It needs to be said: Berlin has a serious “Vietnamese problem”. It’s not just the newest rash of underwhelming Vietnamese restaurants, like two behemoths near P’Berg’s Kollwitzplatz bursting with “colonial Asian” design flair but little flavour. It’s that as a rule, the Vietnamese food here is cheap but mediocre – bland summer rolls, frozen ingredients and rice dishes classified only by sauce (add tofu, beef, chicken, whatever; it all tastes the same anyway). There are a few exceptional novelties – the street food at Qua Phe in Mitte, the flavourful vegetarian fare of Quy Nguyen and Chay Village and, if you’re willing to make the schlep to Lichtenberg, the superlative Hanoi-style dishes at Duc Anh in the Dong Xuan Center – but it’s hard to understand how the rest can all survive with the food they make and the prices they offer. When’s the last time you had a really good bowl of pho?
Then there’s Madame Ngo, a Vietnamese brasserie opened by The Duc Ngo (also of Cocolo Ramen and Kuchi) in a former pharmacy on City West’s Kantstraße, where we found the real thing: delicious pho and Berlin’s best nem.
Pho (pronounced “fun” without the “n”) is that blend of rice noodles and rich meat broth made out of scraps and bones simmered for hours with onions, coriander, ginger, star anise and, in this case, a good deal of cinnamon that we’d frown upon if it weren’t so satisfying. Choose Pho bo tai to get thinly sliced raw beef thrown in last minute and cooked in the soup – a real joy, and rare for Berlin. There’s a great vegan version with root vegetables, shiitake, bok choy and tofu, and also one with chicken (€9; €13 for bio); make it an offal-fest (heart, liver, stomach) for an extra €3.
Then the nem! The deep-fried spring rolls are common here, either as starters or served on a pile of rice noodles (as bun nem), but they get such an upgrade at Madam Ngo that it’s hard to believe they’re the same thing. They come piping hot and served the proper way, with a side of whole lettuce leaves, lots of fresh herbs and sweet-sour fish sauce for wrapping and dipping. They’re as amazingly crunchy and exquisitely tasty as Duc Anh’s, and the fillings come in more varieties, like crab meat or tofu. Although a good €3 dearer than usual (€6-7.50), they’re worth every penny.
There’s of course more, and it’s all pretty tasty. Special mention goes to the pork belly trio Le Trois Cochons (one grilled, one braised, one boiled; €10.50). And then there are the French dishes (only after 6pm): delicacies such as beef tartare, quail with honey, five-spice and crème fraîche sauce and foie gras and veal jus – a combo to make the faint-hearted veggie set shriek in horror, and the gourmet salivate (all €14).
Our only gripes were a mediocre €6 tarte tatin (go for the “crème de café” instead) and open wines that don’t match the high standard of food. Next time we’ll get a beer (Tiger or Saigon, €4.50).
It’s funny how the Berlin press met the opening of Madame Ngo last year with reproachful incredulity. French and Vietnamese food in one place? That’s “culinary confusion”, reproved one local paper, obviously forgetful of the deep cultural influence exerted by colonial France over Indochina. The French may have left, but some food habits remain, from famous banh mi baguettes to pho’s rich meaty broth (not to mention coffee!) – and they’re all on display at Madame Ngo.