255 Hampshire Rd, Sunshine
Ph: 9311 6522
It’s taken me about a year since I moved out West, but I’ve finally started exploring beyond Footscray. It took this long partly because I’m lazy, but also it’s something of a testament to the huge number of great restaurants in my ‘hood.
So recently I was out visiting a friend on a weekend morning in Sunshine. He had to go to his parents’ place for lunch, so I wandered down to Hampshire Road, the main drag of Sunshine. I think. I still don’t really get the layout of that suburb. Anyway, I didn’t get very far before I came across a pho joint. And for me, there’s not really many better options for solo lunching than pho. It’s funny, but I tend to mostly be on my own when I eat pho. It’s partly because not that many other people have it for breakfast, but also I think it’s a subliminal thing – I tend to inhale it, and then have to sit around waiting while others finish off their bowls.Pho Phi Truong strikes a nice balance between that slick modern Vietnamese restaurant which seems to be opening up everywhere, usually an existing restaurant which has renovated, and something a little more homely. There are still TV screens on the wall, as well as slightly kitsch Orientalist art. These things are the tropes I look for in a Vietnamese restaurant. These, the thermos of hot tea which confounds newbies due to the lack of a visible spout or opening, and of course the condiment station, which I like to peruse while I wait for my pho. Come to think of it, I think I may need to start documenting these. The staff here were also very friendly, and the waitress tried to speak Vietnamese to me – which I always take as a compliment – before I baffled her by replying “Xin loi, khong hieu (Sorry, I don’t understand)!” If this bowl of pho were to be a food porn rip-off of a mainstream movie, it would be “Crunching Herbs, Hidden Offal”. The basil was super fresh and the bean shoots nice and crunchy.
Then the pho arrived – I ordered my usual bowl of pho bo dac biet – and I was a little underwhelmed. A healthy mound of onion and spring onions floated in the centre of the bowl, with a few islands of rare beef dotting the broth around the continental garnish. I was a little worried.
I didn’t need to be. There was plenty – and I mean plenty of beef and offal hiding under the onions. The broth was also pretty good – yes, there’s liberal use of MSG here, but I’ve never been averse to that – having a good balance between being beefy and warmly spiced with cardamom and star anise. My one major complaint about the pho here is that I could have done with a little more actual pho. So plentiful was all of the meat and offal, I ran out of noodles well before I ran out of the accompanying cow parts. That could just have been an unlucky one off – has anyone else who’s been there had the same experience?
I’m not a coffee drinker, but I am partial to some ca phe sua da (ice coffee). Phi Truong does it the ‘proper’ way – ie. the way I became accustomed to having it in Sai Gon – with crushed ice instead of cubes. I prefer it this way, because the ice melts faster, meaning even your first few sips aren’t so intensely sweet from all of that condensed milk.I went back a couple of weeks later with Lauren and her girls, to test out the other items on the menu. I’ve said it many times before that Vietnamese restaurants often have encyclopaedic menus, but usually only do a few dishes exceptionally well. And more often than not, pho joints are prototypical of this theory. Great pho usually means the rest of the menu is mediocre, and vice versa. Phi Truong, however, has managed to strike a balance. Good pho – though not quite great – while also serving up impressive rice dishes and salads. The bo luc lac var com chien (‘shaking beef’ with fried rice) was excellent; juicy and charred, and virtually without sauce. The way it ought to be, in my book. I’m not a fan of bo luc lac with a sauce, which is pretty common, and probably a valid way of doing it. I seem to remember that’s how Luke Nguyen’s version is, but I prefer it unsauced, with lemon and five-spice, salt and pepper to dip it in. The ‘red’ fried rice – there’s not magic ingredient here, just tomato sauce – was also wonderfully garlicky here.We also shared the goi hai san (seafood coleslaw) which was light and refreshing, full of squid and prawns, and tons of fresh herbs. Surprisingly, not served with those white prawn crackers to which I’m quite partial, though. Lauren’s daughters shared the com tam suon bi trung (broken rice with grilled pork chop, shredded pork skin and pork/egg pate) and some salt and pepper chicken ribs. They’re still only little though, so we helped them polish both dishes off. Actually, if memory serves, we weren’t actually able to finish all of this food. The pork chop was well marinated, and still on the juicy side of well done.It’s hard to go wrong with salt and pepper-dusted fried anything/ Chicken ribs are a prime example of this. These were great, though if I were to have this on its own, I’d want some more vegetables, or maybe a little bowl of chicken broth, or some lemon juice. Something to alleviate the dryness. Not that the chicken itself was dry; far from it, it was still moist and tender.Both times I visited were on weekends for lunch, and both times the place was bustling with local families having lunch. Always a good sign. Interestingly though, I recently was down in Sunshine on a Friday night, and Phi Truong was virtually empty, while the place next door was completely full. I’m not sure if their kitchen closes earlier? Anyway, I think Phi Truong is worth a visit.And yeah, in case you’re that way inclined, they also have a spit for hire (I think they can arrange animals to put on it, too). There’s a big sign for it up at the counter when you go up to pay.