Ordering fresh noodles from Aobaba, a Vietnamese restaurant on Capel Street in Dublin, turns out to be not only 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 eatery, Asia Market sells them under the Jan Jan Noodles brand.
Carol Lugia, who arrived in Ireland in 1979 aged 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 airlifted to our shores. She grew up in Galway, moved back to Dublin to work when she was 17, and in 2012 was able 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, owner of Aobaba restaurants in the UK, is a good friend and advised her. Lugia runs it independently and offers a different menu.
It’s one of the balmy summer evenings as we stroll down Capel Street, relieved to see that 6pm on a Friday is a good time to land at a table outside. After scanning the menu in the window, then queuing inside to order and pay (cash only), we are rewarded with a front row seat on the most interesting stretch of town. Three French guys discuss their newly inked tattoos outside the Good Trouble tattoo parlor next door, others examine the designs in the window, and we discover, after asking our waiter, that it’s cool to have a few beers at Centra across the street and have them with our food as long as we take our voids with us.
Bánh cuốn is a dish that is as much about texture as it is about flavor. The three large rolls are filled with ground pork, wild mushrooms and crispy shallots, wrapped in sheets of fermented rice dough. It’s such a big part that we take it home
Our number is called as he walks out again with a tray of food to go with our chilled boxes from Wicklow Wolf. Three hot and crispy homemade spring rolls (€5), garnished with carrots and grated pork, and dipped in a sweet sauce spiced up with a little chilli. Two large vegetarian summer rolls (€5) are crisp and fresh, the shredded cabbage, tofu cubes and noodles visible through the thin wrapper.
On the advice of Andy Noonan, the chef behind the Big Grill Festival and die-hard Aobaba fan, I ordered the pho bo tai (€8.50 the smallest option), but switching to the fresh noodles I ended up with something a little different – a slow cooked piece of brisket rather than a barely cooked pink slice sitting in broth. Seems like a good middle ground for fresh, silky noodles, filled with bean sprouts, finely chopped spring onions and cilantro in a mild, flavorful broth that we lightly lather with sriracha, to add extra heat.
We were warned that there would be a wait for the freshly steamed bánh cuốn (€8.50), another of Noonan’s recommendations. It’s a dish that’s as much in texture as it is in flavor, with three large rolls stuffed with ground pork, wood ears and crispy shallots, wrapped in sheets of fermented rice dough. The filmy, jelly-like wrapper means it’s a bit difficult to eat with chopsticks, so we dip it into the dip with our hands, though ultimately we’re defeated. It’s such a big part that we take some of it home.
There are a few choice stools at a bar counter inside, and even if you don’t land any, it’s the kind of place you’d be perfectly comfortable eating alone. Or, indeed, chat with the people next to you, like we do
In keeping with the street food vibe, only a few of Aobaba’s dishes do double duty. Noonan says he often comes here alone, and I understand why. There are a few choice stools at the counter of a bar inside, facing the street, and even if you don’t land any, it’s the kind of place you’d be perfectly comfortable sitting on. eat alone. Or, indeed, chatting with the people next to you, like we do, taking note that the prawn and vegetable pho they eat will definitely be on the list for a future visit. Although not in the larger portion of €11.
I’m not trying to predict the weather for the rest of the summer, but regardless, it’s well worth exploring the pedestrianized joy that is Capel Street. This is 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 Cheap and tasty Vietnamese street food.
Facilities For the shape, down a steep staircase.
Origin of food Jim Franey Ltd, vegetables from Michael Dowling & Son.
Vegetarian options Lots of vegetarian and vegan options, as the noodles can be served in vegetable broth with Jan Jan tofu or homemade fried gluten strips.
Wheelchair access The room is accessible but there is no accessible toilet.