Banh mi and grilled meats galore
If you’ve had Vietnamese food in London in the last decade or so, then you’ll know the drill when you walk through the doors at any one of the capital’s umpteen Vietnamese restaurants. Pho, summer rolls and perhaps a coffee or two. Endless identikit curries, salads and fried noodle dishes with your choice of unidentifiable protein.
Mrs Le’s is decidedly different. A spin-off of the Mien Tay mini-chain, this small diner sits right next door to the Clapham Junction branch. Unless it’s also designed to service Deliveroo orders, this strikes me as a very odd decision with undesirable consequences – most diners across my multiple visits opted for the familiar fare of Mien Tay when they’d have been far better off with the shorter and more focussed menu at Mrs Le’s. Although dominated by grilled meats and banh mi, both of which have a siren-like ability to draw my attention, there are other treats to be had too.
Mrs Le has a small yet still diverse and interesting selection of pickled vegetables. Pickled scallions were unsurprisingly reminiscent of pickled silver skin onions in their brininess. Thus, while titillating enough, they weren’t especially distinctive.
Briney, mustardy and crunchy pickled morning glory, on the other hand, was far more memorable thanks to its layers of flavour. At the other extreme, there’s the pickled lemongrass which was citrusy to an absurd degree with an acidic astringency that even I, as an avowed lover of all things tart and sour, couldn’t stomach.
My favourite of the pickles had to be the soy radish. Crisp with a brinish vinegary quality and a subtle sweetness, the nuanced layers were not only reminiscent of Japanese umebushi, but good enough to rival them too.
Grilled chicken gizzards had a similarly Nipponish quality. The crisp and light pieces of offal, served with a zestily complimentary sauce, were easily better than much of the so-called yakitori in this town.
Like the chicken gizzards, the salted egg tofu doesn’t sound especially appetising if your appetite has led a sheltered existence. If that’s you, then this starter is the perfect way to break a habit of a lifetime. Soft but substantial, the tofu had a salty tangy funk that, while noticeable, was gentle and not at all overpowering. It looked a bit like a Japanese agedashi tofu, but had even more nuanced layers to it than that classic tofu dish.
Prawns in pancakes sounds like the start of a nursery rhyme, but it was actually a seafood starter. The aquatic protein had little to say for itself and yet this dish was far from a dud. The eggy, starchy miniature pancakes wrapped around each prawn was a delight, especially when dunked into the sharp, zesty and umami nam pla-style dipping sauce.
Baby octopus and squid were unsurprisingly similar with both accompanied by the same sprightly, citrusy sauce. A springy first bite lead to a tender followthrough. The octopus was a touch more dense and salty than its cephalopod cousin.
Although listed on the menu as a side, I’ll cover the sautéed bread here for my own organisational convenience. Despite its name, it was served at room temperature rather than warm or piping hot. Although this didn’t do any favours for the bread’s texture, lending it a mouthfeel akin to sponge cake about to shuffle off this mortal coil, I could overlook this given the quality of the topping. Garlicky and spicy then umami and salty, this unassuming spread was the stuff of dreams.
Of the grilled meats I tried, the crispy pork belly has to be my favourite. These weren’t just cubes of grilled pork – they were moist and tender, topped with crunchy crackling. Although only occasionally fatty – surprising given the cut we’re talking about – the pork was still a winner. This especially so when taken with the sour, umami dipping sauce and the little bundles of moreish and filling yet light vermicelli noodles. Using them as wraps for a little package of pork, herb garnish and sauce strikes me as an eminently civilised way of stuffing one’s face.
None of the other grilled meats I tried ever reached the same heady heights. The appeal of the lamb chops lay less in the meat itself, well-seasoned as they were, but in the rim of fat and connective tissue ringing each chop. While ultimately moreish enough, the chops were easily upstaged by the accompaniment of crisp, light, starchy and almost daikon-like deep-fried rice patties.
Goat had surprisingly little to say for itself, with the oddly lean and generic strips of albeit well-seasoned and tender meat fading from my memory as soon as I had finished chewing. The duck proved to be so surprisingly similar to the goat that I suspected a mix-up had occurred with my order, but apparently not. The duck disappointment was doubled by the mediocrity of the accompanying mung bean paste served on the side.
At their best, the banh mi here proved to be remarkably well-balanced with the crispy pork version leading the way on multiple occasions. Reasonably crisp and fluffy bread came filled with mildly fatty pork tinged with sweet caramelisation, soy-like umami and a woody, crunchy bark. This multi-layered richness was neatly off-set by the briney tart tang of pickled carrots and daikon.
Disappointingly, there were occasional lapses in the quality of the bread. At worst, it was a bit too squishy and soft. The Classic saw earthy, umami pate and milky sweet pork roll accompanying fatty and moreish barbecued pork. This sandwich was a little too tilted in favour of the crisp and sharp veg though with not quite enough of the meats, but it still made for a satisfyingly fine banh mi.
The grilled chicken banh mi wasn’t the duffer I expected with the moreish saltiness of the tender chook balanced out by fiery chillies and tart pickled veg. It was the pork ball variant that instead let the side down. The meatballs were far too smooth and sweet for my liking, with not enough pickled veg to alleviate the monotony.
Mackerel had been butterflied and deboned then cooked just-so. The flaky and light yet also meaty pearls of white flesh were delightful, whether taken on their own or when paired with zingy coriander, mint and moreishly hearty little parcels of vermicelli rice noodles.
Although listed alongside hearty mains such as the mackerel, the stuffed freshwater snails were small enough to be taken as a starter. This might seem surprising given the seemingly looming size of the shells in the photo below. The fleshy morsels inside weren’t just appetiser-sized, but not wholly snail either. The composite mish-mash was akin to a chunky fishball that you might find in a noodle soup or hot pot. Their moreishness went well with the sweet and tangy sauce, but it just wasn’t anywhere as funkily distinctive as you might think.
Oysters were also unsurprisingly starter-sized. The briney umami of the fleshy oysters was almost akin to dried then rehydrated oysters or perhaps oyster sauce. This made the so-so Kraft quality of the melted cheese all the more shrug-inducing. It was hardly a fitting topping.
There’s only one noodle soup dish on Mrs Le’s menu, but by the stars was it a corker. The soup had a peppery start that seamlessly transitioned to a profound umami, possibly derived from the meaty mince and diced shrimp at the bottom of the bowl, that didn’t outstay its welcome by cloying or lingering. The soup’s clean aftertaste was fitting given the additional surge of soy-like moreishness from the thin yet satisfying rice noodles. The quail eggs, prawns and pork were an ultimately unremarkable protein backdrop with the notable exception of the firm and springy squid. Garlicky chilli flakes, tart pickles and fish sauce, all served on the side, were finely chosen accompaniments. This singular noodle soup not only stands alone, it stands out for its uncommon deliciousness.
Whether hot or iced, the balance between viscous sweetness and nutty acidity in the Vietnamese coffee was sometimes skewed one way or the other. Even then though, it was still eminently sippable and pleasing.
There’s definitely a place in this town for Vietnamese restaurants that serve pho, curries and summer rolls. But it’d be a greyer, sadder city without alternatives such as Mrs Le’s. I’d still give my left leg for a Vietnamese restaurant in London that could make a knock-out bun bo hue or a chả lụa paired with bánh cuốn. Until then, Mrs Le’s will do nicely in giving Londoners a slightly wider view into the other joys of Vietnamese food. If you find yourself in and around Clapham Junction, it’s not a case of whether you should eat at Mrs Le’s but how much can you eat in one sitting.
What to order: Almost all the pickles; Salted egg tofu; Grilled mackerel; Pork belly; Almost all the banh mi; My Tho special noodle soup, chicken gizzards, sautéed bread
What to skip: Pickled lemongrass, Grilled duck, Grilled goat
Name: Mrs Le’s Banh Mi and Vietnamese Grill
Address: 178 Lavender Hill, Battersea, London SW11 3TQ
Phone: 020 7924 1777
Opening Hours: Monday-Friday noon-15.00 and 17.00-23.00. Saturday-Sunday 11.00-22.00.
Reservations? not taken.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £25-30 approx. £41 approx. if you really push the boat out.