photo credit: Richard Fairclough
Hoa Sen doesn’t feel particularly West End. Located in Covent Garden, an area where you’re likely to dodge fur-lined, Europop-blasting rickshaws and watch a man painted silver float above the ancient remnants of a Wok To Walk box, this Vietnamese restaurant is just wholly normal. There’s no flashy furniture, nor is there a neon-lit bar. It’s the restaurant equivalent of Gogglebox: comforting, consistently good, and as enjoyable alone as it is with your family. Normal isn’t something that restaurants tend to aspire to around here, but a normal neighbourhood spot is exactly what an area with regular fire-breathers needs.
When it comes to food, Hoa Sen spans all across Vietnam’s regions. The menu suits both big, small, and solo groups but to get the best out of it—slippery pork-filled bánh cuốn rice rolls or their signature duck served with mango and wrapped in lettuce leaves—you probably want to bring a friend or really get into intermittent fasting the day before. There are all the classics: phở, magnificent summer rolls, tenderly grilled quail. In a city that’s overwhelmed with Vietnamese options it’s these go-tos that separate the top-tier from the phonies. One bite of the lusciously caramelised and just-charred quail and you’ll realise that Hoa Sen isn’t just reliable, but really quite good.
That said, Hoa Sen’s central location isn’t completely unnoticeable. Bowls of phở start at around £14 and if you’re going for bits like stir-fried ginger noodles with lobster then things can add up. But this is Covent Garden. We’re not Dalston or Deptford anymore Toto. So you can’t be totally surprised. There’s also something to be said for the breadth of Hoa Sen’s cooking: claypot catfish, braised lemongrass wild boar, mango and jellyfish salad. Make no mistake, despite the fact Hoa Sen looks normal from the outside, it’s much more than your run of the mill Vietnamese.
Sometimes it’s easier to describe something in positive terms by saying what it isn’t. For example, these summer rolls aren’t lumpily rolled, 95% iceberg lettuce, half a leaf of coriander and mint creations. These are the perfect ratio.
A must-order. These rice rolls, filled with juicy grilled pork and topped with crispy shallots and all manner of umami-packed liquid, are delicious. Slippery little sods as well. Get a meat and vegetable one for the table, it’s a great sharer.
How can a tiny little bird taste so good? We’d highly recommend picking up the sauce that comes with the quail—a chilli, lemongrass, and cooking juices creation—and immediately pouring it all over. The quail itself is beautifully caramelised. A little sweet, a little charred, a little plate that we would eat forever.
Lạng Sơn Roasted Duck
This duck is all the things you want it to be: juicy, with crisp skin, and a load of rendered fat going on under there. Thrown (or rather, placed) into a lettuce leaf with a dash of aromatic sauce and a slice of mango… it’s just perfect.
Hanoi Vermicelli Bowl
We’ve eaten a lot of bowls of bún thịt nướng in our time and this one is up there. Strips of glistening pork shoulder, sweet and smoky, alongside a shattering spring roll, coriander, mint, and the fish sauce-heavy juices to mix into the vermicelli noodles. A bowl of food we’ll never tire of.
Stir-Fried Lobster And Ginger Noodles
It costs £42. You definitely don’t need it. But, also, it’s delicious. Nothing says you’re having a good time like sucking the juice out of a lobster claw. At least, that’s what we think.