Reviews

The New Ben Thanh Has Restored Our Faith

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, New Experience

New location at James and 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.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By Porterhouse (anonymous) | Posted March 26, 2013 at 15:19:52

Agreed, the new location rocks! I actually got confused when I couldn't find the little sheet of paper to write down my order, then a waitress came by and asked me what I wanted. 0_o

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By mrgrande (registered) | Posted March 26, 2013 at 15:58:22

Two things:

  1. They have a location in Burlington that looks way closer to the new location. It's really nice.

  2. You said it about the service. At the Cannon Street location, I once had a waiter spill tea all over me, then laugh and walk away...

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted March 26, 2013 at 17:10:22

The Guelph location is equally great. It's a favourite among my co-workers for a speedy and tasty lunch.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted March 26, 2013 at 17:45:47

I didn't mind the service at the old place. They always treated my 5 year old daughter wonderfully, if I needed a new plate or fork or whatever I'd just help myself and the only time I ever complained about a mixed up order they had no problem correcting it. If you went there expecting the typical waiter/waitress kissing your ass for a bigger tip you may be disappointed but I found the service had a certain charm.

And having eaten at a few of the other locations I believe the food at the Hamilton one is the best... the one in Waterloo was a definite let down.

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By MattM (registered) | Posted March 26, 2013 at 21:32:48

I never really had a huge problem with the service at the old location either. Sure they were pretty absent minded but the food was amazing and you got what you paid for.

I am definitely excited to try out this new location though. From what I could see from outside, the interior decor looks amazing and the place really is a lot more at home on James North. So much more pleasing to look out on people and 2-way traffic rather than 4 lanes of high speed cars and trucks.

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By jason (registered) | Posted March 27, 2013 at 00:57:02

I really enjoy the new location and concur that the food is better, and has more options, BUT I loved the old location. Nothing pretentious about it. I used to enjoy bringing friends there and seeing them look around nervously on the way in, and look lost during the ordering process, but then end up raving about it and being pleasantly shocked by the food. The new location is much better of course with the great windows overlooking James Street. Sadly it appears the city is content to leave streets like Cannon and Main completely closed for business, which is a shame considering we are in a season of great interest in urban life and businesses moving downtown. As long as the 4-5 lane freeways exist with no vision, it will mean even more business cramming onto James, Locke, Augusta and King William.

Comment edited by jason on 2013-03-27 00:57:38

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By DrAwesomesauce (registered) | Posted March 27, 2013 at 01:21:37

Having lived in SE Asia for a time, dining at Ben Thanh always made me nostalgic:

-bad service -dirty -epic menu -noisy

One minor point, I'm not a fan of 'Viet-Thai' restaurants. While the two countries are located in the same region and share some culinary similarities, they really are unique from each other. I had always hoped they'd go a little more authentic and offer a strictly Vietnamese menu but alas Westerners do have a taste for all things Thai.

Looking forward to dining at the new spot. Great location. Great building. Thanks for the report.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted March 27, 2013 at 17:26:50 in reply to Comment 87512

Ya "Viet-Thai", "Korean-Japanese" we seem to get a bit more "fusion" in our Asian cuisine than other parts of the world.

My Japanese colleagues are always very quick to point out that most our sushi restaurants are not in fact Japanese restaurants.

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By DrAwesomesauce (registered) | Posted March 29, 2013 at 04:57:05 in reply to Comment 87526

Ha! There are probably only about 17 Japanese in the whole of Hamilton. I'll have to check the census figures. The same goes for Thai people.

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted March 27, 2013 at 02:35:10

"In fact, the service was so preposterous that I'm tempted to list it as an attraction."

Well, it was. It was how I came to learn about it and went just to experience it. But, I agree, they got everything right at the new location and, I must say, it is a great place to meet up and have a great meal prior to heading out for the Crawl.

Just sayin'.

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By Jon-D (anonymous) | Posted March 27, 2013 at 04:35:48

Look forward to checking out this new location. If you like BT you'll love Pho NV across from the old BTs Canon location. Amazing soups and Bun and the family that runs it are amazing!

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted March 28, 2013 at 03:38:09 in reply to Comment 87518

I agree. It is our favorite.

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By jason (registered) | Posted March 27, 2013 at 14:20:15 in reply to Comment 87518

thx for this. I've wondered how that place stacks up. Haven't made it in there yet.

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By AlHuizenga (registered) | Posted March 27, 2013 at 15:39:17

Can't agree enough. Been there with the family twice. It's a new favorite.

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By Long Waits (anonymous) | Posted March 27, 2013 at 16:31:36

The pho was very good, the service however was horrendous. After dropping off our Pho, our sever was never to be seen again. We finally had to ask for our own bill from a different server. Twenty minutes after that, we finally get it. I probably will never eat in again, take-out maybe.

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By FenceSitter (anonymous) | Posted March 28, 2013 at 00:22:39 in reply to Comment 87524

I have not been to the new location yet, but from my experiences at the old one:
It may be unfair to say the service is bad. The truth is, there is no service at all!
Not always a bad thing though.
Need an extra knife/fork, just go to the cart and grab one. Ready to leave, just walk up to the counter and point to your table.
Cheap eats and great quality.

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By jason (registered) | Posted March 28, 2013 at 02:48:54 in reply to Comment 87529

haha...yes, exactly my feelings.

My very first trip to B&T was in their pre-fork days. I asked for a fork and the guy mumbled something and pointed at my chopsticks. Thanks to B&T my wife and I are PRO'S at using chopsticks.

My second trip, a dish came out that I'd never seen in my life and certainly what I didn't order. The guy mumbled something with more animation in his voice, pointed at my sheet and begrudgingly took it back when I said "I'm not eating that" and pointed to the dish I ordered.

I fell in love with the place. It became our favourite restaurant in the city....

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By Long Waits (anonymous) | Posted April 01, 2013 at 02:41:05 in reply to Comment 87531

If you folks are satisfied with that type of service, or lack thereof, then enjoy your long waits and annoyed friends.
I'll take mine to where I know service is stellar, and to those places which deserve my money.

Another issue I have with this new B&T is the entrance (thought the urbanists here would be annoyed too?). Why didn't they put the main entrance on the corner like how Jade Garden did? The two doors on James Street seems to confuse some newbies.

Also, why did they choose such a large number (four) of differing signs (in shape, size, colour, and materials used)? It makes the building look tackier on the outside than it did before.

All in all, this restaurant is a disappointment from a service and urbanist point of view.

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By Shawn Selway (anonymous) | Posted March 28, 2013 at 04:00:26

We never had a problem with the service, such as it was. As for the rest, the place was a cafeteria, not a restaurant, and the only one downtown to my knowledge. If you wanted a restaurant, you went to one. But for grabbing a quick meal that was actually good after that ten hour highway drive from wherever, the old B&T was unbeatable. I`m also very fond of the grocery store by the former B&T, which has the best produce anywhere plus plus. And Saturday morning they bring in the roast pig. Can`t understand what the downtown `food desert` talk is about but if it`s got us a new supermarket for Darko`s impending condo dwellers, that`s fine.

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By Food Hound (anonymous) | Posted March 28, 2013 at 23:48:21

"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."
Sounds like the West Town.
At least at the old B&T the food was good and washrooms were cleaner.

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By not a fan (anonymous) | Posted December 20, 2013 at 16:17:06

I have to disagree with the "new and improved" Tom Yum soup. I have gone to the old Ben Tanh for years, and the soup has been consistently amazing for all that time. I have frequented the other Ben Tanh's as in the one in Burlington and even one that used to be in North York. The one thing that was always different was the Tom Yum soup, they all put tomatoes in it and that ruined the soup's flavour in my opinion. I kept coming back to the Cannon street location and was never disappointed. I have been to the new location and all of a sudden, there are those tomatoes. I guarantee this is a different chef, frankly, all the staff is different. I almost feel it is an entirely different restaurant. I miss the old location and will not go back to the new one, in my opinion, they ruined the whole thing just for the sake of a classy looking place.

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