10566 97 St.
11 a.m. to 8 p.m. (9 p.m. Fri. + Sat.)
Food: 3 of 5 Suns
Ambience: 3 of 5 Suns
Service: 4 of 5 Suns
XO Bistro + Bar
10236 103 St.
Delivery: SkiptheDishes.com, doordash.com
Tues. to Fri. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (1 a.m. Fri.)
Sat. noon to 1:30 a.m.
Sun. noon to 11 p.m.
Food: 4 of 5 Suns
Ambience: 3.5 of 5 Suns
Service: 4 of 5 Suns
Both restaurants, dinner for two excluding tip, taxes or beverages: Basic, $30; loaded $45
By Graham Hicks
Is it ‘make new friends, but don’t forget the old?’
Or ‘out with the old and in with the new?’
It’s an interesting choice these days with Vietnamese restaurants.
The style is long-established in Canada.
Canadian-Chinese cuisine, old and tired and resistant to change, was fading in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. just as Vietnamese restaurants were opening left, right and centre. Since then South Asian, Thai and Korean have also spread like wildfire, but that’s a story for another day.
This week, the Weekly Dish checked out the widening gap between “modern” Vietnamese – the two-year-old XO Bistro Bar – and “traditional”, the venerable Pagolac, operated in the same location in Chinatown by the Luong family for some 30 years.
I hate to say this – it breaks my heart because of many joyful gatherings of friends, family and colleagues at Pagolac over the years – but for this outing at least, the XO Bistro Bar won hands down.
Like so many of Chinatown’s eateries, décor isn’t a strong point at Pagolac. Its dining room remains frozen in time and hasn’t seen a new paint job in decades.
The menu is old-style, page after page, 158 choices of starters, beef soups, noodle soups, hot + sour soups, vermicelli bowls, rice bowls, grilled this, grilled that. Ordering from our cheerful and veteran server was by number, i.e. #36, beef with rice noodles in satay sauce.
The problem was the food. The spring rolls are still excellent, but overall it wasn’t half as good as memory served.
Traditionally, Pagolac specialized in beef dishes – it still has an all-beef section on the menu, but no longer recommends the all-beef special, when eight to 10 beef dishes arrived at your table. Far too beefy for today’s tastes, I suppose, but it sure was fun to stuff oneself on Pagolac’s all-beef specials.
Acknowledging Pagolac’s heritage, we ordered the well-known #36 above – beef, rice noodles and satay sauce for $15. It was good, but so liquidy as to be a soup, and it needed more spicy heat. (“You want more hot?” said the server, pointing to the pepper sauces on the table. “Just use those”.) The meat was so crumbled as to be hamburger.
The seafood with rice in hot pot with vegetables (#92A) was as bland as bland can be! It’s been a long time since I’ve had such tasteless shrimp, chewy squid and scallops – all naked without a hint of seasoning. And equally disappointing was #104 scallops with celery and cashew nuts. When the predominant taste is watery celery, something is not right.
The lemongrass chicken fared better – two small breasts with the always delicious and delicate waft of lemongrass, plus other base Vietnamese ingredients like fish sauce, soy, vinegar and sugar. Things were good, but where was the ol’Pagolac wow factor?
The contrast with XO Bistro & Bar, on 103 Street just steps south of Rogers Place, couldn’t be greater.
XO is as trendy as they come. It seeks that magic space where it can be a bistro from lunch through dinner, then morph into a bar (with food) as the night goes on. The décor is highlighted in black paint, glass and mirrors. Six big TVs are on the wall, all showing sports (if playing poker is a sport). The menu is magazine-like, very hipster, with a good, but not overwhelming selection – 30 choices, not 158.
But the point of the Weekly Dish is food. And XO’s kitchen is turning out a far better product – for the same $14 to $16 price point – than Pagolac.
The grilled pork and shrimp rice bowl combo was delicious, though skimpy (two) on the shrimp. The freshly thinly sliced pork strips had been well-marinated in Vietnamese sauces, then perfectly grilled as to have a pleasing touch of charcoal. The shrimp was equally well marinated, salt-sprinkled for a touch of grit, and quick-roasted. Delicious, but at least two more shrimp, please.
At XO, the food sang with freshness – nothing had been sitting around, including the standard Vietnamese salad portion within the rice bowl – the marinated shredded carrot, cucumber chunks and lettuce were fresh-cut, giving the rice bowl flavour and taste and zing from all sides.
It’s the old versus the new and likely very much generational. I suspect the modern Vietnamese “bistros” are being created by entrepreneurs who grew up in traditional Vietnamese restaurant families, who realized marketing/décor/ambience are equally important to good food. If mom and dad weren’t prepared to change …