I was leaving Manchester centre, already overdue lunch and thinking I couldn’t bear the thought of being at the mercy of yet another sandwich shop.
Conscious that I’d an approximate window of 20 minutes before I turned into a raging psychotic from hunger, I reasoned with myself that compromise is better than keeling over. That was, until the reassuring words ‘food market’ caught the corner of my eye. The odds of me finding honest ‘from scratch’ food that wouldn’t keep me waiting would be vastly improved in here I reckoned.
As I scanned down the row of food vendors with my analytical head on, I noticed one place had different kind of energy to it. It’s called Viet Shack, and it seemed to have the biggest yet fastest moving queue even though we were now post lunch rush, which is always a good sign.
As I weighed up the options an upbeat girl from behind the counter, brimming with enthusiasm, recommended the grilled meat and rice. “It’ll fill you up but it’s still nice and light, so you can go running, dancing… anything.”
I loved that she thought I may be capable of running for reasons besides being late for dinner or the threat of getting my hair wet, so yes, I would have the grilled meat and rice, thank you very much!
The steak is flame grilled to the customer’s preference, bringing those charred lines that
juxtapose the flavour of the marinade wonderfully. The rice was the combination of fluffy and sticky that I’d hoped for, but the surprise was the accompaniment.
I’m particular when it comes to salad. It’s earned me a reputation as quite the salad dodger, yet here was a salad with nothing to sidestep, the highlight of which were the pickled carrots – what a revelation! By the time my appetite was sated my mind was hungry for answers, so I arranged to meet with Viet Shack founder Nelson Lamb to find out more.
Nelson’s family has an award-winning restaurant in London, called Cafe East, but he’d always resisted going into the business.
“They’ve always asked me to try and get involved, but I actually graduated in fashion, so I was a personal stylist for many years,” Nelson says.
“Then I switched to working for the BBC for two years. Then I thought that, actually, I
wanted to do this, as I really enjoy cooking. I’d grown up around the food industry, but
I’d never actually stepped into it, which obviously cheesed my parents off a little bit, but I had to do my own thing.
“It was only when I went to university that I started cooking for myself, and at first I didn’t have a clue – we’ve all been there! But then I just started to pick it up, and now and again I’d ring my mum or ring my dad, and ask what do I do here?
“Slowly I’ve put that all together. If you go to my family’s restaurant it’s 100 per cent proper traditional Vietnamese food. Mine’s more like urban twists on Vietnamese food. I’ve incorporated Vietnamese marinated meat into street food or the burgers we do now, but we do it all so it’s super healthy, so that we’ve got fast food, but healthy fast food.”
I was keen to ask Nelson about those pickled carrots he puts in the ‘Cow Burger’. They’re such a nice mix of crunchy with the slight tang of vinegar, and I loved them.
“It’s everyone’s favourite you know,” Nelson says. “People will come in and ask ‘What do you put in that?’ and of course I never can tell, but we once had this guy who came and bought a whole bucket off us!”
Nelson was nominated for the Best Cheap Eat award at the recent Manchester Food and Drinks Festival and has also been at food festivals in Leeds and Liverpool. He’s at the Lowry, at Salford Quays, this Christmas.
Witnessing the kind of momentum gathered at this early stage and seeing the pace increase, who knows what Viet Shack will be up to in, say, a year’s time? Fingers crossed, it looks promising.
Rachel Watson on social media