100 Redriff Road, Surrey Quays Leisure Park, London, SE16 7LH cafeeast.foodkingdom.com
Saying your restaurant is based ‘in the heart of the Surrey Quays leisure complex’ is a funny thing to put on your website, especially if that restaurant is Café East. Leisure parks never struck me as places with much heart and this one certainly doesn’t; a virtually empty car park with the usual Frankie and Benny’s, Pizza Hut and West Coast Grill Bar (I know – me neither!), surrounded by a bingo hall, bowling alley and a cinema. If you want decent grub, you don’t usually go to a leisure park.
Even the outside of Café East is a bit, well, iffy. A new build with about as much character as a motorway flyover. And if you hadn’t already heard of Café East – A and I aren’t exactly trendsetters by popping in – you could be forgiven for thinking the place would be a lost cause. But it’s inside these four walls where it gets lively.
More like a canteen than a café, even today there are more tables full than empty, quite a feat when you consider it’s a Friday afternoon and, as I may have mentioned already, we’re in the middle of a leisure park. The dining room is bright, clean and ever so slightly clinical and runs a ticket system when it’s even busier.
We order a recently discovered favourite of ours, Vietnamese sausage (or ‘meatloaf’ depending on where you’re eating) plus a few other bits and bobs. The waiter helpfully checks whether we did mean to order the pork skin rolls instead of the prawn rolls because ‘a lot of people do that’, and we tell him we would indeed like the piggy. The rolls are good but they don’t pack the sort of herby punch to the face I’ve had in other Vietnamese rolls. The homemade chilli dipping sauce for our sausage definitely does pack a punch though.
Service is charming and, mostly, efficient. When the mains are brought I ask a young, wide-eyed waiter whether I’m meant to pour the broth he has given me, over my Pho Kho Dac Biet Cay noodles which come with beef, chicken and some prawns. A brief moment of terror, he blurts ‘yes’ and scarpers. It is an excellent stock, a lamby aroma and taste not unlike Chinese la mian broths, with the same heat edge. We don’t order a dessert, there is only one on the menu and A is already losing to her Com Suon Bi Cha, a mixed platter of lemongrass pork chop, meat pie and, again, some shredded pork skin with rice.
The meal is easy on the wallet too, £31 for both of us, not at all bad considering the quantity and quality. We are in such good moods, in fact, even the car park seems a little perkier when we leave, and it makes me reconsider my earlier misgivings about a caff in a heartless carpark. Café East, I think to myself, has plenty of heart.