I’m not a fan of cringeworthy double barreled words – but for ‘Milk No Sugar’, the quirky little Viet-styled cafe on Trafalgar Street, I’ll put up with the discomfort. Pho-licious is the word.
After lamenting only a few weeks ago about how ‘Pho’, the chain of Vietnamese street food restaurants, had the monopoly on Viet-cuisine in Brighton – on my way to the train station I noticed a sign outside of ‘Milk No Sugar’ (which has a pretty unassuming shop front) declaring their sale of Pho – how had I missed this? I ventured in a few days later and have since eaten there four times and thought it was time to put a few words to their operation.
If you’ve eaten at ‘Pho’ on Black Lion Street, you’ll know how consistent their taste is and how uniform their dishes (and don’t get me wrong, that’s not always such a bad thing at the level of taste and expectation), as is the nature of any chain where only homogenisation will do. You’ll also probably notice the tired character of their staff. Put it one way, I wouldn’t venture into that kitchen uninvited.
But at Milk No Sugar there’s a different vibe and that’s all through the smiles of Hugo, who I’m assuming is the cafe’s proprietor. He’s bouncy, chatty, says awesome a lot and falls over himself to tell you about their food.
The first time I dined there, just recovering from a few days of feeling under the weather, I demolished two bowls of their Pho: large, meat stock but with tofu (£5.50 a piece). I also sat for a few hours writing, soaking it all up: the little cafe has a wicked style – quirky signage hangs from a ceiling that resembles a chalky upside down ice-cube tray, like the interior of some cafeteria chiseled into a starship hangar on some hollowed out moon somewhere. Plumen light-bulbs float over the counter and low-lying sun-scorched metal chairs, characteristic of the smoggy road side tuck-shops in the East, host bums from every walk of life. The eyes glance over the curious beverages and treats on sale – like the ‘nutella-latte’ for instance: sure to make your teeth ache.
But the grub is pleasing. The stock of the Pho is well rounded and warm, with tones of cinnamon, roasted ginger and star anise brought out from a well tended stove. Garnished simply, but maybe with not quite enough fresh roughage, it’s nevertheless a dish you’ll return for and a taste you’ll want to share with friends. Hugo took great pride in boasting about the vigour of his vegetarian stock next to the meat and after trying both I agree, they’ve put some thought into getting the tastes right.
The rice paper rolls are everything a rice paper roll should be: sticky and crisp for all the right reasons, and shot through with fresh mint and fresh leaves – and not served in bloody cellophane, which is nice. The accompanying condiment, a syrup of heat and tang to drench the dinky rolls in is a treat and Hugo’s obvious pride and joy, as he stood encouraging us to dunk, saying ‘yes, homemade – awesome, yeah?’.
At the end of my meal I turned to my other half and speculated about the ingredients and their quality – for a food-politico, good food means food with integrity at every level, not just in the mouth. But I have to say I don’t think I could bear a reveal of some MSG additive, or some questionable supply chain – which undoubtedly exists: it’s a high street munchery trading at killer prices after all. On leaving, one of my friends muttered along the lines of: well, there’s a lot of love there innit – that makes the food okay, even at the molecular level. He’s woo. I was wooed.
I think for now it’s got to be my guilty little pleasure, my little starship hangar of smiles – coz if it’s sci-fi, it’s okay isn’t it?
Don’t answer that.