If it weren’t for the hand-painted sign and opening hours tacked on the door, it would be easy to mistake Cô Thành, on Kau U Fong, for a construction site. The door is a thin wooden board loosely screwed to the entrance. Inside, it has all the hallmarks of a stripped down hipster den, with bare concrete walls and shiny steel tables with tacky red and blue plastic stools parked underneath. It’s not particularly comfortable or the sort of place you’ll want to linger for hours, but then what Vietnamese street stall is? You’ll be there for the noodles, and you won’t mind one bit.
Restaurateur Brian Woo travelled to Vietnam a few years ago to spend time with street vendor Nguyen Thi Thành, (also known as The Lunch Lady) learning to make her noodle soups. Bringing her recipes to Hong Kong, Cô Thành serves just three types of rice vermicelli soups as well as several main dishes. To freshen the palate, we started with the khai vi dac biet ($68), a green papaya salad of shaved papaya, jicama, thick slices of house-made fish cake, roasted peanuts and fried shallots dressed in homemade nuoc mam. It’s a refreshing salad for a balmy summer’s afternoon, but we found the fish cakes to be too large, given how thinly shaved the vegetables were. Bun bo hue ($98), however, is a complex, robust and soul-restoring beef noodle soup. Swimming with rare rib eye, tender brisket and homemade meat balls, it’s one we’d come back for. Another noodle soup, this time seafood-based bun mam ($98) with prawn, is exceedingly potent, with a fermented flavour not unlike Chinese fu yu, or fermented bean curd cheese. It’s unusual – and, to us, quite delicious – but it’s not for everyone. In both noodle dishes, the rice vermicelli is served al dente and retains a nice bite. The banh mi ($88) packs cold cuts, rich and creamy pate and pickles into a roll that’s crispy on the outside and slightly stale inside, almost like a croissant.
We’re pleased to see Vietnamese restaurants like Cô Thành offering something other than pho. Woo’s noodle soups are unique (to Hong Kong, at least), generous, pack a punch and, above all, are complex. There are always lines snaking out the door during peak hours, so go early or late if you’re not a fan of waiting. 2-4 Kau U Fong, Central