I just got back from Los Angeles (brag) and have a newfound appreciation for strip malls. If you've been to LA (like I have, brag), you know it is nothing but a series of strip malls punctuated by gas stations, movie studios and Baldwin brothers. Inside those strip malls are some seriously great restaurants.
On a bland block in East Hollywood you'll find Sqirl, a breakfast spot with rice bowls that mix comfort food with the sharp tickle and tanginess of pickles, pestos and hot sauce, and thick-cut brioche served with a cloud of fresh ricotta and sticky housemade jam. Baroo, a forward-thinking Korean-influenced restaurant serving food with a fermented twist, from kimchi rice to kombucha, is a tiny hole-in-the-wall down from a 7-Eleven.
There have been a lot of great strip mall restaurants in Halifax: 9 + Nine, Pho Hoang Minh, Fredie's Fantastic Fish House, Arirang. And it was on a visit to the latter in Clayton Park that I noticed some new potential: Pho Maxim.
It's a small restaurant, with just a row of three or four booths on one wall and a half-dozen tables scattered loosely throughout the rest of the space. There are some mumsy touches—fake flowers on the walls and in a vase on the back counter—but other than that it's pretty bare-bones with the decor. It's clean and bright, though, and the server was immensely welcoming.
The Laughing Cow—the anthropomorphic cow that sells cheese spread—is on the front of the menu, a bowl of pho Photoshopped into her hooves. "It's so good" is written by her mouth. Nothing has made me laugh harder this week. Inside, the menu reveals a mix of Vietnamese and Thai dishes, pho and vermicelli, curry and basil stir-fry.
The food is good, but never truly great. The real joy of the restaurant is our server, a super charming woman who radiates with warmth and sociability. She is genuinely excited to walk us through her favourite dishes and makes effusive recommendations. She checks to see if we like spice, makes sure we have enough fish sauce, chili paste and water, and then gives us the space to enjoy our meal.
The spring rolls ($5.95), like everything else at Pho Maxim, are a huge serving. There are only two of them, but it feels like at least three. Our server has laced our fish sauce with chili paste since we like spice, and the shells keep their pleasant crackle when we dip them in.
I'm delighted to find crab rangoon ($4.95) on the menu. This is a food I love to eat—I like crab, I like cheese, I like wontons!—and that I love to conjure images of. The tasty little pouches immediately makes me think of vintage South Seas drawings, tiki lounges and key-party vibes. These are crisp with a creamy, savoury filling. There is not a lot of crab flavour, but they still make me want to throw a 1970s dinner party.
Allison adds heat and some sweet depth to the delicate chicken broth of her Special Vietnamese dumpling noodle soup ($13.95) with squirts of sriracha and hoisin. It's a huge bowl with countless shrimp dumplings, pale green fans of bok choy and tiny round slivers of green onion.
The vermicelli bowl ($14.95) with lemongrass chicken and beef and spring rolls is also massive. Handfuls of shredded lettuce, bean sprouts, cucumber and carrot add crunch. The meat is a bit tough, sliced thin and grilled a little too long, but the flavour is nice. And, again, the chili-laced fish sauce brings a whack of irresistible flavour.
There is nothing horizon-expanding or mind-blowing at Pho Maxim, but it's a solid little restaurant out in Clayton Park, where they are doing strip malls right. If you don't believe me, ask The Laughing Cow.
Pho Maxim Thai Restaurant 30 Farnham Gate Mon-Sun 11:30am-9pm 902-407-6668