Having only opened their doors in late autumn, Pho To Shop on Wuding Road has – until now – been seen as a scaled down venture into casual Vietnamese dining from the owners of the popular Cyclo in Found 158. Its more compact space is styled as a cozy, brightly colored American diner and is in contrast to Cyclo’s lofty ceilings and large interior.
Its menu is likewise a stripped down version of Cyclo’s most popular Vietnamese dishes (and cocktails), such as Banh Mi, the Vietnamese baguette sandwich (which is here called VN Sandwich), Vietnamese Fish Cakes and of course Pho, the famous Vietnamese noodle soup.
VN Sandwich with Caramel Shrimps (RMB65)
Vietnamese Fish Cakes (RMB55)
Ginger Martini (RMB35)
However, it turns out Pho To Shop is not content with being a smaller scale version of its bigger sister restaurant. Just like any precocious, younger sibling, it longs to carve out its own identity and make its own mark upon the Shanghai culinary world. So in a bold, sideways step, it is developing its food in a separate and original direction, adding a second seafood menu to its traditional Vietnamese cuisine. The new menu, complementing its American diner interior design, is Vietnamese seafood with an American twist. It is Viet-Cajun Seafood.
What is Viet-Cajun Seafood?
Viet-Cajun seafood seems an apparently random food pairing, yet it is the newly emerging food fusion of choice in many parts of America. Its origins began in the 1970s, when thousands of people fled Indochina after the end of the Vietnam War. At this time, large numbers of refugees arrived in boats and ended up living in Louisiana.
Just like in Vietnam, the coastal population of the US State love seafood. Many of the Vietnamese refugees saw an opportunity to reuse their expertise in cooking seafood and began to open restaurants, and the spices and flavors of their newly-adopted homeland crept into their cooking.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and its seafood rich wetlands in 2005, many of the Vietnamese families moved again within the United States to find new homes… taking their Viet-Cajun seafood with them. So it is now not uncommon find Vietnamese Cajun food in cities across the US.
The food that emerges from Pho to Shop and its’ small kitchen, staffed by Lam Quan Minh and his family, taste like honest tributes to Louisiana, filtered through the life experiences and cooking repertoires of these Southeast Asian Immigrants.
Old Bay spice mix, garlic butter, black pepper, Cayenne pepper, Cajun mix, chili and a plate of lime juice, black pepper and salt which recalls the Vietnamese seafood dip muio tieu chanh
First things first: At least one of our party was dismayed that they had worn white. Eating Viet-Cajun seafood is a visceral business, done by cracking open the bright red crawfish shells with hands or lobster crackers and picking out the flesh with fingers which you then need to lick clean. Bibs and gloves are, mercifully, provided by the restaurant.
The Viet-Cajun seafood menu consists of a wide choice of seafood, sides and four different sauces, which are combined into a giant pot and cooked over hot flames. The juices from the seafood drip down and combine with the sauce you have chosen – when you choose the crayfish this turns the sauce extra red.
There is a great selection to choose from. The family has chosen Shanghai favorite xialongxia (little lobster) as their crayfish (known in Louisiana as crawfish and named as such on the menu). There are clams, mussels, squid, king prawns, lobster, king crabs, mud crabs and swimmer crabs to choose from.
We found the clams were delicious cooked in the Cajun spices. The Shanghai xialongxia is also in season now, and arguably a ‘must have’ for one of your seafood choices. However, if you are unsure which seafood to pick, it might be wise – and value for money – to go for the preselected combos. All the sides and sauces of choice are included in the price.
We were first served the Combo #1 (RMB498) which included crawfish, crab, king prawns, mussels, clams and squid. The seafood is cooked in giant pots along with sweet potato, spicy Spanish sausage and ears of corn, all in a melting pot sauce, which is a combination of the garlic butter and the juicy sauce with Cajun spices. You can select your level of spiciness, too. We went for spicy and were delighted when we tasted it; cheeky without being overpowering. The seafood and potatoes were perfectly cooked and retained texture and flavor.
Combo 1 in all its glory
Combo #1 was enough for three of us. However, in the name of journalism we soldiered on and sampled Combo #2 (RMB368), crawfish and king prawns in a lime, salt and pepper sauce. The lighter sauce complimented the subtle flavors of the seafood and is a great choice if you are not a spice fanatic.
On the recommendation of the house, and to our surprise, we found that cider was even better than the traditional beer as the drink of choice to wash down all that seafood, the crispness cutting through the rich spicy seafood flavors and refreshed the pallet.
Cider and spicy seafood for the win
For desert – which was hard to squeeze in, we have to admit – we had delicious Mango, Tapioca and Coconut Squares (RMB35), the fresh flavor restful after all the spiciness. We also enjoyed the Rainbow Che (RMB35), a traditional Vietnamese desert drink. And how could we resist a the traditional Vietnamese Coffee (RMB30) with condensed milk.
Food Verdict: 2.5/3
A cozy, bright, fun place to be with a buzzing ambience even on a weekday night. The location in downtown Jing’an probably contributes to its popularity, with the brightly colored seats and tables that spill out onto the steps pulling in passersby. The light tricks you into thinking that you will eat quickly and be on your way, but once you sit down you want to linger... listening to upbeat music, drinking cocktails and watching the world go by. Definitely one to revisit, while perfect for big messy meals with a group of friends, it is also a rare place where you would be as comfortable eating on your own.
Vibe Verdict: 2/2
Total Verdict 4.5/5
Who’s Going: Mostly expats, Asian food lovers, seafood lovers and groups of friends
Good For: dinner, late night dining, groups of friends or dates, or even solo.
See a listing for Pho To Shop
[All images by Dean Clayden/That's]