Cong Tu Bac Lieu
Shop 4 Westville Central Shopping Centre, 62 Nicholson St, Footscray
Phone: 9004 1781
As a foodblogger, I get a little jaded sometimes; especially when it comes to Vietnamese food, because I live in the Vina Mecca that is Footscray. The vast majority of Vietnamese restaurants in Melbourne have very similar menus, which is convenient because it makes it easier to compare them, but also leaves me a little bored sometimes.
When Nha Hang Cong Tu Bac Lieu (CTBL, because Nha Hang just means restaurant in Vietnamese) opened a couple of months ago, Lauren and I got rather excited. We always get excited when new things open in Footscray, though none would excite us more than a bar, or maybe even a licensed restaurant that stays open past 10pm.
My first visit to CTBL was for lunch, and they were serving a limited menu, as they didn’t have the gas on in the kitchen. A little disconcerting, but you have to admire the sheer (foolhardy) balls of running a restaurant using portable gas stoves. I ordered the sweet duck noodle, as it was the only dish on the limited menu which I hadn’t heard of before.
The noodle used was the thick rice vermicelli, like you would get in a bun bo Hue, topped with stewed duck, carrot and a block of pig’s blood, all in a broth which was a bit too sweet for my liking. But having never tried the dish before, I don’t know; maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be. All I know is that it’s wasn’t really for me.
My next visit was also for lunch, and again, they still weren’t serving the full menu yet. This time I went for the more familiar classic, com tam bi suon trung (broken rice with shredded pork skin, pork chop and egg). When I’m not sucking down soup noodles, this is probably one of my favourite dishes, and CTBL makes a very decent version.
The pork chop was nicely grilled, and the yolk of the egg was still gloriously runny. There’s something about a runny yolk, fish sauce and broken rice which just evokes memories of my childhood. I think my only complaints with this dish were that I would have liked more fish sauce – I love to drench my rice with it – and I prefer it when the pickled carrot is julienned rather than sliced. But I’m nit-picking; it was a great rendition.
Visit three rolled around another week later – CTBL was becoming something of a regular haunt of mine on weekends, as I kept returning to see if their full menu was available yet – but still no full menu. To their credit, the interim limited menu had been refreshed, with a few dishes I’d never seen before. This time, I went for the banh tam bi xiu mai (rice vermicelli with meatballs), another dish which I haven’t seen anywhere else in Footscray.
This is a semi-dry dish of thick rice vermicelli, which comes topped with shredded pork skin, peanuts, pickled carrot, and a couple of xiu mai (pork meatballs). I might just add that the xiu mai at CTBL are awesome. They look horrible – as most meatballs do – but they’re tasty and a little peppery, and wonderfully soft. The other interesting element to the dish is coconut milk. You toss the lot around, and the combination of the tomato-based xiu mai sauce and the coconut milk creates a flavour which is unlike most other Vietnamese noodle dishes. Apparently, it’s a specialty from the Bac Lieu province in the Mekong delta.
I found it a touch odd at first – the flavour was a little bland, ans sweet – but then I added some of the accompanying fish sauce, and the whole thing came to life. As usual with Vietnamese food, the dish is a balance of sweet, sour and salty. Without the fish sauce, it didn’t taste right; as soon as it was balanced, however, it was delicious, and I couldn’t believe how great it was.
A couple of weeks later, I visited again, this time with Lauren and her daughters. I insisted she try the banh tam bi xiu mai, and she was similarly intrigued and delighted by it. We also had the bun chao tom (rice vermicelli with grilled prawn on sugar cane) which was a good fresh and light option for lunch.
I’m intrigued to try CTBL for dinner some time, as they have an interesting array of dishes aside from the regular stir-fries and salads. Finally, the other thing that I love about CTBL is the people running it. Each time I’ve been there, the staff have been friendly and helpful. I don’t think I’ll ever have a single ‘local’ restaurant that I will always go to, but CTBL is definitely deserving of many repeat visits.
Check out what Lauren thought of the place.