Restaurant review: Where's Charlie in Wellington
It's a logical progression from a stall in a Willis St food court to fully fledged restaurant, but as the owners of Where's Charlie? must have found during their opening week, it's also a challenge.
Every office worker down the Lambton Quay end of town had seemingly been struck with the same idea – to escape the humdrum by checking out the new Vietnamese place over the lunch hour.
Consequently, on this Tuesday lunchtime Where's Charlie? was near to pandemonium. All the 80-odd seats were taken, and on top of that was a gaggle of customers holding table flags in front of the salad bar, waiting for their takeaway orders.
As I sat down in the farthest corner with my table flag, I was not feeling at all confident about being properly served – a fear soon realised when I was delivered half my order.
"I'm still waiting for my pho," I informed the young server. She unloaded my summer rolls from the tray and walked away saying nothing, which left me wondering whether I'd been understood.
Then the man at the next table, who had arrived well after me, received his big steaming bowl of pho well ahead of the other two at his table.
"Hey," he said, "I ordered the Mixed, not the Marinated Rare Beef!"
Fifteen minutes later my pho arrived, with apologies. "Hey," I said, upon striking a meatball, "I ordered the Marinated Rare Beef, not the Mixed!"
But dipping into the lip-smacking beef broth, I had to forgive all: as at the Where's Charlie? stall at the Capital Food Market, this murky but delicious stock is apparently made with 14 hour's simmering. The waiting staff supply the obligatory side dish of hoisin and chilli sauces and the chefs chop an honest amount of fresh coriander and spring onion over the top of the bowl.
Fresh herbs, by contrast, were virtually absent in my summer rolls, apart from a bit of coriander. Okay, maybe fresh perilla or saw-tooth coriander are a bit of an ask, but garden mint, Vietnamese mint and two types of basil are within any local restaurateur's budget.
So too are cucumbers, carrots, daikon and lettuce – anything to relieve the monotony of the shredded cabbage that bulked out these exemplars.
They were certainly fat little torpedoes, a key characteristic of the food here being generosity. Another is an eye to pleasing contemporary Western tastes.
It's hard to see what's authentically Vietnamese about a salad of Spiced & Manuka-honey Grilled Pork – but then, they could easily rub out the "Traditional Vietnamese Food" written on their blackboard menu and chalk up "Modern Vietnamese Food" instead.
With a bare floor, a ceiling dangling with wires and pipes, concrete blocks and tables cobbled together from wooden pallets, Where's Charlie? evokes a makeshift, built-from-surplus army canteen of the Vietnam Liberation Army.
Which raises the question of where Charlie is, and more to the point, who on earth is (or was) Charlie?
During the Vietnam War, "Charlie" was GI slang for the Viet Cong, who dressed in the same clothing as the local peasants and blended invisibly into the landscape after each operation. Is the name Where's Charlie? in fact a jokey taunt? Surely not.
108 Lambton Quay
Phone: 499 8989
No liquor licence
Open for lunch and dinner
Price range of mains: $9-$13
Ambience: ★★★½ stars
Wine list: N/A