Ordering the fresh noodles at Aobaba, a Vietnamese restaurant on Capel Street in Dublin, proves to be not just a good choice but also the source of an interesting backstory. They are the only handmade Vietnamese-style noodles in Ireland, and, as well as finding them in bowls of steaming pho at this casual restaurant, Asia Market sells them under the Jan Jan Noodles brand.
Carol Lugia, who arrived in Ireland in 1979 when she was 13, is the person behind them. Among the first of three groups of “boat people”, Lugia’s family had fled Vietnam to a camp in Hong Kong before being flown to our shores. She grew up in Galway, headed back to Dublin to work when she was 17 and by 2012 was in a position to open her own restaurant, which she runs with her sister. It appears, online, to be part of a UK chain, but it’s actually a much looser arrangement. Kim Do, the owner of the Aobaba restaurants in the UK, is a good friend, and advised her. Lugia runs it independently and has a different menu.
It is one of the balmier summer evenings as we stroll down Capel Street, relieved to see that 6pm on a Friday is a good time to land an outside table. After scanning the menu in the window and then queueing inside to order and pay (cash only), we are rewarded with a ringside seat on the city’s most interesting stretch. Three French guys discuss their newly inked tatts outside Good Trouble tattoo parlour next door, others survey the designs in the window, and we discover, after asking our waiter, that it’s cool to pick up a couple of beers from the Centra across the street and have them with our food as long as we take our empties with us.
Bánh cuốn is a dish as much about texture as flavour. The three large rolls are filled with minced pork, wood-ear mushrooms and crispy shallots, wrapped in sheets of fermented rice batter. It is such a large portion that we bring some home
Our number is called as he pops outside again with a tray of food to go with our chilled cans of Wicklow Wolf. Three house-made spring rolls (€5) are hot and crunchy, packed with shredded carrots and pork, and dipped in a sauce that is sweet with a bit of chilli heat. Two large vegetarian summer rolls (€5) are chilled and fresh, the shredded cabbage, cubes of tofu, and noodles visible through the thin wrapping.
Following the advice of Andy Noonan, the chef behind the Big Grill Festival and a signed-up fan of Aobaba, I have ordered the pho bo tai (€8.50 for the smaller option), but in switching to fresh noodles I’ve ended up with something a bit different — a slow-cooked piece of brisket rather than a barely cooked rose-pink slice sitting in the broth. It seems like an okay trade-off for the fresh silky noodles, packed with bean sprouts, finely chopped spring onions and coriander in a mild savoury broth that we lace lightly with sriracha, to add more heat.
We had been advised that there would be a wait for the freshly steamed bánh cuốn (€8.50), another of Noonan’s recommendations. It is a dish that is as much about texture as it is about flavour, with three large rolls filled with minced pork, wood-ear mushrooms and crispy shallots, wrapped in sheets of fermented rice batter. The filmy, gelatinous wrap means that it is a little unwieldy to eat using chopsticks, so we bob it into the dipping sauce with our hands, although ultimately we are defeated. It is such a large portion that we bring some of it home.
There are a few prime stools at a bar counter inside, and even if you don’t land one it’s the sort of place where you would be perfectly comfortable eating on your own. Or, indeed, chatting to the people beside you, as we do
In keeping with the street-food vibe, just a few of the dishes at Aobaba tip into double figures. Noonan says that he often comes here on his own, and I can see why. There are a few prime stools at a bar counter inside, looking on to the street, and even if you don’t land one it’s the sort of place where you would be perfectly comfortable eating on your own. Or, indeed, chatting to the people beside you, as we do, taking good note that the prawn and vegetable pho they’re eating will definitely be on the list for a return visit. Although not in the larger €11 portion.
I’m making no attempt to predict the weather for the rest of the summer, but, regardless, it is well worth exploring the pedestrian joy that is Capel Street. It’s Dublin’s little pocket of individuality, and a quick bite at Aobaba is very tasty indeed.
Dinner for two with two waters was €30.
THE VERDICT Inexpensive, tasty Vietnamese street food.
Facilities Perfunctory, down a steep flight of stairs.
Food provenance Jim Franey Ltd, vegetables from Michael Dowling & Son.
Vegetarian options Plenty of vegetarian and vegan options, as the noodles can be served in a vegetable broth with Jan Jan tofu or house-made fried gluten strips.
Wheelchair access The room is accessible but there is no accessible toilet.