The new restaurant location on James North gets everything right - location, decor, service, and of course the magnificent food.
By Ryan McGreal
Published March 26, 2013
Spoiler alert: this review ends on an unambiguously positive note. However, I can't fully convey just how impressed we were with the new Ben Thanh Viet-Thai Restaurant without going over what the old location at Cannon and Park was like.
Ben Thanh was a Hamilton institution for as long as I can remember. My family ate there on and off for close to two decades, despite - well, despite almost everything about the place.
The location was awkward and hard to reach from the southwest. The building was dingy. The interior decor was off-putting. The big open room reverberated with an ear-splitting din whenever the restaurant was busy, which was a lot of the time. Most significant, the service was spectacularly bad.
In fact, the service was so preposterous that I'm tempted to list it as an attraction. Requested items - which you selected by number from a grimy menu and wrote on an order card - would arrive in no discernible order. A bowl of rice would arrive, followed by a strawberry slushy with mango jelly stars, followed by one entree, followed by a bowl of soup, followed by another entree, followed by an order of spring rolls, followed by a mango shake, followed by another entree.
Sullen, grim-faced servers would slam the dishes down in stony silence. If there was something wrong - a missed or incorrect order - forget about it. You were not going to get anyone's attention.
The only reason we went at all was that the food itself was so tasty that everything else was worth tolerating, at least occasionally. To be honest, we had mostly given up on the place and didn't rush out to try the new location when it opened on 113 James Street North (at Vine).
New location at James and Vine
With Ben Thanh's move to its new location, I'm delighted to report that they've changed everything about the dining experience from the ground up.
The new location on the ground floor of a beautifully renovated three-storey building is more accessible, and the view out the windows is of a lively urban street, not a desolate four-lane expressway. The interior is clean, tasteful and stylish. It looks like they spent some serious money on the decor.
The service is perhaps the biggest change. Our server was lovely: polite, attentive and competent. She helped us navigate the new menus and took our orders instead of just swinging by and grabbing a completed order card. Then she brought us our drinks. I know, crazy.
(At one point, she noticed another server bringing an entree out at the same time as an appetizer, and she intercepted him to explain that the entree isn't supposed to come out until the appetizers are finished.)
Even the food has changed - though once again, the change is abundantly for the better. Attractive presentation on stylish new dishes combines with richer, fuller flavour for an excellent experience.
The Thai Tom Yum Soup (#631) was fresh and aromatic, with the recipe tweaked to include fresh tomatoes. The BBQ beef vermicelli bowl (#308) was rich and generous. The Pad Thai Mixed Seafood (#422) was spicy and tangy without feeling heavy and dense. We were all pleasantly surprised.
Of course, the menu runs to hundreds of items and we experienced only the tiniest sample. I can say that every dish we saw go by on its way to another table looked appetizing, and the restaurant as a whole smells amazing.
Ben Thanh has eight locations in southwestern Ontario: Burlington, Mississauga, Guelph, Waterloo, Cambridge, Kitchener, London, and of course Hamilton. I've heard excellent things about some of the other locations, including a laudatory 2011 review of the Burlington location by the Spectator's Dan Kislenko. I'm delighted to report that Hamilton has caught up with its fellow stores to provide a modern, delicious and full-service dining experience.
Our faith is restored, and we will definitely be back.
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