Michael Deacon reviews The Hanoi Bike Shop, Glasgow: 'the pork belly resembled little plasticine models of Rambo's shoulders'

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The Hanoi Bike Shop, Glasgow
Michael Deacon visits a Vietnamese canteen that’s wheely popular Credit: Mark Whitfield

The Hanoi Bike Shop 8 Ruthven Lane, Glasgow, G12 9BG
Contact: 0141-334 7165 hanoibikeshop.co.uk 
Price: Dinner for two: about £40 without alcohol

There's one key difference between people from Glasgow and people from Edinburgh, and it's this. People from Glasgow talk to you.

Get into a taxi, the driver talks to you. Go to a café, the waitress talks to you. Go into a shop, the assistant talks to you. And not only that: they ask you questions- about yourself, about your day, about your life - in a way that suggests they're actually interested in what you have to say. Some of them even smile at you.

I'm from Edinburgh, and I find it baffling. We never talk to people. We can't stand people. If a complete stranger attempts to strike up a conversation with us, we react as if they've just pulled out a knife or, worse, a collection tin.

Once we've ascertained that we're in no immediate physical or financial danger, we take a moment to compose ourselves, and reply in a manner that is exemplarily curteous yet also subtly final- we answer their question, without asking one back, as if the stranger is a reporter, and we were some illustrious public figure attempting to travel incognito to avoid pestering from the press.

There was the ba roi ram duong, sea bream with caramel pork belly: chewy hulking cubes of it, resembling little plasticine models of Rambo's shoulder

Our emotional reserve is the bane of touring musicians. When I was a teenager, back in the 1990s, rock bands would gush in interviews about how their best, their loudest, their maddest crowds were always Glaswegian. Then they'd come on stage in Edinburgh, and be confronted by 300 solemn faces and 600 folded arms.

We weren't being hostile. We were just waiting to be impressed. I remember one singer - Bernard Butler, starting out as a solo act after leaving Suede - actually telling us off for just standing there.

Our catchphrase, meanwhile, is, 'you'll have had your tea.' Its what we say to a visitor to make it clear that we won't be feeding them. I might open an Edinburgh-themed restaurant, and get the maitré d' to say it as a greeting.

Glaswegians, by contrast, seem to love meeting people. Well, there's no accounting for taste.

I was up for a few days to visit my sister, who's just had her first child (hello Baby Peter) and, while I was there, I went for dinner at a trendy local restaurant: Hanoi Bike Shop. It's a little Vietnamese place, so-called because Hanoi, Vietnam's capital, is famed for its teeming cyclists. 'When I tell people where I work,' said the waitress, 'they think I repair bikes.' She actually could, if she wanted, because the walls of the restaurant are cluttered with bike parts and tools. In a corner, a unicycle hangs from the ceiling. 

There's a kind of whimsical, lo-fi, indie-rock eccentricity to it all. Which may be one reason why almost everyone eating there is so young. Well, that and the prices. The Hanoi will do a full 'Vietnamese banquet' for £18.95 a head. If that's still out of your price range, you can easily fill up one of its vast bowls of pho (noodle broth) for less than a tenner.

In case you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned tofu, unfortunately they were all out of it. I say unfortunately. Let’s be honest, it tastes like damp Polyfilla at the best of times

I had one - the pho nam (mushrooms) and it was quite a slog. Still, a nice a slog. Better than you'd get at Wagamama, which can taste so oily that afterwards you feel like having a good go at your tongue with a squirt of persil and a pan scourer. This tasted fresher, cleaner, more wholesome: oyester, shiitake, and wood-ear mushrooms in a deep, murky marsh of beansprouts.

A bowl of pho nam at The Hanoi Bike Club Credit: Mark Whitfield

At the Hanoi you order a selection of dishes and each gets brought out as soon as it's ready. I ordered a whole jumble of things. There was the ba roi ram duong, sea bream with caramel pork belly: chewy hulking cubes of it, resembling little plasticine models of Rambo's shoulders.

There was the kimchi (basically, spicy pickled cabbage). There was cha ca quy nhon, Vietnamese fish cakes, to be eaten wrapped in a leaf of gem lettuce and dunked in chili oil, and which in texture somehow felt more like chicken than fish. There was the ga loi bap ve, pheasant thighs glimmering in a kind of spicy jam.

Cha ca quy nhon (Vietnamese fish cakes with chilli oil) Credit: Mark Whitfield

But my favourite of these many dishes was the sup lo ran, cauliflower fritter, which may have looked like off-puttingly misshapen brown lumps but tasted crisply delicious. 

In case you're wondering why I haven't mentioned tofu - a staple of the Vietnamese diet - unfortunately they were all out of it. Well, I say unfortunately. Let's be honest, it tastes like damp Polyfilla at the best of times. 

For pudding I had Cassava cake - the wrong choice after such a heavy meal, because it was so heavy itself and, without the strawberry and cream it came with, would have tasted pretty drab. Much more suitable was the coconut panna cotta: bright and light and juicily refreshing. 

Cassava cake  Credit: Mark Whitfield

I admit, on the whole, I wasn't blown away by the food. It was by no means bad; it just didn't excite me. But I may well be in a minority, because Hanoi Bike Shop is very popular (it was completely packed on a cold Wednesday night in January).

And it does have lots going for it: it's great value for money, it's visually distinctive, it's lively, it's got personality. Plus the waiting staff are chatty and friendly.

Obviously that's not easy for a man from Edinburgh to adjust to. But, if you're a normal human being, you'll probably love it.