Restaurants that you have to climb stairs to get to are almost always good. There’s a sort of ‘hidden’ feeling about them, and you have to work that extra bit harder to get there. Even if it’s just one flight, people aren’t going to do it unless the food is good (case in point Haroo, or Kirin), so when I spotted Thai Son Vietnamese Restaurant on the second floor of a building off Garden City Road, I made a mental note to try it.
The current combo of cold weather and blue skies made Thai Son the perfect choice. You can get a big bowl of warming soup, and the view is eye-level with tree branches rather than trunks, meaning more exposure to that bright, sunny sky.
The first thing to note about this restaurant is that every last server there is friendly. SO, SO FRIENDLY. They all seemed to be having a genuinely good time, both with customers and each other, and it set the tone for lunch right away.
The restaurant is set up along one wall, and divided into two sections by lengths of frosted glass. It’s obviously a very popular place, as it filled up within minutes of us arriving. The menu had many dishes I’m used to seeing, but also a few I’ve never noticed before, like stew with beef brisket and French bread ($6.50).
And now we enter that area which I find so fascinating: food and colonialism. Vietnam was first invaded by the French in the mid-19th century, who ruled there for nearly a century. One of the many lasting effects of the French was on food – the Vietnamese readily adopted French bread, pate, crepes, flan, and many other things, though with the acceptance of these foods, they made them their own. The result is a cuisine unique both to Asia and the world, and one so gratifying it’s been embraced by many cultures. The perfect example is banh mi, which actually just means ‘bread,’ but is widely known as Vietnamese baguette sandwiches filled with various kinds of meat, pickled carrots and daikon, mayo, and fresh cilantro. You can find them in nearly every major city across North America.
Vietnamese beef stew is a hugely popular dish, eaten with noodles, rice, and/or French bread; it’s yet another example of how colonial influences, available ingredients, and local preferences converge to create unique dishes. While in Vietnam, the French also popularized beef, which is featured in Vietnamese and French stews. In both versions, the cuts of beef are tough, and require low and slow braising to tenderize them. While Vietnamese stew looks similar to the French version, some ingredients are very different; lemongrass, fish sauce, and Chinese five spice are essential, with big pieces of carrot in the braise (though no potato), and fresh cilantro and green onion on top.
My meal at Thai Son came with a crusty loaf of warm French bread, and though the stew was just a touch oily for my liking, this dish could not have been more comforting on a cold day. The base was rich and hearty – less thick than an English beef stew or a boeuf bourguignon, but much thicker than a clear soup broth. The brisket was tender, and the chunks of carrot were soft and packed with flavour. I ate almost all of the baguette, since there are few things I like more than soft white bread dunked in rich broth.
Dana opted for a bowl of pho with rare beef ($5.95), which was excellent. The broth was great and it had plenty of meat in it – we’re both set for iron for a few days.
We found other new (to us) items on Thai Son’s drink menu, like soda-based drinks with egg yolk and sweetened and condensed milk. We decided to try the soda with preserved lemon ($2.95), not only because we’d never had preserved lemons in a drink before, but because we usually associate them with North African cuisine.
Thanks to this drink and a bit of research, I now know they’re called Chanh Muối in Vietnamese, and the technique for making them is the same as with other cuisines: the lemons are basically pickled with salt and lemon juice, and once the process is complete, the entire thing is edible, not just the pulp.
So what do they taste like in a drink? It’s hard to describe, but it was first and foremost salty, with a clean lemon flavour that’s much less acidic than fresh lemonade. The smell was incredible. I liked it, but found it to be a little too salty, and think I’d prefer a higher ratio of soda to lemon slices. Dana loved it, and we both decided it wouldn’t be half-bad in a gin cocktail!
I’d highly recommend Thai Son, both for the food and lovely service. So strap on your hikers, climb up to that second floor, and smile at your server. They’re almost guaranteed to smile back.
Vegetarian options available