HOT TIP – At any Vietnamese restaurant, always ask for more Bun Nem sauce. Canadian Vietnamese restaurants only provide a small bowl for customers, but it is customary for Vietnamese to use double that amount — they’ll give you more if you ask!
Few Canadians know that Calgary is a hotspot of great Vietnamese cuisine: almost every-other plaza has a little phở restaurant. There are lots of options, and they are some of the best Canadian-Vietnamese food we’ve had, beating Toronto restaurants by a wide margin.
In this post, we rank and review some of the best Vietnamese restaurants in Calgary. We rank according to both Vietnamese and Canadians standards, with a special focus on authenticity. See below for how we judge authentically.
TL;DR: head to Mr Q. Pho at the Crowfoot Crossing for amazing Bun Nem and pleasant sit-down experience.
Pho Mr Q is a favourite among locals at Crowfoot Crossing and it is often quite busy — on a weekday lunch, we had to wait out the door for a seat! Another good sign is that many of the patrons are themselves Vietnamese. The staff were Vietnamese too.
The decor was quite tasteful and elegant (not the usual mismash of random stuff like so many Vietnamese restaurants). You could safely bring a date or client here and not feel embarrassed.
The dishes at Pho Mr Q are south Vietnamese, meaning that they are sweeter and spicier. Pho Mr Q excels at noodle dishes, such as the phở and bun nem (springrolls and vermicelli). This is good news for having excellent and authentic noodles, at the expense of having less diversity of non-noodle dishes compared to other restaurants.
There are subtle touches of excellence at Pho Mr Q which earn it the highest-rating on our list: for example, the fried tofu (a little afterthought in some dishes) is marinated and brassed in a delicious sweet-ginger sauce that gently enhances the overall dish. Such careful attention to taste makes the overall experience at Pho Mr Q less cheap-feeling and more dignified.
Overall, Pho Mr Q has a great ambiance and authentically Vietnamese noodle dishes that are totally acceptable in Vietnam among Vietnamese people. If you’re looking to try any place in Calgary, this is it.
A bonus is the huge proportions — you will feel full and satisfied. We care most about taste, but this is a great extra.
Our only complaint was that the bun nem noodles (rice vermicelli) were not fresh but were rehydrated noodles — this is not something you’ll notice as a Canadian. Also, the offerings of rao (fresh herbs and veggies), were not the mint, basil, and cilantro that we prefer, but things like shredded carrot, mung-bean and lettuce — its a southern Vietnamese thing.
FUN RUMOR: Locals joke that the restaurant’s name was first “Mr. Pho Q”, but they re-arranged the “Mr.” and “Pho”, because the former soinds idential to “Mr. f*ck you”. Learn more about how to propertly pronounce phở.
Pho 99 is yet another highly-recommended Vietnamese restaurant near Crowfoot Crossing (see Mr. Q). It wins our #2 spot in overall taste and authenticity.
The decor is nice and clean. There is low lighting, booths and sombre colours. The staff are not yelling at each other. Overall, you could bring a date here and not feel trashy (however, a Vietnamese person may point-out that the boothy-decor is very un-Vietnamese. The owners clearly tookover a Perkins or Kelsey’s — but that is just a superficial thing).
Unlike their nearby competitor, Pho 99 has more variety in dishes — for example, they have Banh Xeo (a savory Vietnamese crepes). Their most-recommended dish is Mi Xao (fried noodles). So, if you’re not a big noodle and springroll fan, this is a better option.
The food is very authentically South Vietnamese and is perpared well. It gets a high rating by us, only slightly lower than our #1 spot. The spring rolls are okay. The bun noodles are fresh (not rehydrated). The portions of the dishes are biggish and normal. Overall, it’s a safe bet for Vietnamese food and worth your attention, especially some of the dishes that you may not be able to try at other restaurants.
Bolsa Vietnamese Restaurant has an unfortunate name that raises eyebrows — is it Mexican-Vietnamese fusion? No! It is regular South Vietnamese food. The name merely references the street where the owner (a Vietnamese American) grew up.
Bolsa caught our attention with its high ratings and praises on other review websites — Calgarians seem to really like Bolsa’s wonderful pho.
However, we hate to break it to you: Bolsa’s pho isn’t really authentic. First, the phở noodles aren’t real phở noodles (they use a flat spaghetti rice noodle). They don’t have the special flavours that Vietnamese look forward too. They include ingredients like tomatoes which would be unthinkable in Vietnam. Perhaps they have adapted the phở for a North American palette?
But, despite these peculiarities, the phở is quite good (by Canadian standards) even if it is inauthentic. On the plus side, the meat is good quality (which is something you can’t easily get in Vietnam).
We think their bun nem is pretty good. Nothing too outstanding, nor substandard, just good. The bun was fresh, and the portions are modest compared to some other Calgarian Vietnamese restaurants.
The decor is sober and gentle, with random oriental stuff on the wall, and lots of fish acquariums (kids love that! And it is very Vietnamese). The decor is not so embarrassing, nor is it especially suave. I wouldn’t go on a serious date there.
Overall, Bolsa is worth a visit if you’re near the Macleod plaza.
Located in the gentrifying neighbourhood of Bowness, the mom-and-pop “Bowness Vietnamese” feels like a small-town restaurant frequented by colourful locals and run by chatty-noisy affection owners. It has a good vibe, and is the kind of business that feels good to patron.
One of the best features of Bowness Vietnamese is that it has real Bia Siagon! Any backpacker who has spent time in Vietnam has fond memories of the iconic beer — packed, humid open-street bars with tiny tables and tiny chairs, crowded-out with peanuts and green Bia Saigon bottles.
Overall the food is pretty good and in-line with most of Calgary’s South Vietnamese restaurants.
The menu has somewhat been altered to cater to Western expectations (it is reminiscent of how Hong Kong restaurants in the 70’s adapted their “Chinese food” to Canadian tastes). Some of these adaptations/innovations work well, for example, putting a spinach in the bun nem (spring rolls). Why not?
The retired couple who run the place seem quite responsive to new ideas and like to solicit feedback from patrons about whether to add some lesser-known Vietnamese dishes that may be a hit with Canadians — talk to them about their less-than-usual dishes and try something new! For example, try the Banh Xeo (savoury crepe).
Next time you’re at the Beacon Hill Costco, there is no reason not to stop by Kim Lan. It’s a small, quiet, mom & pop restaurant nestled in a faceless plaza just a parking-lot away from Costco. The name means “golden flower” in Vietnamese.
Overall, Kim Lan is okay — not great, not bad. The service is fast, while catering to a more sit-down casual atmosphere.
We have some nitpicky complaints, such as the bun-noodles being rehydrated (instead of being made fresh, although the average Canadian will probably not notice), the nem (spring rolls) are somewhat subpar, the side-vegies are a little less than fresh in the winter, and the meat was just good, but not great. These complaints aren’t killers for the overall quality of the food, which is reasonable and quite enjoyable. You should give Kim Lan a try, but we don’t think it is “the best” Vietnamese in Calgary.
Walking into Pho Time, you are hit with a warm fluorescence and ikea-esque decor that reminds one of a college cafetaria or a student common area. Likewise, the clientele are cheery gangs of twenty-somethings in trackpants, most of whom seem like the descendants of Vietnamese immigrants.
Why is this an important point? We’ll tell you: Pho Time is the kind of restaurant where Vietnamese parents will not eat, but their Canadian children will — the naive kids being only second-hand aware of what real Vietnamese food tastes like.
This is a long-winded way of saying that Pho Time is somewhat inauthentic, like the Panda Express of Vietnamese food. But, the kids seem to like it. The ingredients have been heavily modified for the Canadian palette. Some ingredients have been discarded altogether — things that Canadians (or the children of Vietnamese immigrants) won’t appreciated. For example, their com tom (pork and rice) skips the pork skin bits, replacing them with bun noodles (which look superficially similar).
The nem (spring rolls) are okay. The bun sauce is okay, but very salty. The quality of meat is good (but that’s an Alberta thing, not necessarily a compliment to the chef). The proportions are typical of Vietnamese places.
Overall, Pho Time may be a good place as a youthful hang-out & cram sess, after you’ve worked up an appetite shopping at Value Village, but I’m not sure why you’d seek it out specifically.
7) Ngo Saigon
Address: 2111 33 Avenue SW T2T 1Z7
Price: $15-16 per dish $ per dish
Rating: Vietnamese: 5; Canadian: 6.3
Ngo Saigon is located in south Calgary’s little hipster enclave known as the Marda Loop. Among the many overpriced restaurants on the Loop, Ngo Saigon is an affordable and decent option. The ambience is fine, but not fine-dinning, with large corny murals of tourist hotspots in Vietnam (which is a very Vietnamese decor). The staff are authentically Vietnamese –they even have loud, embarrassingly initimate conversations in Vietnamese in full earshot of customers — just like in Vietnam!
But, other than its prime location on the Loop, and the authenticity of the staff, there is not much to rave about Ngo Saigon.
The size of the portions are average. The bun noodles are rehydrated, not fresh. The sauces are okay, but not great. The spring rolls are quite salty. They do have good quality meat, and it is prepared well.
We recommend their rice dishes, which are somewhat like homemade Vietnamese food.
What we look for in taste and authenticity of Vietnamese food?
What do we look for when we rate the Vietnamese food? We do not care about decor or even price or value for dollar. We look at:
- taste of the sauce/broth*
- heaps of fresh herbs
- quality of main protein ingredient (e.g. meat, tofu)
- quality of noodle
- overall balance of proportions of different ingredients (herbs, noodle, protein, spring-roll, sauce)
In particular the quality of the sauce/broth is the may it or break it criteria. An excellent sauce can make-up for other issues.
If the above criteria don’t seem important (such as the heaps of herbs), see our commentary through out.