and vermicelli — are layered with fresh mint and tightly bound in a soft blanket of rice paper so that with each bite, dipped into the house-made peanut sauce, the roll retains its structural integrity.  

For novices attempting to assemble the Nem Nuong Cuon, or "pan-fried tempura wraps," I wish you the best of luck but take heart, the end result is worth the effort.

Calvin, one of the owners and the only server on each of my visits, is a patient and knowledgeable instructor with encouragement and compliments at the ready.

 I can't find one thing to criticize at An  Chay . - Twyla  Campbell

Imperfect as mine were, the rice paper rolls were delicious.

Stuffed with soft vermicelli noodles, meat-like patties of fried soy bean paste, cucumber, carrots, bean sprouts and lettuce, with papery fried onions, crushed peanuts, razor-thin slices of green apples and sprigs of basil, the taste was absolutely divine.

Every bite revealed something new and interesting.

The green papaya salad represents the very essence of southeast Asian cooking where salty, sour, sweet, spicy and bitter elements are contained in one dish. 

The green papaya, simply an under-ripe version of the fruit, is thinly sliced, heaped in a mound and topped with soy jerky and basil, drizzled with sriracha, topped with peanuts and fried onions and served with a sweet soy dressing. It makes an excellent refreshing accompaniment for three or four people to share. 

Fickle location, uncertain future

Aside from the Romanesque gold sinks, black marble-framed mirror and vanity, gold faucets and dentil tile trim in the bathrooms, and the impossibly glossy, liver-coloured tile in the rest of the restaurant — all leftover design elements from the former Mediterranean-Italian tenant, Pitaghetti — I can't find one thing to criticize at An Chay. 

Knowing the massive undertaking, both in hours and labour costs of removing all that tile, I can forgive An Chay's owners for merely trying to cover up and tone down what they could, because the food is so incredibly delicious. 

My hopes for a long-lasting restaurant in this fickle location were renewed ... until this week, when I came across a commercial real estate listing stating An Chay was on the market. 

Maybe we can change their mind. It would be great if they stayed. 

Find them at 11203 Jasper Ave.; currently open every day except Tuesdays.