Just because food is served casually it doesn’t mean taste or service must suffer. The most humble meal can be elevated by skillfully prepared ingredients; the sparest dining room can radiate hospitality through the personality of the server. Such is the case at the unassuming dining room of Kinh-Do, a Vietnamese treasure at the south end of Barrington, where plain, almost Spartan surroundings showcase fresh, simple food.
I first discovered Kinh-Do shortly after it changed names from King Spring Roll; I was working at a nearby restaurant and we would slip over to Kinh-Do to order our staff meals, then furtively sneak into the back door of our restaurant, careful not to let any prospective diners see us. I am addicted to the nuoc cham, the condiment that’s as ubiquitous to Vietnamese tables as ketchup is to ours. There are many variations, the basic ingredients being fish sauce, rice vinegar, sugar and chilies—sweet and hot, it complements just about everything.
Kinh-Do’s menu focuses on basic dishes that change depending on if you order beef, chicken or pork; many of the items are vegetarian. Lunchtime specials go for $5.95, and combination dinners abound, enabling the diner to sample a little of everything.
Although the variety is not as wide as at other Asian restaurants, Kinh-Do’s food shines in its simplicity. Take the curry chicken ($10.95), a generous portion of boneless chicken with mild yellow curry and coconut milk. This dish is a lovely blend of subtle flavours, with very fresh, fork-tender chicken that asks for nothing other than perhaps a spoonful of the steamed scented rice ($1.95) to complement it. Our vermicelli with shrimp and vegetables ($9.75) relies on very fresh ingredients, crisp raw-hot carrots and broccoli and perfectly cooked mid-size shrimp to catch one’s attention.
Our favourite dish of this visit is the chicken with lemon grass, onions and ginger ($10.25). Lemongrass is an essential herb in both Thai and Vietnamese cookery; a woody stalk and lemon flavoured leaves add a distinct citrus edge that lets a dish sparkle. In this case, the heat of the ginger dances with the sour tang of the lemon grass to elevate a basic stir-fry to sublime heights.
Kinh-Do spring rolls (2/$3) are not dainty rice-paper wrapped things, but rather sturdy, tightly packed rolls that hold true to their culinary roots as street food, something to be bought from a corner vendor and eaten out-of-hand with minimal fuss. The wrappers use more layers than is typical, and the filling is dense. We’re having the regular ones (vegetarian ones are equally good), the deep-fried wraps encasing a dense filling of pork, glass noodles, and seasoning. On the side is Metro’s best nuoc cham, which I would happily drink. Bite, dunk, bite, dunk, and so it goes until there’s neither a scrap of spring roll nor drop of sauce left.
We sip the last of our drinks—mango juice ($2.95) and jackfruit juice ($2.95)—and pass on the bubble tea that threatened to become all the rage a few years back. It’s “tea” with tapioca beads (bubbles), served chilled, sipped through straws. I don’t care for the texture of the bubbles, but for those who like it, Kinh-Do offers a good selection.
Kinh-Do hasn’t seen many changes over the years, save the bubble tea, a small fountain and an Interac machine. For that, all of us who enjoy simple, fresh food can be thankful.
Kinh-Do1284 Barrington Street425-8555Mon-Fri 11:30am-9:30pmSat-Sun 12:30pm-9:30pm
More of Liz Feltham’s bubbly reviews online: www.foodcritic.ca