This post is about XO Bistro, a Vietnamese restaurant in Edmonton, but please indulge me for a minute, first.

I recently returned from five weeks in Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. I travelled with another food writer and suffice it to say, we ate a lot. An extraordinary amount of food, actually. I’m still trying to process everything; not just the food part, but the traffic and the chaos and the architecture and the smells and the noise.

SE Asia is not a place for picky eaters, those afraid to get a little dirty, or people who are unwilling to get in with the locals and, say, do vodka shots and sing karaoke until three in the morning.

But the food. Oh, the food.

The main culinary things I took away from Vietnam specifically, were, 1) how vibrant the flavours were, 2) how regional the dishes were, and 3) how many dishes exist that we never see on menus here in Canada.

A meal in Hanoi’s Old Quarter at Long Vi Dung. L to R: steamed pork rolls, deep-fried fermented pork, and dried beef salad.

We ate something new at almost every meal. I was in heaven.

What we see here in Alberta, for the most part, is soup and vermicelli bowls, and not much more.

What I also noticed was the abundance of fresh herbs served with almost every dish. At restaurants here, we usually see Thai basil and cilantro.  In Vietnam, baskets of herbs are set on your table. Handfuls go inside rice wraps and bowls of noodles and soups. One of my favourites, ngo gai (also called culantro [not cilantro], Mexican coriander or saw-leaf) was available everywhere in Vietnam. I know of only one place in Edmonton—King Noodle—that serves a leaf or two of this wonderful herb alongside bowls of pho. It’s a zippy little herb; I get it at 99 Supermarket (10768 99 Street) and put it in sandwiches.

Vegetables and herbs for sale, Hanoi.

So, when I visited XO Bistro on 103 Street downtown Edmonton, I was thrilled to see their menu listed a few of the dishes I’d just eaten in Vietnam. The names may be anglicized, but the dishes are still legit: bành xéo is called a Viet crepe taco; the bành mí is a Viet sub; bò lúc lắc is called shake it beef cubes.

I fell in love with egg coffee at the Note Cafe in Hanoi, so I was super happy to see it on XO’s drink list. This is the first I’ve seen of it in Edmonton. If someone else out there offers it, please let me know.

What made me even happier was talking with Thuy Dinh (the owner)a few days after my review. She told me she’d like to start putting some of the not-so-common dishes like bùn chá (grilled pork in a tangy broth over rice noodles), chá cả (turmeric-marinated fish pan-fried with dill), and coconut coffee on the menu. This is very, very good news. Her concern is that people won’t go for these lesser-known dishes, so please let her know your thoughts.

You can listen to my on-air review of XO Bistro with Mark Connolly here, or read my web article on CBC’s site.

Below are some pics for your viewing pleasure.

Egg coffee at XO Bistro.

Chicken wings in spicy fish sauce, and bún bò Huế.

Double Trouble (a salad roll with spring roll inside).

Oxtail pho and Viet beef carpaccio.

Shake it beef cubes.

Grilled pork jowl.

Find XO Bistro at 10236 – 103 Street, Edmonton.