Milk No Sugar – Pho-licious.

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 Milk No Sugar, Brighton.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.

My Pho brings all the boys to the yard.. Okay, I'll stop it now.

My Pho brings all the boys to the yard.. Okay, I’ll stop it now.

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.

Pho @ Milk No Sugar

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 Rice Paper Rolls @ Milk No Sugarintegrity 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.

MissChu takes a tumble – Xin Chao saves face.

Today was a London day jumping through hoops for a planned trip to the food-paradise and land of spices, Kerala later in February. After the necessaries were completed, it felt time for a return to MissChu’s Vietnamese in Aldrich East for some signature sashimi rice-paper rolls and memorable Pho.

Upon landing at the venue I felt slightly disoriented, as in the place of MissChu a stripped-back little Vietnamese had taken it’s place. We sauntered in anyway in search of at least an echo of the simple freshness, tang and service that made MissChu a welcome taste-escape in the big smoke.

We loved the orange / murky green colour scheme.

We loved the orange / murky green colour scheme and interior – it will take a while to feel lived in again though.

Unfortunately, it looks like MissChu has fell upon hard times down-under in Sydney, where the company has gone into voluntary administration and had to lay off quite a few staff. Determined entrepreneur Nahji Chu set up MissChu in 2007 and expanded pretty successfully to Melbourne and London. Her inspiring back-story of a stay in a Thai refugee camp, after fleeing the communist Pathet Laos Regime in 1975, to her ascent to “Queen of rice paper rolls” in Australia with a busy little empire in Sydney, and her satellite operations in Melbourne and London, made her a popular hit with the press. Whom in turn are treating the demise of her Sydney based operations with an unrelenting scrutiny. Defiantly though, Chu insists she’ll make a comeback and is trading through voluntary administration – the new outfit in London seems to remain related to the Chu empire (at least that’s what the lovely serving bloke said) and retain it’s approach to the cuisine on offer.

On arrival, you could definitely feel a little of this anxiety in the air (pertaining perhaps to new management / pressure) – the staff looked a little flustered and there were a few things on the menu unavailable. Nevertheless, the guy at the counter was committed to the food and we purchased a vegan Hanoi curry, tiger prawn rice paper rolls and vegan Pho.

The rice paper rolls were unfortunately very disappointing: the freshness was lacking and the ingredients were dull and cumbersome. I did hear one of the staff mention someone had popped out to Tesco – this got my goat slightly, and probably explains some of the dullness in flavor and quality. My last experience of rolls at MissChu’s was great – they were alive, felt wholesome and packed a good combination of zest, body and crunch.

The Pho though met expectations. For a vegan stock it felt robust and reassuring – with a mushroom base, and great tones of cinnamon and after-bite of a maybe-tamarind. It had a wine-like quality and played host to a good blend of bok-choi, beansprouts, carrot and mushroom – with a few cheeky chilli’s littering the surface that kept a nice little glow at the back teeth for the length of the eat. The noodles felt silky, were slippy and were slurped appropriately. Good stock is hard to find and independents usually do it best: in the mainstream, Pho’s can be good. Wagamama’s, usually bland and empty.

If you want to know if care is taken around stock, ask staff about it – if their face lights up when they talk about it, (which was the case for the manager of Xin Chao) it’s probably good.

Vegan Pho - Wonderful broody stock, with a comforting cinnamon and tamarind aftertaste. Lime over lemon any day though.

Vegan Pho – Wonderful broody stock, with a comforting cinnamon and tamarind aftertaste. Lime over lemon any day though.

My better half had the Vegan Hanoi Curry – his recommendation: “One of the best currys I’ve had outside of south-east Asia – I enjoyed every mouthful”.

One of the best my other half has had, apparently.

One of the best my other half has had, apparently.

On the house we had green tea with toasted brown rice. Grounded us well it did, before heading off back into the city.

Grounding and welcome.

Grounding and welcome.

Overall, not bad. We were happy. But guys – lime next time please! Octopus Alchemy Score: 7/10