They say you should never judge a book by its cover, writes Holly O’Mahony…
It’s an idiom which can often be applied to restaurants too, and Panda Panda, a café selling Vietnamese street food in Deptford, is one such example of this. Passers-by could easily be put off by the garish bubble writing splaying its name above the door, or the somewhat shabby interior with cream-coloured tiles and plain walls, save for a few faded pictures of pandas eating bamboo shoots and framed photos of the restaurant’s dishes.
The orange tables and logo, meanwhile, make Panda Panda look like a wholly owned subsidiary of EasyJet, specialising in Vietnamese food. (Not such a far-fetched thought to anyone who has spotted a branch of easyCoffee, the airline’s bizarre attempt to break into London’s coffee shop scene). I digress, but the point is, Panda Panda could easily be overlooked in favour of smarter cafés in the neighbourhood, when in fact it’s a Deptford gem.
The main portion of the menu is divided into banh mi (Vietnamese baguettes), salads (which come with or without noodles) and Vietnamese pho (soups). The same staple ingredients – grilled pork, char siu (pork marinated in Chinese BBQ sauce), satay chicken and prawns – appear on the menu across all three specialities. Its soft beverages only here, with Vietnamese takes on teas and coffees, smoothies and a variety of Taiwanese bubble teas making up the drinks portion of the menu.
With the help of the very friendly staff, I settled upon the ‘Triple Pork Special’ noodle salad, keen to sample all three pork options on the menu. What arrived was a bowl filled with several separate elements – shredded lettuce, carrot, cucumber, noodles and the three-way pork – which didn’t immediately gel together. Even when I added the dipping sauce and tried to mix it in, there was too much going on at first for it to work. Fear not, though, it does all come together once you’re several mouthfuls in. Don’t make the same mistake I did of going to town with the other sauces on the table (fish, soy and Sriracha); you’ll end up with a salty swamp of your own creation at the bottom of your bowl.
Of the pork, the grilled pieces, which were marinated in lemongrass, were the most delectable, but the char siu and steamed pork – both with their sweet stickiness and orange hue – were intriguing, succulent and moreish, leaving me glad I ordered the trio. Be warned: portions here are huge. You, like, I, might find yourself wondering which ingredients to prioritise by the end, and regretting ordering a portion of summer rolls on the side.
In fact, I didn’t end up with a portion of summer rolls. I was told the portion size was three rolls cut in half, making six. I restrained, but was kindly given one vegetable roll on the house. Good thing, too; I couldn’t even finish the complimentary bulging wrap of lettuce, shredded carrot and fresh coriander. Something unidentifiable in the wrap lent it an overly fragrant note, but the creamy, peanut-sprinkled dipping sauce it came with was a treat.
Despite it being past 5pm on my visit, I decided to wash my meal down with a Vietnamese iced coffee: slow-drip coffee, condensed milk and watery shards of ice. The verdict? A tasty blend with an unexpected (and imagined) aftertaste of liquor to it.
Panda Panda was nearly empty on my visit but almost all others diners who came and went spoke to the staff in what I assume was Vietnamese – always a sign of authenticity when you’re eating foreign cuisine. The café is also the kind of place you don’t feel awkward eating on your own and so I stayed a while beyond my meal, enjoying watching the comings and goings. With fresh, tasty flavours and extremely reasonable prices (my whole dinner was under £10), Panda Panda is a cheap eat worth having on your radar.
8 Deptford Broadway
Phone: 020 8616 6922