XO Bistro Bar opened late last year, offering Edmonton’s downtown core a modern take on traditional Vietnamese cuisine. You’ll find classic dishes like vermicelli or rice bowls, salad rolls, and noodle soups like phở and bún bò Huế, but it’s the small sharing plates that really make XO Bistro Bar fit into the busy arena district.
Occupying retail space below the new Ultima condo tower, XO Bistro Bar shares it’s entrance with bubble tea franchise Gongcha. Head left immediately after entering and you’ll be seated at the eatery. Head right and up the stairs for your tea drink. The interior is a bit of a mishmash of decor: kitschy phrases decalled on the walls, a blue backlit bar and black lounge booths. I don’t know if I’m in a bistro cafe or if I’m in a club. I suppose bistro bar accurately describes it. Screens are placed strategically for optimal viewing no matter where you’re seated, ideal for those who want to watch an Oilers game right in the area.
I was happy to see the menu identifying dishes that were available as a vegan option (pho included!). Also marked: dishes for those intolerant to heat or peanuts, and XO’s signature dishes. For dinner, the menu is divided into Something Fried, Soup For the Soul, Skew It, Sharing is Caring, Something Fresh, and Something Sweet. Small plates designed for sharing make the bulk of the menu, something not frequent in your typical Vietnamese restaurant.
On my first visit with Joe, it was hard not to focus on the noodle soups. It’s a staple in our diet. Joe ordered the Bún Bò Huế with only rare beef. It only comes in one size for dinner (small), which is odd because you can order a small or large bowl for during their lunch hours. The bowl came piping hot and the rare beef was the standard that you’d expect for a bowl of pho. I thought the broth could have used work. One of the things I love about bún bò Huế is the slight sweetness from pork cuts, notes of lemongrass, and the use of fermented shrimp paste — all of which were lacking in this particular bowl. The noodles were well cooked and the accompanying dish of herbs and garnishes (shredded red cabbage) was thankfully appropriate.
I preferred my bowl of phở. The works included flank, rare beef, and beef balls, a standard “special” bowl. XO Bistro Bar offers the addition of oxtail for an extra $4.25, something not as common at other restaurants in Edmonton. I regrettably did not order the extra topping, but won’t forget next time! That day’s broth notably had more ginger flavour than traditional and spices like star anise, clove, and cinnamon weren’t as prominent. The addition of beansprouts and thai basil really made the dish filling, but otherwise I think those with a bigger appetite would wish for more.
What I lacked in my bowl of phở came through in our order of Oxtail Fries. I had low expectations of the small plates menu but it just goes to show, what do I know? The gravy was rich and bites of braised oxtail made this a fantastic appetizer. Think phở poutine. A phởtine! The fried egg on top of crisp fries was a nice touch. The dish was so memorable that I reordered it on a second visit with my friend Sharon the following week.
Learning from my previous visit, I shifted my focus from the soups to the small plates. Traditional Vietnamese dishes my mom would make really grabbed my attention. Bò lúc lắc (literal translation is ‘shaking beef’) is one of my favourites, cubed beef sautéed with vegetables in a soy-sauce mixture. The ‘shaking’ part not only describes how you’d cook the dish (sauté) but also mimics the word for dice. XO Bistro Bar’s rendition of Shake It Beef Cubes were tender pieces of tenderloin and sautéed with onions. Although cut with little resemblance to cubes or dice, I enjoyed the dish. The potato pancakes is a side that I couldn’t really identify with, the potatoes cubed and suspended in a pancake-like batter with sour notes. Maybe they’re trying to do a beef and potatoes thing.
The Rare Beef Salad came recommended to me by my coworker. Thinly sliced beef garnished with mint leaves, cilantro, fresh chilies, and a lemon fish sauce. It’s a smart dish, utilizing the same beef that would be used for their phở bowls which drastically cuts wait time. I loved this salad — bright, fresh, and spicy.
Sharon was interested in the Bone Marrow, baked marrow topped with bread crumbs, sea salt, and garlic bits. The plate surprised us, three generous halves to go alongside French bread. Salty, fatty, delicious.
Overall, I’d go back to XO Bistro Bar for their small plates. It’s in a great location and so far a welcome addition in my books. I’m anxious to retry the noodle soups one day to check consistency and there are other dishes on the menu that really speak to me: the Viet Crepe (bánh xèo), a thin pan-fried crepe with your choice of shrimp, chicken, or beef with beansprouts, mungbean, and herbs. The lunch menu offers a Beef Stew, which could potentially bring me back to my childhood and a Sizzling Beef and Egg dish where you can add pate.
Welcome to the neighbourhood XO Bistro Bar!
XO Bistro Bar
10236 103 St