Obsession-worthy banh cuon on Capel Street
What’s the story?
A few weeks ago we asked on Instagram what people's favourite cheap eats in Dublin were, and Vietnamese Aobaba on Capel Street came up quite a few times, with much enthusiasm from the recommenders. More than once we heard "this is my favourite place to eat in Dublin", and we were given various tips on what to order when we went. After a bit of investigation we found out that it opened in 2012, and is connected to four other Aobaba's in London. It's had nothing but positive reviews since then on various Dublin-based websites and blogs, but funnily enough, it doesn't seem to have come to the attention of any of the national restaurant critics, something we'd like to see rectified.
Where should we go for a drink first?
We're big fans of McNeill's pub, just down the road, with their consistently warm welcome and nightly trad music. It feels a bit like stepping back in time, and we've heard the Guinness is very good (the gin is too). There are plenty of other pubs on Capel Street like Slattery's and The Boar's Head, and Panti Bar is a bit of fun if you fancy a 90's style, super-sweet cocktail served by flamboyant bartenders.
Where should we sit?
It's pretty cosy in here. There a few four top tables, which you will definitely be sharing if there aren't four of you, a counter at the wall to the right and another facing out onto Capel Street. That would be our preference for the people watching, but it was so packed when we visited that we just had to take whatever we could find.
What's good to eat?
Since eating here we developed a complete obsession with Banh Cuon - Vietnamese steamed rice rolls filled with pork, mushrooms and shallots, with a fish sauce based dip. They have the strangest, gelatinous texture, but are one of the best things we've eaten this year. What we could have done without was the sheets of plasticy, ultra-processed pork that came with them, but next time we'd ask them to leave them off and save the food waste. If that's your thing, go nuts.
We're big fans of Bun Cha, the cold noodle dish, with vegetables, herbs and peanuts, topped with meat, prawns or spring rolls, and served with a sauce to either dip in or pour over (we prefer the latter). Aobaba's is the best we've had in Dublin. Perfectly crispy spring rolls packed with flavour, on a really well balanced base of noodles, vegetables and herbs, and the accompanying sauce brought it all together incredibly well.
A 'happy pancake', or Banh Xeo was also good, but we think Pho Viet's on Parnell Street is better. The rice flour and coconut milk batter pancake was crispy with good flavour, but was a bit lacking in the filling of pork, prawns, beansprouts and other vegetables. It was also missing the traditional lettuce leaves and mass of herbs are usually used to wrap up pieces of pancake before dipping it into sauce. We asked for herbs, and at first they said no, then they brought some. That was the only surprising (and disappointing) thing about Aobaba. The norm in Vietnamese restaurants is to provide an abundance of fresh herbs to mix into or eat with your food.
We were recommended to try the special Pho with beef, pork, chicken, tofu and prawn, and it was huge with a really flavoursome broth. It was a great example of Pho, but as always happens in these situations we find ourselves wondering about the provenance of the meat. Some of the beef was quite fatty, and we didn't see any descriptions denoting free-range anything, so it's probably safe to assume that it's not.
Aobaba is very cheap, the bill for an enormous amount of food for two people came to €29, with a tonne of leftovers to bring home, and obviously with more ethically sourced meat the prices would rise, so unfortunately this is often the trade off for cheap food. We would have happily paid a few more euro per dish for free-range anything, but they obviously feel that cheaper prices are more important to their customers.
What about the drinks?
There are a tonne of drinks to choose from, like iced teas, milk teas, bubble teas and Vietnamese cofee, but no alcohol, and they don't do BYO. They probably don't want people hanging around as space is so limited.
And the service?
Ranged from sweet and smiling to brusque and barking with a side of eye-rolling, depending on who you got. You order and pay at the counter and then they bring the food to you when it's ready. The wait was only around 5 minutes, and they're clearly operating a tightly run ship. Take away boxes to bring home leftovers are 30c each - or save plastic and bring your own if you have a habit of over-ordering like we do.
This is currently in the lead for our favourite Vietnamese in the city. Despite a few flaws, the food is of a seriously high quality, and it's great value. Prepare to wait for a seat as it always seems to be jammed, and don't leave without trying those addictive Banh Cuon.
46A Capel Street, Dublin 1