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Eating out: Anything but Hackneyed

Viet Hoa; 70-72 Kingsland Road, London E2. Tel: 0171 729 8293. Open Tuesday to Sunday, from noon-3.30pm and from 5.30-11.30pm. Average price for dinner, pounds 11 per person. Visa and Mastercard accepted
I'D LOVE TO move to the country but I don't think I ever will because, apart from the fact that I don't hunt, shoot or fish, there simply aren't enough decent ethnic restaurants there. Eat Chinese in the sticks and you're bound to die of MSG poisoning; eat Indian and you'll choke on tough, condemned meat and overcooked veg swimming in ghee and bought-in curry sauce; eat Vietnamese and - well - you never would eat Vietnamese in the country. As far as the sticks are concerned, it hasn't been invented yet.

Which is one of the reasons I'm so glad I live in corrupt, incompetent, crime-ridden, forget-your-kids'-education Hackney. The borough has its drawbacks but a dearth of excellent ethnic cuisine is not one of them. There's the Fang Cheng Chinese on Mare Street; there are innumerable classy Indians up the road in Stoke Newington; there's the mind-blowingly cheap and authentic Turkish where I go every lunchtime but which I daren't tell you about because it's my special, special secret; and then, of course, there's Viet Hoa.

Viet Hoa, I've heard it rumoured, is the finest Vietnamese restaurant in London. I'm not sure I believe these rumours myself because I can think of at least two other restaurants in the area with just as good a claim to the title. One is Hai Ha, which actually I don't rate because when I went my goat with (cold) noodles was greasy and disgusting, but which my foodiest friends still maintain is the local top dog. The other is the blindingly good Anh Viet, a favourite of cookery writer Nigel Slater, which does a fabbo prawns with noodle soup for a fiver and occupies the site in a hard-to-find Vietnamese community centre on Richmond Road which was formerly inhabited by Viet Hoa.

But anyway, Viet Hoa. Whether it's the best or the second-best Vietnamese in London, you certainly won't regret paying it a visit. Just make sure you book a table, steel yourself for the possibility of erratic service, don't order any Chinese-sounding dishes from the menu (about as pointless as ordering steak-frites in a curry house) and you're guaranteed to become a regular.

I can't give you chapter and verse on the precise nuances of Vietnamese cuisine, but basically it's like Thai, only lighter and more rustic. You don't get jungle curry, coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves or baby aubergines. You do get lots of chopped garlic, galangal (ginger) and fiery chillis, lemongrass and lashings of fish sauce. And you also end up paying far, far less than you would for its more sophisticated cousin.

If you were feeling really cheap, you could probably spend no more than a fiver a head for your food. You'd just have to stick to a bowl of the house speciality, noodle soup - a pungent stock crawling with rice vermicelli and all the spicy goodies I mentioned above, which comes in generous, filling quantities and which it is absolutely essential to try if you've never had it before. And my favourite standby, Bun Xa (soup with lemongrass and, according to preference, beef, chicken, pork or big, fat prawns) comes in at a mere pounds 3.95.

On the day I visited, however, I was not feeling cheap. On the contrary, I'd decided to impress my brother Dick, his wife Lydia, and their two sprogs Oliver and Freya with my largess as part of my long-running campaign to persuade them that I'm not a snooty rich bastard who has lost touch with his family roots. "Have whatever you like," I cried, as one only can when a newspaper is paying your expenses. But even then, for the six of us (I'm not counting baby Ivo who stuck to bottled SMA), the bill only came to pounds 63 with service.

We went on a Sunday lunchtime. If you're going en famille, it's a good idea to reserve one of the two big round tables secluded in the corner. Most of the other (square) tables are arranged canteen-style in long rows and you don't really want to inflict your brats on other people. The room is noisy when full, the decor basic, the clientele a mix of Vietnamese and white middle-class families, and groovy young things with short hair and fashionable glasses who probably all live in converted warehouses in nearby Clerkenwell.

As usual, we kicked off with spring rolls (six for pounds 2.20) because these are the best ever. They're small and crunchy but not at all greasy and they come with a sweet dipping sauce. I'm not sure exactly what's in them - it looks like the sort of thin, squirmy, translucent thing you might find at the bottom of the ocean - but they're very, very delicious. Dick and his family won't eat them, though, because they contain minced pork; further proof of the insanity of vegetarianism.

Being only fair-weather vegetarians, though, both Dick and Oliver did deign to eat the paper-wrapped prawns and the salted prawns in garlic dressing. The former were stodgy and bland, con- firming what I said earlier about the danger of ordering anything Chinese-sounding. The crispy salted prawns, however, were fantastic. Better even than the brilliant spring rolls, amazingly.

For the main course, you'll definitely want to try one of the fish specials - if only because you're bound to see them being served to someone else and go: "Wow! That looks incredible. I've got to have that!" The best is probably the fried catfish in fish sauce with ginger. It tastes pretty good, though they tend to cook it on the rare side so the flesh next to the bone is worryingly pink. This time, I tried the fried tilapia in fish sauce with mango. It was fresh and beautifully served, though I couldn't find hide nor hair of the mango, unless it was the unidentifiable green fruity shavings on top. My only problems with the fish here are 1) it's river fish which is never as nice as sea fish, and 2) it looks so good that tasting it is always a slight anti-climax.

The other thing you've absolutely got to try - unless, like Lyd, you're a strict veggie in which case it's tofu time - is the shaking (pronounced sharking, I think) beef. I first ordered this dish as an act of defiance at the height of the mad cow scare and now I'm addicted. It's very simple: just big squares of spicy marinated steak, served hot and sizzling on a bed of lettuce. The lettuce infuses so deliciously with the meat juices that I think the dish is that impossible thing - one where I find the salad even more thrilling than the meat.

I'd also recommend the prawns in tamarind sauce and the Chao Tom - prawns pasted in sugar cane. And Lydia speaks very highly of the noodles with mixed vegetables and tofu. Lager connoisseurs will be pleased to learn that Budvar is the restaurant's staple. To which all I can add is "Go!" But please, not in such numbers that you ever prevent me from getting a table myself.