It's like stepping onto the set of Miss Saigon, a walk back in time to an American G.I. bar in Vietnam during the war. I can't say I have any personal experience with the experience in 1970 Vietnam but Pinky's Ca Phe, hidden in a small house in Little Italy is certainly what I would expect if someone asked me to describe one.
Something between a speakeasy and a diner, all with a vintage twist, Leemo Han has created a truly unique dining venue in what is sometimes considered a saturated restaurant scene, especially if you are tired of the same old phở shops and bánh mì joints that are ubiquitous across the city now.
Like many of the restaurants that take unique, themed risks in Toronto, Pinky's is not the first attempt of owner Han as he has plenty of experience with snack bars. He currently also operates Japanese-style izakaya Hanmoto and Korean tapas-like OddSeoul, both of which—like Pinky's—cater to the cocktail and late-night snacking crowd. At Pinky's, there is a definite Vietnamese slant to the menu but don't be surprised to see a little Thai influence as well as the dishes are the chef's own modern takes on diner fare from 70s Vietnam. So, if you'd like to be transported back in time, this hipster snack bar can check all the boxes for vintage vibe, cocktails, small plates, good music, and a look at Vietnam as perhaps you've never experienced, it's worth a trip to Little Italy.
Atmosphere & Decor
One word? Shiny! Complimented by old hardwood floors, bare brick walls, and vintage snackbar signs, everything is shiny and glowing with the sort of fluorescent lightning that is more common in old Hong Kong gangster movies and dive bars rather than the upscale eateries of Toronto. The entire area is covered in tinsel that reflects what little brightness is given off by the coloured lights, and is further adorned with old American and Vietnamese flags, as well as prints of old Saigon. Like many of these throwback speakeasies and diners, it's reminiscent of an era that is only familiar to some of us through movies or stories.
The music is a blend of popular oldies from the 60s, 70s, and 80s which are familiar enough to sing a few bars but not so much that the bar is going to launch into a Broadway chorus a la Miss Saigon. It fits the feel of the venue and the only thing this place would require to truly be an authentic replication of those scenes in film is a thick haze of cigarette smoke—which is thankfully absent here. Lighting is quite low with a golden glow of yellow. Out front is much better lit section and a patio outside is open in summer months.
As Pinky's is essentially a snackbar, the menu is limited to 13 choices of Vietnamese inspiration. However, if you're looking for the Vietnamese food you're familiar with elsewhere in the city, you may be in for a surprise. Absent from the menu are any of the take-out classics like spring rolls or eat-in big bowl soup favourites such as phở. Everything on the menu is a twist with a flair for something a little more upscale than the usual fare such as Han's take on butter beef or french dip. Sure, you'll see words like vermicelli, bánh mì, wings, and phở but each of these is taken up a level.
There's no clear definition between appetizers and entrees, mostly as it seems everything is generally the same size. At the top of the small menu is mango papaya salad with grilled squid for $15 and it's the only salad on the entire menu, followed by bánh xeo broccoli for $7 which is not actually the French-influenced crepe dish of the same name but rather a plate of battered broccoli. Then it's back to $16 for the ever-popular Tiger's Milk ceviche with tuna, scallop and surf clams. The latter half of the page consists of sticky wings or eggplant claypot for $10 each, and marrow beef for $16. It's worth noting that the marrow beef offering is a version of butter beef and quite possibly the most Instagrammed dish on the menu. Clearly, Toronto still isn't over the marrow-served-on-the-bone craze. And it's not for naught as it is indeed a good-looking plate of food.
If you're looking for something a little more pedestrian or familiar, the second page of the menu might be more appealing. Lemongrass chicken bánh mì could be the perfect choice, especially for the low $8 price tag or the So Fly! Rice which is fried rice with the added bonus of deep-fried soft-shell crab for $17. At $15, mushroom vermicelli is one of three vegetarian offerings on the menu and is exactly what the name implies. The take on french dip here is called phở beef dip for a very reasonable $10, but you won't find any rice noodles in this dish.
Down near the bottom of the menu are the charred chicken legs, beef curry claypot, and the "lucky" strip for $18, $16, and $25 respectively. Chicken legs are grilled over charcoal and the striploin is smoked or seared with phở butter and served alongside Viet chimichurri.
Following up is a small dessert offering of two dishes: the Vietnamese tres leches and purple yam smash at a very modest $8 and $10 but continue with the cohesive theme of the restaurant.
As this is authentically South-East Asian cuisine, it's very important to understand that most if not all the dishes likely include ingredients that many Western eaters may be allergic to such as shrimp (paste), fish sauce, shellfish, and nuts, especially peanuts. The servers will generally ask about allergies when ordering and it's important to check with the server if you have one of these common allergies. They are accommodating.
As previously mentioned, this snackbar doesn't divide itself into traditional apps and mains but instead has everything together with moderately-sized portions and mid-range prices across the board. After all, this place is about casual bites and tasty strong drinks, not complicated sit-down fine dining.
It was hard to make a decision about how best to start out the meal but being a huge fan of Thai green papaya salad and grilled squid, it seemed impossible to pass up the dish at the top of the menu that combined both of these things. It came fairly quickly in a looming tower of greens and reds on top of mango, papaya, and bean sprouts with a surprising amount of charred squid. Unless you order a specifically squid dish such as calamari, it's not all that common to be given so much at once. What a pleasant surprise! The best part of the squid was not only that it was cooked absolutely perfectly with a thick char on it (exactly the way I like it), but that it included both body and tentacles. It was crispy on the ends and a good bite without being too chewy. It actually reminded me more of various octopus dishes I've had in Toronto rather than squid in how it was cooked. Excellent.
The fruits and vegetables were all grated and mixed well, with various herbs like cilantro and Thai basil seemingly used more as a garnish than an ingredient. The heat wasn't particularly strong but came on eventually. This contributed partly to my opinion on the salad. As I'm quite familiar with the Thai version, I wondered if maybe I was too blinkered by what I'm used to a papaya salad tasting like instead of this new Vietnamese-style papaya salad. I miss the sharp and strong contrast of cilantro and Thai basil with the hot red chillis, and there seemed to being something more overpowering, possibly the ginger? Vietnamese mint was missing, lime juice was also lacking and the peanuts included where candied beer nuts, which I found a bit strange but not unappetizing. Nước chấm sauce was there but I could have had more and the delicious salty brine of fish sauce seemed to be tampered down for some reason. There were quite a few scallions mixed in but again, I'm not sure where I was losing their flavour but something else seemed to be overpowering most of the dish. It was not by any means a bad papaya salad but it was not exactly what I was expecting, and that is probably a good thing.
For the "entree", I wondered about going the trendy way of the marrow beef, the tempting crab and fried rice, or something more unfamiliar. There are enough opinions of the marrow beef on every review of Pinky's and I wasn't sure if an entire bowl of fried rice to myself was exactly what I wanted despite my never-ending love of crab so I opted for what I didn't realize was basically a roast beef sandwich with broth dip. That may be my mistake for not thinking carefully enough since the words "dip" and "phở" were enough to catch my attention! Although, in my defense, there is no mention of bread on the menu.
It was a small pot of dark phở broth and cilantro with a sandwich based on french dip, which itself is an American invention. The bread here was not the fluffy and soft Vietnamese roll with a hard crust that is present at bánh mì shops but instead stays very close to traditional American french dip which uses a much harder baguette-style bread. I tasted no asiago cheese, nor much hoisin sauce but the trendy sriracha sauce that is omnipresent in all Asian restaurants in North America was definitely here as well. The broth itself was hot and quite delicious and paired exceptionally well with the beef. It managed to soften the slightly difficult hard bread. With the addition of lime juice, it really helped the broth's flavour to pop.
The contents of the sandwich were tasty and as I'm used to ordering rare beef for my phở, this tasted mostly like well-cooked phở beef, just on bread instead of with rice noodles in soup. On the whole, it was just a roast beef sandwich. That may sound dismissive but there is something to be said about a well-made, tasty comfort-type food. I can imagine an American soldier in a bar in Saigon (before it became Ho Chi Minh City) soaking up the familiar food and being incredibly grateful for it. So, for a restaurant that mimics such a place, it makes sense to include some dishes like this which hark back to meals its patrons would have indulged in as well.
Combined with the good prices, it has to be said that the plates are the perfect size for one person and anyone wanting a quick bite would not go amiss here. In fact, As I was sitting at the bar enjoying my meal, someone came in, ordered the ceviche and a pint, and was out again before I'd even started dessert so it is a place to stop in briefly and have a snack as well. Next to them were two friends who shared the marrow beef, beef curry claypot, and fried rice and they couldn't stop raving about what a good choice the curry pot was. So, whatever you choose off the menu, it seems to be a hit.
There are only two options on the menu for those with a sweet tooth but both are well-priced. Tres leche cakes have never been a particular favourite of mine but perhaps the ones here are excellent. I was told by the bartender that the yam smash is the better of the desserts and I can't say I question that considering how tasty it was! Not only that, but it was massive. Three huge scoops of coconut milk ice-cream on top of a mashed purple yam with beer nuts, toasted coconut, and fresh lime. The ice-cream was obviously homemade and that is a good thing and the flavours were smooth and complimentary, especially with the squeezed lime on top. When taken with the tasted coconut and beer nuts, the crunch with the delicate ice-cream and grilled yam all brought out the best parts of each ingredient. By the time I was done with the salad and sandwich, it was impossible to finish all 3 scoops by myself but the yam went down really well. This is a dessert best shared between people if everyone has already had a meal but it wouldn't be a bad idea to just order this dessert for a snack if you're after something sweet.
The cocktail list here is where to look for a good drink to accompany your snack. It's small and each drink caters to a different taste but all of them maintain the feel of a Vietnamese dive bar taken up a notch. Whether it's lemon or lime, there will be a sour punch to each cocktail that harks back to subtropical Asian locales. All except the Pink Lady are at a reasonable $13 with the former being just one little loonie more. The Pink Lady with the housemade raspberry syrup seemed to be a particular favourite of patrons at the bar with one commenting that it is the best cocktail she'd had in quite some time. The Mango Popper includes a jalapeno-infused vodka which is done in-house as well.
I chose to try the Saigon Rock as a fan of gin, passionfruit, and lime. I had no idea what orgeat was, but that's all the more exciting in a cocktail. I know now that it's a sweet, almond-based syrup with orange or rosewater and also that I'm not much of a fan, as it turns out. The cocktail itself was nicely balanced and used fresh lime juice and if perhaps the orgeat had been absent, I would have enjoyed it more. I felt there was just a hint of that store-bought lime cordial in the drink even though I knew from watching the bartender that they used their own squeezed lime and lemon juices so it was just niggling on my tongue. It seems like it was the orgeat syrup causing that. Otherwise, it was a refreshing drink and if you enjoy almonds or amaretto (or Mai Tais which also use it) you'd likely enjoy the cocktail more than I did.
As it's based around expat Saigon bars, Pinky's has a full cocktail selection and a very good, enthusiastic bartender so beyond their signature offerings, they can probably whip up whatever you have on your mind. Bar rail drinks are an easy $7 a pop.
The other unique offering on the drinks menu are the $14 Foco Loco cocktails which you may recognise from Pinky's Instagram as being the juice cans on top of ice. In fact, they are either rum or vodka on the rocks with juice poured over top and served with the tin. It comes in 5 flavours: mango, coconut, passionfruit, guava, and lychee.
There's also the Hua-Hua Iced Tea which is a similar alcohol mix as a Long Island Iced Tea but with a Vietnamese tea blend instead of Coca Cola. It's made for two or four people.
Of course, a bar isn't complete without beer and Pinky's has 3 brews on tap including Sapporo (Japan), Laguintas IPA (USA) and 8 Man EPA (Canada) all for $8 a pint. They also a have small selection of beer by the can for $6-7, and tall boys for $7. Three Ontario ciders, two from Revel and one from West Avenue, round out the list, ranging from #13 to $24. There are also a few wines on offer by the 5oz glass or bottle: two whites and two reds, as well as a sparkling cava. Bottles are either $50 or $55, and glasses are only $11 or $12 a glass.
Even showing up at around 6:30 PM, the restaurant was half-full and as a single, it's bar seating only. I quickly found a free spot and the bartender was prompt with water and asking if I had any questions about the drinks. Of course, I ordered after a quick glance over the cocktail list and from that point on, I still had no complaints about attentiveness despite she was often running hostess, bar, and taking guests orders all at once. As the place quickly filled up, even on an icky spring evening, servers and bar were on point. Food came quickly enough for the demand of the place and I was never left with an empty water glass or looking at my watch. All the food arrived hot and ready to eat, except the dessert obviously which must have just been dished up as the ice-cream hadn't even had the chance to begin melting yet.
The bartender was friendly, conversational, and skilful and overall, everyone seemed to be in good moods and happy to be there.
As I wandered out through the old house, I felt incredibly full. Had I forced down the entire dessert perhaps I would have felt a bit ill but as it stood all the flavours still remained pleasantly on my tongue with no hint of disappointment. The place was totally packed and stepping onto the darkened Toronto street was not jarring since, despite its small size, the restaurant itself never felt stuffy or overfull even with every seat filled.
Walking down the pathway, I met a young man who looked to be a backpacker who asked if it was a restaurant and I told him it was. He said, "I never would have found this!" and proceeded to go straight in. And that's how Pinky's works: it's word of mouth mainly as there is no signage and looks more like someone's old house is having a warm house party in the front room. So, if you're ever wandering down Clinton or across College, make sure to take a peek around the corner and keep your eyes peeled for a white house which otherwise is indistinguishable from its neighbours apart from the patio out front. This is definitely a place to come for a filling dinner, for a quick snack, for dessert, or even just for a flavoursome drink. Be prepared to be surrounded by vintage vibes, oldies, and crowds of young people who know a good deal when they see one.