LDNReview

photo credit: Aleksandra Boruch

Hai Cafe review image
8.4

Hai Cafe

££££

120b Lower Clapton Rd, London
View WebsiteEarn 3X Points

Life’s most nourishing meals are often prepared in a small kitchen by two hands that instinctively know their way around the space like a Scalextric car weaving its way around the track. These kinds of meals—the ones you eat growing up or around your friend’s dining table—are homely occasions. They’re the kind of meals that are inextricably linked to the people who made them: full of feeling and flavour. They’re the only kind of meal that Hai Cafe knows how to make.

The Vietnamese restaurant is a family affair. Not just because Mama Hai is everyone’s auntie at 120b Lower Clapton Road, or because you’ll see her husband constantly up and down the stairs. Nor because their son posts snapshots of family trips back to Vietnam on the restaurant’s Instagram. No, the main reason is because everyone in the shoebox-sized room, perched on a stool happily anticipating phở, curry, or a spring roll, are made to feel like family.

The half dozen or so-table space really is tiny. You’d struggle to stretch your arms out without knocking a porcelain cat off its shelf and taking a jar of homemade chilli oil with it. If Kramer from Seinfeld burst onto this scene, there wouldn’t be much of Hai Cafe left afterwards. Combined with delivery drivers and Birkenstock or Crocs-clad Claptonites picking bits up, there’s always a full house. But the cosy and charming cliché rings true.

Hai Cafe review image

Unlike lots of London’s Vietnamese options nowadays, there’s a glint in Hai Cafe’s eye when it comes to the food. The menu is limited to curries, bánh mì, bún vermicelli noodle salads, phở, and rolls spring or summer. But each one has a bend and snap that will make you take notice. The sweet, crushed black sesame spread in the bánh mì, a slice of pineapple nestled in your roast pork bún bowl, a sprinkle of pumpkin seeds and pickled chilli on top of your curry. There’s an idiosyncratic touch to the Inspector Gadget-ish hands of Mama Hai behind the counter.

When it comes to opening hours and anything practical, Hai Cafe is wonderfully and endearingly useless. It’s open Wednesday to Saturday, from 6-10pm, providing Saturn is in ascendancy and a pigeon has recited The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner to you on the way over. Basically, you might find the shutters down when Google says otherwise. A little hectic, yes, but also wholesome. Here’s hoping Hai Cafe always does things its way.


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Food Rundown

Hai Cafe review image

photo credit: Aleksandra Boruch

Hanoi Spring Roll

This isn’t your usual spring roll. It’s squared and quartered and packed with crab and pork mince, plus shiitake and wood ear mushrooms. The roll is more fish cake-like, really, but retains a thin layer of crisp that we enjoy piling into our mouths along with pickled carrots, coriander, vermicelli, and a dip of nouc cham dressing.

Hai Cafe review image

Bánh Mì

For £7, Hai Café makes one of London’s finest bánh mìs. It heftily fills its short baguettes with a combination of spiced pork belly and lemongrass chicken, an intriguing—and wholly delicious— crushed black sesame seed spread, plus pickled bits, green chilli, a slice of head cheese, and, of course, crispy shallots.

Hai Cafe review image

photo credit: Aleksandra Boruch

King Prawn Curry

The warming yellow curries, full of soothing stodge from carrots and pumpkin, can be paired with tofu, vegetables, chicken, or king prawns. The latter is our favourite. It’s warming and punchy, full of Hai Cafe’s idiosyncratic bits and bobs—pickled chillis, homemade deep-fried shallots, pumpkin seeds, and more.

Pork And Chicken Bún Noodle

All the things you can expect: mint, coriander, salad, pickles, tender meats, and some pineapple too. Unlike other bún noodle salads, this one is completely cold. And that’s a good thing. It’s a generous bowl that you’ll crave every month of the year.

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