A basic Footscray food crawl (of sorts)

Since I moved to Footscray about 18 months ago, I get a lot of questions about where to eat; specifically, where to get good Vietnamese food. It’s understandable, I guess, as there are a lot of options, so it’s hard to choose without some sort of prior knowledge.

Well, without further ado, here is the curated guide to my favourite places in Footscray. Make of it what you will; just don’t get in my way when I need pho to cure my hangover on a Sunday morning…

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Bun bo Hue at Thien An

32 Irving St, Footscray
Phone: 9687 0398

When I was a uni student – which is appallingly a decade ago – one of my close friends was dating a Vietnamese guy who lived in Altona. To be honest, I never really understood what she saw in him, but let’s not to be too uncharitable. He did introduce us to Thien An, or as we knew it back then, ‘Colourful Tables and Chairs’. Back then, it was on the other side of Irving Street, and a much smaller, unassuming place. With mismatched, surprise surprise, colourful tables and chairs. We used to go there for soup noodles, com tam and bo luc lac, and it was the first place I’d been introduced to avocado smoothies. They were good times.

But you can’t stop the winds of change, and it seems success saw Thien An move across the street, into bigger, ‘ritzier’ premises. Complete with a white leather chaise in the front window – from nearby Franco Cozzo? – and a chandelier, if memory serves. Don’t be intimidated by such finery (kitschery!) though, like a lot of the Vietnamese restaurants in Footscray, Thien An has just gone a bit overboard with the Vietnamese idea of modern and stylish when renovating.

I stopped in on a Sunday afternoon, hangover in tow, with a mind to try their pho bo dac biet. Only they don’t have pho on the menu! Denied! So I went for my second favourite hangover soup noodle, bun bo Hue.

The bowl arrived, and even I was a little daunted at its size. Make no mistake, the servings are generous. Though I’ll insert a caveat here: I’ve heard the food is a bit inconsistent. But upon first inspection, there was cause for excitement. Thinly sliced beef flank: check. Congealed blood cube: check. Processed cha lua sausage: check. Most importantly, PORK KNUCKLE: check! The pork knuckle is an oft-omitted, but in my humble opinion essential ingredient in a good bun bo Hue. Which is strange, because it’s a beef noodle soup, not a pork noodle soup. In any case, all the elements were there, and the broth was not bad, either. It lacked the fragrance of the broth at Dong Ba, but there was a hint of the lemongrass which is sometimes missing.

There have been many and varied reports of a slide in quality at Thien An over the past few years. And yet when my parents came over to Footscray for dinner a few weeks ago, Dad said my uncle had recommended Thien An to him only a few months ago. It having been a decade between visits for me, it’s hard to say if that’s true. All I know is I was quite happy with this bun bo Hue, and will be back to try some other things there. I’ll keep you posted!

Thien An on Urbanspoon

Huu Thanh

Food Court, Footscray Market, Irving St, Footscray

A little while ago, Kenny alerted me to the fact that taking photos in Footscray Market is not allowed, which of course makes me want to do it all the more. So after my naive documentation of T&T Takeaway, I’m wilfully flouting the rules and working my way around the food court. Next stop, Huu Thanh.

What I like about both T&T and Huu Thanh is that they’re completely unpretentious. But that might have something to do with the fact  they face onto a food court, and the strains of market vendors spruiking their wares (what IS that “baile-baile-baile” phrase they yell!? is it “buy lah, buy lah, buy lah”?). I love the way that you can sit in the front of the stall, and watch the people go about their shopping. It reminds me a little of the food stands at Tan Dinh market where I used to have lunch in Sai Gon.

Anyway, my cousin had told me that my uncle’s favourite pho joint was in the food court at Footscray Market. I think it’s T&T Takeaway. After all, that was the place that his wife suggested to my mother that we eat at, and well, Huu Thanh doesn’t have pho on the menu. Anyway, T&T Takeaway was full that morning, and I was in need of some soup noodle healing, after a(nother) big night out on the booze. So I went next door to Huu Thanh, and ordered the next best thing for a hangover, the bun bo Hue.

It was a little disappointing. There was a complete lack of pork knuckle, and the beef was a bit on the bland side. The whole bowl seemed to be dominated by a massive slice of cha lua, which is probably my least favourite thing in the dish. The broth, while flavoursome in a non-specific way – there’s definitely more to it than MSG, but what that is, is hard to say – lacked the lemongrass hit for which I love the Dong Ba version.

I will say this: it’s a steal of a lunch meal at $7.50. That’s one thing you’ll find about both Huu Thanh and T&T. The prices are just marginally cheaper than already cheap Vietnamese restaurants in the area.

Huu Thanh has quite an extensive menu (well, about 12 items) of Vietnamese soup noodles. I’ll be back, but next time I’m going to try something else. Hopefully their other noodle soups are better. I’m thinking mi Quang might be the new bun bo Hue this year…

Dong Ba

133 Hopkins St, Footscray
Phone: 9689 0608

After weeks of living in limbo, house sitting for my sister while she was on her honeymoon, I’m finally ensconced in my new apartment in Footscray! So let the exploration of my new ‘hood begin in earnest!

The intrepid Ms D and I wandered the main drag of Hopkins St last Sunday, looking for some lunch. She was in the mood for bun bo Hue, so I suggested we try Dong Ba, because its signage mentions bun bo Hue, so it must specialise in it, right?

Dong Ba is a classic Vietnamese kitsch restaurant, with daggy furniture, colourful walls, and menus on the wall. There’s also a printed menu, with many more options, but Ms D and I went for two of their specialities. She had the bun bo Hue.

A ‘medium’, this was a hefty bowl of noodles. Filled with all the meat and offal goodness that befits a bun bo Hue, Ms D was very satisfied. She kindly let me sample some of the broth before tucking in, and I must say, it was just beautiful. Most people think bun bo Hue is a chilli beef noodle soup, which is probably due to the amount of orange chilli oil floating on the top. However, it’s actually supposed to be a lemongrass beef noodle soup , and Dong Ba’s version certainly hit the mark there. I’m definitely getting a bowl for myself next time I’m there!

This time, I opted for the bun mang vit (rice vermicelli with duck and bamboo shoot), one of my favourites from a stall near my work when I was living in Saigon.

For me, the make-or-break factor in a bun mang vit is the bamboo shoot. They should have been braised in in some sort of master stock, so they will both have a savoury taste to them, as well that their characteristic pungent bamboo shoot-iness. Dong Ba’s were pretty good, on this count. The broth, too, was clear and tasty, though there was some definite MSG action, it wasn’t heavy handed. The duck itself was a tad disappointing, being slightly overcooked and dry. But all in all, a great rendition.

Some of my friends are quite East or South-centric, and still perceive Footscray to be a hotbed of crime and not very safe. I don’t know about all of that just yet, but I do know that I’m so happy to be surrounded by quality soup noodles in my new neighbourhood!

Dong Ba on Urbanspoon