When I get a phone call from a foodie friend raving about a new Vietnamese restaurant in Mt Albert, I have to say slow it down so I can catch the name and address. All I can hear is the excitement as words tumble out - spicy, thrilling, textural, authentic, fresh ... it goes on. I jot the address down, tee up a fellow lover of Vietnamese cuisine and head across town.
Turning up, however, I begin to doubt my source. Parkside Cafe by day is your ordinary suburban cafe (albeit revered, by the look of the newspaper reviews pasted in the window) and by night it still looks fairly "daytime cafe" from the outside.
Once inside though, I begin to retract my first impressions - the tables are simply and beautifully set, the exposed brick walls add character and the staff, mostly Vietnamese, are friendly and fabulous.
Full faith in my source returns as soon as I begin to read the menu. There's one soup on offer and of course it's the famous pho - that wondrous noodle broth that's a firm favourite for breakfast with Hanoi residents. Leading on from that is a list of exciting dishes from summer rolls to spicy lotus stem salad, wok-seared lemongrass chicken and clay pots of the Vietnamese hit, caramelised pork. There's even a beef stew and a red wine stew served with French bread, in a nod to the role the French have played in influencing Vietnamese cuisine.
When a menu is so packed with highlights it's hard to select just a few dishes, so we didn't - the two of us ordered enough for four. Summer rolls were plump with prawns, pork and the zing of herbs and served with an excellent nuoc cham sauce that hit all the right notes. The "shaking" beef was so deftly flash-cooked that each chunk of beef held the flavour of a furiously worked wok and collapsed with tenderness. The beef juices mixed deliciously with the peppered soy dressing and watercress making this dish a taste sensation. Tarakihi marinated in citrusy galangal threw us a curve ball; I've never associated dill with Vietnamese cuisine, yet here it was, the feathery sprigs scattered liberally over bright yellow, turmeric-marinated fish pieces. It was a flavour match made in heaven. I've now learnt that dill is common in Vietnamese cuisine, it's another leftover from the days of the French. A clay pot of caramelised pork sent us over the edge in our compliments to the chef. This dish can be sickly if not cooked correctly, but in the hands of owner and chef Billy Dang, it was perfectly balanced. First you get a mouthful of the soft, melting pieces of pork, then the suggestion of saltiness from fish sauce creeps up before the almost-but-not-quite burnt flavour of caramel flavour finally kicks in to round it all off.
I have to offer a warning - beware the salads! Though refreshing, they're also heat-carrying missiles. A plate of lotus stem, carrot, mint and roasted peanut, bound with a tangy dressing, had us blushing with the heat, but grinning with the electrifying flavour.
Not one dish disappointed us in their flavour or form. Sure, the presentation is stock-standard, but the food is so fabulous, who cares? This is vibrant food that pops with flavour. Vietnamese cuisine relies on an abundance of fresh herbs and Parkside Cafe's dishes are laden with pungent coriander, Vietnamese mint, shallots and chilli. Roasted peanuts and bean sprouts lend texture to some dishes while others have so much sharp heat in them we're needing to slug back the beers just to stay ahead of the fire.
We cooled our taste buds with a silky creme caramel and an affogato and it was only with these desserts that we were left slightly wanting. I craved a drizzle of condensed milk with the affogato: I felt it would have taken us back to the backstreet coffee stands of Hanoi.
From the menu: Pork & prawn fresh spring rolls $9.50, spicy lotus stem salad $11.50, shaking beef $23.50, clay pot caramelised pork $21, market fish in turmeric $23.50, creme caramel $10, affogato $12