• Viet Grill
Bo la lot (minced beef wrapped in lot leaves) carried some of the herby flavours well. Topped with chopped peanuts and eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves with rice vermicelli and pickles. Disappointed that they didn't serve the Hue-style dumplings anymore. Perhaps just as well, the Bun Bo Hue, a spicy Hue-style noodle soup, was barely spicy and could have used pork or beef knuckles in addition to the basic beef slices. Tofu, sizzling on a hot iron plate, was a fairly deft rendition.
• Thang Loi
Banh tom ho tay, shredded sweet potato pressed and fried as a pancake with a whole prawn in the centre, was pretty good - clean and crispy without any heavy oily-ness. (You eat the whole prawn, head, tail, shell and all.) This was definitely one of the nicer things I had among the Vietnamese places on Kingsland Road. Bun Bo Hue was perhaps a touch better than Viet Grill's but nothing special.
• Tay Do
This one's basic and unassuming. The pork combination starter was homey: slivers of pork skin sliced thicker than I'm used to, wish there was more toasted rice powder; a vietnamese "salami" was not bad, and perhaps my favourite of the three was the sour minced pork. OK on the whole. The "dry" (refers to style, not quality -- i.e. soup on the side) tapioca noodles with slices of pork and bean sprouts was basic and is a good example of brute force -- a huge amount of crispy pork fat, chopped into tiny cubes and fried, provides heavy ammunition in the soup, and effectively camouflaged by the airy cilantro. Nowhere as subtle as the noodle dishes back home, but they get an A for effort.
• Tay Do Cafe (across the street)
The special spring rolls were fine and certainly not exceptional -- minced pork with the refreshing crunch of water chestnuts. Hui Tieu Nam Vang, a Teochew style noodle soup works well -- a basic combination of pork, a single prawn, a quail's egg, a thick but tender slab of squid, along with careful bits of fried pork fat, caramelized shallots, scallions and cilantro.
• Viet Hoa Cafe
Probably my favourite among the fried spring rolls (cha gio) that I tried on Kingsland Road. Get the one with salad -- you get to wrap them in lettuce leaves with a bit of pickled carrots and radish for dipping into the standard Vietnamese sweet sauce. Banh Xeo, a vietnamese crepe filled with savoury items (in this case prawn, pork and bean sprouts) was satisfying. Ok homemade lemonade.
• Hanoi Cafe
The cha gio were fine, as were the Bun special with all sorts of stuff: cha gio, fried meatball, grilled beef with spring onions and garlic, and the usual supporting case of shredded carrots, pickles, lettuce, mint. Coconut juice wasn't bad but wasn't great either. Lots of crunchy textures (peanuts, dried coconut) in the black sesame dumplings with ginger broth. A competent dessert, but the dumpling aren't as good as you'll ever get (the best ones are more delicate and chewy, mochi lovers will understand).
• Au Lac
I really liked the special vietnamese fried pork rolls -- a pleasant, light bouncy texture with a delicate pork flavour. The Pho Dac Biet (pho with beef and chicken) was fine and the broth was pretty good. (This place is currently closed for renovation.)
• Song Que Cafe
Ok cha gio, good pho. Their version of Pho Dac Biet (dac biet means "special") was probably the best of the lot - good amount of meat: tripe, dark dense shank, rare tender slices of tenderloin. Good broth too; bonus for the slice of lime, not lemon.
• Leong Kee
Excellent banh cuon thit - steamed rice sheets filled with minced pork. The rice sheets were fresh and chewy, the filing was judicious and nicely seasoned. Good balance. Bun (rice vermicelli) with grilled beef wasn't bad, although the beef could have been a touch more tender.
From this limited sampling, the highlights tended to be starters:
• banh tom ho tay @ Thang Loi
• cha gio @ Viet Hoa
• special Vietnamese fried pork rolls @ Au Lac
• banh cuon @ Leong Kee.
Pho at Song Que was the best of the ones I tried. Nothing stirring among the homemade juices; I'm still looking for the sour plum with soda water. Yet to explore the main dishes. Bummed that the places listing the occasional out of the way item, like the hue-style dumplings, don't serve them anymore.