Oriental Charcoal BBQ

110 Hopkins St, Footscray
Phone: 9687 0421

There’s few greater things in this world than food on sticks. A thing that @carryon_JW and I agree on. So after an exciting but long day out for his birthday, we stopped in at OCB for some chuar (lamb skewers, Western Chinese style).

@carryon_JW spent four years living in Beijing, so to him, chuar has a special place in his heart. OK, that’s an overstatement; in his belly. It’s funny, though. Even though I’m the one with the Chinese heritage, he claims the authoritative right to declare how authentic a Chinese dish is; given that his Mandarin puts mine to shame – so he often does the ordering – perhaps this isn’t so funny after all. Therefore I was a little nervous to suggest we try this place on his birthday. But it’s local, and it’s not Vietnamese, Ethiopian, or Cantonese, and I’d been keen to try it for a while, so it kind of happened by default.

Something else that happens by default just about whenever I got to a Chinese – Chinese as in Northern/Shanghai/Sichuan, as opposed to Cantonese – restaurant, is ordering this cucumber dish. It’s essentially cucumber with salt, oil and a metric butt-load of garlic. OCB throws some coriander, sugar and MSG in for good measure, in case your taste buds weren’t paying attention.
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Ordering a cold dish or two is always a good move at a Northern Chinese restaurant, because it gives you something to snack on while you’re waiting for the other dishes to be cooked.

The next few things to arrive were the various things on sticks. The classic chuar were pretty great. Not as meaty as the Uighur-style ones I’ve had at Tarim in Malvern, but expertly spiced and juicy all the same. JW enjoyed his birthday chuar, as you can see. He also enjoyed the satellite TV broadcast of this crazy Chinese dating show, which sees male contestants choose from a pool of 24 women (some inexplicably dressed up in traditional minority garb), who in turn can elect to accept or reject his interest based on highly stylised video clips in which his friends and family give testimonials about various aspects of his personality (and earning potential). The funniest segment was where the male contestant was clearly tongzhi, even if it wasn’t explicitly acknowledged.

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It’s not a birthday without a birthday food coma, so we also ordered some more substantial dishes. There was a ‘fish-flavoured’ eggplant claypot on the left – probably the most delicious version of this dish I’ve ever eaten – and a beef brisket and tomato claypot on the right (that was just a bit meh).

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It was OK lah.

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This, however, was DIRICIOUS!

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It’s not a birthday without a birthday food coma, so we also ordered some dumplings. These were pretty great, though I’m ashamed to say we couldn’t finish them all. The skins were nice and thick, in that doughy Northern style, and the filling was well seasoned, with a decent amount of vegetable and herb matter. I’m often disappointed by how just plain meaty some dumplings are. I mean come on, where’s the skill in just using minced meat?

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The chilli oil at OCB – which I’m fairly sure is home-made – is nice and smoky, and the sesame seeds give the flavour a nice roundness, so it’s not as sharply hot as some chilli oils can often be.

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So if you’re looking for a (cheap!) happy place in which to induce a most satisfactory birthday food coma, definitely give OCB a try.

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I should note that last time I went back, the staff were a little run off their feet, because they sadly participated in one of those EVIL group shopping deals. Hopefully this doesn’t ruin them, like it has other small businesses. I know I’ll be back, though!

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Poonami

275 Barkly Street, Footscray
Phone: 9687 4094

I’ve lived in Footscray for just over two years now. Just about every day, I walk past Poon’s on my way home. On most nights it’s busy; on weekends it’s usually packed. Yet if you take a closer look through the venetian blinds, you’ll notice that there’s rarely – if ever – any Asian customers. A quick read of the menu posted in the window pretty much explains the reasoning behind the lack of Asian patronage. You see, Poon’s isn’t so much a Chinese restaurant as it is an Australian Chinese restaurant.

Before you chide me for making the distinction, or conversely  stop reading because of your disdain for the ‘inauthentic’, let me explain. Historically, traditional Chinese fare didn’t do so well commercially in Australia, at least not until the last decade or two. My family owned a(n Australian) Chinese restaurant in Swan Hill for over a decade, so I saw first-hand the types of ‘Chinese’ food that Australians responded well to back then. Restauranteurs, needing to make a living, naturally pandered to these tastes, and a particular genre of Chinese restaurant emerged over time – what I like to refer to (lovingly) as bastardised Chinese food. For a while, they dominated the Chinese eatery landscape, but the shifting tastes of our cosmopolitan society have, for the most part, moved on. Many of us now recognise the difference between Shanghainese, Cantonese and Sichuan flavours (arguably the three most prevalent styles of Chinese food in Australia).

When my previous housemate moved in with me, he was pretty fresh off the plane from Italy – a country not known for its Chinese food – and so he was continually intrigued by Poon’s. It was always busy, so it must be good, right? He was a little confused at first when I explained that there was an element of secret shame when it comes to the enjoyment of this style of Chinese food. For the better part of a year, he would suggest from time to time that we go to Poon’s, and I would suggest we go elsewhere. However, sometimes this was in the company of others, most notably @eatnik, and the seed was planted to organise an excursion to Poon’s one day (you know, just not today).

Fast forward a year, and I had a new housemate, and @eatnik had moved interstate. She was back in town for a weekend, so we had to do something special for the occasion. I suggested Poon’s on twitter, and there was quickly a flood of interest – a Poonami, if you will. In the end, there were fifteen of us, which I thought might have been a little challenging for Poon’s, but they were more than ready for us. Though I should note that ‘ready’ didn’t include laundering the tablecloths. They’ve since gotten rid of tablecloths altogether, moving to the more utilitarian dark wooden tables, so I guess that’s not an issue anymore.

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One thing that I found sorely missing from the Poon’s menu was a mixed entree. Typically it’s all deep fried, involving a spring roll, dim sim, and sesame prawn toast. So we improvised, and just ordered enough of each of these (we substituted mini-dim sims as I’m prone to over-ordering) for each person to have some of each. The sesame prawn toast was decent, the mini-dim sims were a bit forgettable, but the spring rolls – which some members of the group didn’t like – transported me back to my childhood spent in the kitchen of our family Chinese restaurant in Swan Hill, when I would get super-excited as a child when the kitchen hand made a mistake and their were extra spring rolls fried. Filled with cabbage, minced pork and shredded carrot, these golden tubes of shameful joy were executed exquisitely. And no, I still will never order them at yum cha. That’s just wrong.

Next thing that I ordered was the seafood combination, not so much for the seafood, but because it came in a ‘bird’s nest’ – an artful deep fried noodle bowl. I found this version interesting because there was a combination of deep-fried (sensing a theme here yet?) seafood with the more traditional stir-fried seafood and vegies, glazed in glistening cornfloured ‘clear’ sauce.

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Of course, you can’s have a Chinese Australian meal without special fried rice. Poon’s was decent, but clearly designed as a foil to their dishes, and not that ‘special’ in my book. We used to have two fried rice dishes on the menu – a regular one, which was much like Poon’s’ minus the prawns, and the Special Fried Rice, which had big pieces of chicken and slices of roast pork, and was pretty much a meal on its own. Still, I was happy to see that Poon’s doesn’t add soy sauce to their fried rice. Very few things in this world offend me more.

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I was a little disappointed with the sweet and sour pork at Poon’s. The pork itself hadn’t been marinated much, and as often happens in Chinese Australian restaurants, some of the pieces were more batter than meat. The sauce itself was on the bland side, and the vegetables were over-cooked. It reminded me a little of bain-marie food. As much as I love sweet and sour pork, I’d definitely avoid this one.

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The honey king prawns, on the other hand, were deftly done. Battered and fried till crispy and golden, then lacquered in honey. Delicious. The garnishes were a little odd – lettuce and fried strips of wonton skins – but presentation isn’t really what a place like this is all about.

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Again, the lemon chicken – another stalwart of the Chinese Australian menu – appeared pretty lacklustre, and to be honest, tasted that way too. The lemon sauce lacked acidity, and also, lacked sauce. The chicken itself was moist and tender enough, but it also was pretty bland. Is this what bland people eat? Perhaps…

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One of the highlights of any Chinese Australian restaurant’s menu is anything that has “(sizzling)” next to the item. This was the Mongolian beef – which was tasty enough, but lacked any real spiciness which I usually associate with the dish in my mind. The beef had the noticeable texture of meat that had been tenderised with bicarb, but then that’s not unusual, and cost-cutting measures like that are almost to be expected when you consider the prices that Poon’s charges – it’s pretty damn cheap.

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Of course, we couldn’t have a Poonami without dessert, right? Banana fritters and fried ice creams were the standard order around the table, and let’s just affirm once more, if I haven’t been clear so far – the chef/s at Poon’s know their way around a deep fryer.

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I opted for the pineapple fritter and ice cream – I find banana fritters are too sweet when covered in golden syrup and paired with vanilla ice cream.

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Poon’s stands as something of a last outpost for those who hold fast to this uniquely indigenous form of Chinese cuisine. And even if it’s not to everyone’s taste, they do what they do pretty well, as evidenced by their continual success.

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The Footscray gentrification trap

I would like acknowledging the traditional owners of these lands, the ‘working class’ Westies of yore.

There have been a spate of cafes opening in Footscray and surrounds of late. There are some – myself included – who take a quiet pride in being ‘pioneers’ on the wild frontiers of the inner West, who are thankful and welcoming of such outposts of ‘civilisation’. However, there’s something a little disquieting about the process of gentrification, because gentrification inherently involves gains on some fronts, but also a certain amount of loss on others.

Wikipedia describes gentrification as the changes that occur when wealthier people buy or rent property in low income or working-class areas. To some, gentrification is a good thing; increasing property values, ‘better’ services and amenities, and more convenient access to things like cafes, bars and other venues that are signifiers of ‘culture’. In the context of Footscray and Melbourne, by culture I mean Western Anglo-centric culture. Sometimes I wonder what gentrification in non-Western settings looks like. Does a gentrifying suburb in Beijing become more ‘Chinese’ in some way? Or is the notion of modernisation so central to gentrification that it embeds a kernel of Western modernity into the very idea of what it means to be gentrified? But I digress.

What interests me is the mostly ignored flipside of the gentrification process. I say mostly, because there is some visible tension that this process creates. On my walk home from the station, I passed a SOLD sign in front of a house, plastered over a FOR SALE sign which spoke of subdividing and units. Someone had scrawled across the sign ‘GENTRIFICATION’. My first thought was, ‘Yes! And about bloody time! Where’s my neighbourhood wine bar?’ but in recent weeks, I’ve started to question my stance. What is it that we’re actually losing by watching as Footscray turns into a ‘Hawthorn of the West?

It’s a natural part of the market-driven system in which we live that businesses will seek to cater for their customers in the way which will generate the most patronage. So as people with higher incomes and the specific tastes and pretensions that come along with that move into the area – again, I count myself as one of them – the nature of new businesses that open up, and the fortunes of existing businesses change. Except for the fortunes of the Olympic Doughnut van, because that’s just awesome.

Enter those cafes that I was talking about. Reading Room, West 48, Footscray Milking Station, and now Common Galaxia in Seddon. I haven’t been to all of them, but those I’ve visited have been thoroughly modern Millies – read communal tables, slightly quirky but warm yet sleek fit-outs, menus with idiosyncratic twists. (Lauren‘s my go-to girl when it comes to updates on that front, and she should be yours too.)

I love the fact these places have opened up, but I also love the fact that they’re at somewhat of a remove from downtown Footscray, which is still predominantly Vietnamese restaurants and hairdressers, with a sprinkling of various Sudanese, Eritrean and Ethiopian eateries, kebab joints and weave shops. There’s a charm and excitement about living in a part of Melbourne that is so unlike most other parts of Melbourne. In the ghetto? I’m not sure. While ghetto commonly is taken to mean poor, or crime ridden, its original meaning refers more to areas which are predominantly occupied by one social group. I’d argue that Footscray doesn’t really fit into that sort of pigeonhole, instead being a vibrant mix of Asian, African and Anglo-Saxon neighbours (and others!).

But as tides are wont to do, the tide of change has reached Footscray proper now: right in the middle of Nicholson Mall, Footscray’s getting a Noodle Box. Well, a Noodle-in-a-Box.

‘What’s the big deal?’ you might say. It’s just another Chinese food outlet. There are plenty of other Chinese restaurants in Footscray. And yes, although it’s probably Chinese run, to me it heralds a dumbing down of cuisine in the area, much like the entrenchment of KFC, Subway or Nando’s in the area. How is there a market in an area as vibrant as Footscray for such a beige offering? I guess some of the demands of gentrification seems to be that life is easy, convenient, and familiar. In a sense, it’s about living in a place that is your comfort zone. Which, if you’ll excuse me, can be terribly boring. Yes, I’m one of those who lived in Brunswick more than a decade ago that now laments the closure of so many Turkish and Lebanese restaurants, yet still finds himself enjoying going out for a drink in the bars which have replaced those restaurants. It’s a problematic position, I know.

So I guess what I’m irked by is the bland edge of gentrification. Does gentrification always have to just be another word for homogenisation? Is there some way around the blandification which seems to accompany the installation of ‘comforts’? Or are the two actually the same thing?

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…


View Footscray food crawl in a larger map

African Taste

124 Victoria St, Seddon
Phone: 9687 0560

I first heard about this place not long after I moved to Footscray. One of the neighbours mentioned it at my housewarming. Then I heard about it again from Lauren not long after that, and also Deb wrote about it around the same time. All of the reviews were positive.

Yet it took me well over a year to finally get down here. And it’s only a short walk from my house, too. For shame. Anyway, I finally did make it, with my housemate and a big bottle of French cider in tow. It was a Sunday night, and the place was super busy. It’s a pretty small restaurant, and every seat was full when we walked in. Thankfully a couple was about to leave, so we put our dibs on it, and wandered down to the nearby bottleshop. That’s where the cider came in.

The waitress (owner?) informed us that there may be a bit of a long wait, as we’d been seated just after two large tables. We didn’t mind, as we had cider and gossip to keep ourselves amused. We pretty much finished the cider before the food arrived, but thankfully, African Taste has a selection of African beers. Which we naturally hoed into. Which will explain why I don’t really remember what this first dish was.
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I remember it being pretty good, and it was my housemate’s first encounter with injera. It’s always a bit tricky to describe injera; lots of people call it a flatbread, but to me, it seems more like a crepe made with fermented flour (hence the slight tangy taste). I remember liking this dish, in any case. Anything you get to eat with your hands is A-OK with me!

Then came the Genfo African Fufu. When ordering it, I pronounced it “foo-foo”. When the waitress read it back, she pronounced it “fyeu-fyeu”. Then we spent the next minute or so trying to imitate her pronunciation and giggling like idiots. Anyway, Africa Taste’s fufu is like gnocchi, except it’s made with bulghur flour. And then pan-fried, and coated with a tasty sauce and a healthy dollop of yoghurt. We had it with fish. It’s amazing, and I’d totally go back for more of this.
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We also ordered a Moroccan chicken salad – I think it was Moroccan? – with a bed of couscous, which was nice, but decidedly less interesting than the other two dishes.
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With so many African restaurants in the area, it’s hard to know which ones to visit. Interestingly, I never hear reports of bad experiences about any of them from friends. Is it because we’re all too inexperienced to know what to expect, or is the standard just generally high in the area? I’m not sure. But I’m going to keep trying more places to figure it out!

African Taste on Urbanspoon

Footscray’s best buns

One of the great things about writing a foodblog is it can justify some pretty insane eating activities, like doing a ramen crawl around the city, or blind testing mince pies and banh mi.

Recently, I decided it might be time to embark on another (slightly ridiculous) experiment: it was time to find the best BBQ pork buns in Footscray. Now I should just clarify here that when I talk about BBQ pork buns, I’m talking about the Chinese char siu bao – you know, the fluffy white buns filled with sweet and salty red pork filling that you get at yum cha – and not the Vietnamese style grilled pork banh mi rolls.

This came about when I was looking over the search terms for the blog. Someone had searched for “Footscray pork buns”, which in hindsight was probably referring to banh mi, but it got me thinking that with the number of local yum cha and bakery joints in Footscray where you can get a quick char siu bao fix, it was about time I found out which one was the best.

It would be a pretty tricky thing to try to ascertain on your own, but with a bunch of eager bun-eating friends, it’s not so arduous (yeah OK, arduous is a bit of a stretch). So six of us gathered at Lauren‘s place, and between us we amassed between us an array of pork buns from eight different sources.

imageFor those of you playing at home, yes, there were a few frozen and refrigerated buns from local Asian grocers, as well as a pack of buns from Costco! Docklands is right next to Footscray, so I figured it would be OK to include them…

imageThe clearly-not-char-siu-bao yellow buns in the mix are some lau sa bao (flowing sand buns) from Yummie Yum Cha, which I brought along because the others hadn’t tried them before. They’re filled with an egg custard which is made using the yolk of salted eggs. If you haven’t tried them before, do yourself a favour next time you’re at yum cha. Not all places have them, but Gold Leaf and Shark Fin outlets usually do.

imageAfter some convoluted randomising and cross-marking of the buns, the first batch of buns went into the steamer.

imageTen minutes later, the gorging taste-testng began. On average, we had half a bun of each variant tested, though there were a few buns which were bigger than others, so some cleaver action was necessary. We decided on three criteria against which we would judge each bun.

First, the dough, or bun, itself. It should be light and fluffy,a little sweet, and my personal preference is to be able to peel the thin skin away from the outside of the bun. It’s a childhood habit playing with my food that I never gave up.

Next, the filling. The flavour of the pork should be present, along with a balanced sweet and savoury sauce.

Finally, we judged the overall balance between the two elements. A bun that’s all bread and no pork is no fun; but similarly a bun with too much filling will feel a little too sickly rich and heavy.

imageOne of the better buns: check out the fluffy white bun, and the solid chunks of pork filling.

imageAnd one of the day’s less impressive specimens: a heavy, doughy bun, and overly sweet filling. The atomic red hue of the filling was a little alarming, too!

imageSo without further ado, here are my final results. I should note that we weren’t all unanimous in our scores, but 5 out of 6 agreed that the buns from Master Restaurant were our favourites, and the foul, offensive vegetarian ‘BBQ pork’ buns from the Vincent vegetarian Asian grocer were voted unanimously the worst buns of the day.

Cost per bun Bun (dough) Filling Ratio Total
Yummie Yum Cha $1.20 7 5 7 19
Seng Hork (from Asian grocer) $0.93 6 7 7 20
Victoria Bakehouse $1.60 6 5 4 15
To’s Bakery $3.00 4 3 5 12
Master Restaurant $2.00 8 7 7 22
Sun Wong Kee in Little Saigon $1.80 7 6 7 20
Yum Cha at Home (from Costco) $0.95 5 6 6 17
Vegetarian BBQ Pork Buns from Vincent Vegetarian Grocer $0.94 5 1 6 12

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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.
imageThe 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.
imageMy 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.
imageThe 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.
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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.
imageThis 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.
imageI 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.
imageI’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.

Sen

74-76 Nicholson St, Footscray
Phone: 9687 4450

There’s been a lot of buzz about new restaurants opening in Melbourne lately. The Age had an article about a slew of new places opening, giving a bit of a guide to the ‘what’s hot’ darling venues of the Melbourne culinary scene. Places with hospitality rockstars at the helm, or at least bank-rolling them. I’ll admit I’m excited by this season of openings, as evidenced by my repeat visits to Chin Chin in particular. But there’s also a lot going on closer to home.

For those of you who don’t visit Footscray often, you probably don’t know that it’s one of those suburbs going through something of a makeover. Hopefully nothing too extreme, but there are medium density apartment buildings popping up everywhere, and we’ve now got a big patch of lawn – albeit surrounded by temporary cyclone fencing – in front of the train station! Within a week, Footscray saw three new restaurants opening for business. The rather unimaginatively named “Footscray Asian Buffet Restaurant” and cumbersomely named “Nha Hang Cong Tu Bac Lieu” both opened for business in the newly built Westville Central building opposite Little Saigon market last week. Half a block away, Sen has just opened. Sort of.

‘Sen: the hidden taste’, a tagline which is so tantalisingly ripe for lewd or derogatory jokes, is the re-incarnation of the veteran Ha Long restaurant. I’ll admit I had avoided Ha Long since I moved to Footscray, largely because i didn’t like the food at the Richmond branch. Turns out I was being unfair, because the new owner of Sen is the old chef of Ha Long, having bought out the previous owners. And the food is pretty good. Just goes to show you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.imageThough then again, Sen does have quite an attractive ‘cover’ now. Sleek, modern branding, comfortable stylish chairs and not a TV in sight, you get the sense that Sen is pitching quite squarely at the Sapa Hills market. A look at their menu will indicate the same, with Northern Vietnamese dishes like bun cha Ha Noi, and the same ‘family-style dishes’ section. But hey, originality isn’t exactly a hallmark of Vietnamese restaurants.

My first visit to Sen was on their second day of business. The huge bouquets of flowers – customary gifts from family and friends of the owners to wish them good luck in their new business – were proudly on display, and they had yet to add any fish to the tanks. Signage was still being stuck onto the doors, and the place buzzed with energy and excitement.

Sen has quite a large menu, stretching from a selection of noodle and rice dishes for the single diner, to an array of main dishes to share, with all the requisite starters you’d expect on a Vietnamese menu. So how do you benchmark a restaurant with such a wide selection? I like to just go for my favourites. I started out with a bun bo Hue, eschewing the pho because I’m usually wary of full-menu restaurants’ renditions of pho.imageI’m really glad I chose bun bo Hue that first visit. The bowl was heaving with beef flank, cha (processed pork loaf) as well as the customary cube of congealed blood. Yeah, not for the meek. Or maybe the meek should man up and eat some blood, and they’ll become less meek. Anyway, the super surprise was the inclusion of a chunk of pork hock. So often omitted, the pork hock is one of my favourite parts of a good bun bo Hue. Ironic, because it’s usually billed as a ‘chilli beef noodle’. The broth here is fragrant and punchy, but I still prefer Dong Ba‘s broth, even if they’re not as generous as Sen with the animal parts.image

Check out that pork hock action!imageIl coinqulino – aka my housemate – chose the Singapore noodles. Yes, I was dubious. And yes, I cringed: because who the hell orders a Singapore noodles at a Vietnamese restaurant? But hey, he’s from Italy, and that was what he felt like eating, so who am I to judge? Turns out it was a good choice, even if it’s not particularly Vietnamese. The serving was massive, and full of goodies. I tried a little, and my only quibble was that it needed more spice. Which is to say, it was masterfully cooked; not too oily like so many Singapore noodles I’ve eaten elsewhere.imageAs il coinquilino had never heard of custard apple, let alone tried it, I suggested that he try the custard apple smoothie – it’s called a cocktail on the menu – while I had the jackfruit one. Custard apples are in season, so there was a lot of “Wow, this is delicious!” – sluuuuuurp – “Argh! Brainfreeze!”. Rinse and repeat.imageMy second visit was a solo one, so I thought I’d try another of my favourite dishes, bun cha gio thit nuong (rice vermicelli with spring rolls and grilled pork). I’m going to put an ambit claim out there now: best bun thit nuong I’ve had in Footscray. The pork was smoky and beautifully charred, yet succulent; the spring rolls were crisp and tasty, and I was a little put off initially by the chunky lettuce and pickles, but they add a great textural contrast to the noodles.imageMy next visit was with the @eatdrinkstagger kids, Lauren from Footscray Food Blog, and @fatbooo. The intention was some #phosmash-ing, and true to form I had the pho bo dac biet. Gem and Tris arrived late, and by that stage I’d already started eating the pho. It’s telling that I recommended that they skip it. There’s nothing offensively bad about it, but the broth is a little too sweet, and heavy-handed with the MSG. As I said, I tend to avoid pho at places which don’t specialise in it, and Sen is pretty much a case in point. I don’t mean this as a slur, but they do other dishes so much better, and frankly, standards for pho in Footscray are understandably high.imageA little more adventurous on the day than I, Lauren and Boo shared a bun moc, which was rice vermicelli with meat balls and cha. I’ve never tried it myself, but both said it was good, remarking on the interesting flavour of the meatballs.imageThey also shared the bun cha Ha Noi, which looked mighty tasty. Again, the pork is grilled beautifully, as you can see.imageI didn’t manage to get a photo of it, but the bo la lot (beef wrapped in vine leaves) at Sen is great, too. The beef is seasoned better than at most other places.

We decided to finish off with a round of dessert drinks, partly because Lauren had her daughters with her, and partly because we’re all big kids too! Everyone else had custard apple smoothies, but having seen another table order it, I was taken by the che ba mau (three colour drink). Though really, it’s a four colour drink, because they’ve got the mung bean puree in there too! It’s a total winner, and when I gave it to one of Lauren’s daughter to try, I had a tough time getting it back!imageSo yeah, if you haven’t been, and are looking for a good all-rounder in the area, definitely give Sen a try. You shouldn’t have too much trouble getting a table, even though it’s new, because they really know how to cram the tables in!imageCustard apple smoothies are badass.

Sen on Urbanspoon

Yum Cha at Dai Duong

Shop 5/64 Hopkins St, Footscray
Phone: 9689 9899

Regular readers of this blog will know that I, as a child of Chinese migrants, and as a thoroughly modern Melburnian, love yum cha. This Chinese version of brunch/lunch/morning tea is partly so awesome because you usually end up eating as much as you would if you were to combine all three meals. But also, it’s a great experience socially, with the ebb and flow of food punctuating the tea-lubricated gossiping that inevitable happens when you get together with old friends.

While I’ve heard lukewarm things about Master Restaurant and Golden Harvest’s yum cha services, and I’ve sampled Yummie Yum Cha’s moderately over-priced fare, until now, I haven’t really considered anywhere in Footscray as a decent yum cha destination. I would always either head in to the city, or out to Gold Leaf in Sunshine. But that might be about to change, as Dai Duong offers a close-by, lazy alternative.imageDai Duong has been in in the shadow of the iconic Franco Cozzo store at the city end of Hopkins St for years, and I think it has intermittently been offering yum cha. @jeroxie and I tried to go earlier in the year, only to find that they didn’t actually serve yum cha! But since March this year, they’ve started serving it. Daily, as you can see from the rather loud signage. Don’t be deceived by the address, either. Despite sharing a street number with a number of other shops, this is a pretty large restaurant, replete with dance floor (for countless Chinese/Vietnamese wedding banquets no doubt) and karaoke! I’m yet to find out if the karaoke is in private dining rooms – like they had in Sai Gon – or if you’re expected to sing for the entire restaurant… but I digress.

The place was pretty empty on a Sunday afternoon when we wandered in. It was probably a little after the traditional late Sunday morning family crowd, but there were still a few large groups enjoying themselves into the afternoon. Some rather friendly waitresses with steaming trolleys wandered past a couple of times, offering us their wares, while we waited for Ms D to arrive. Then the eating – and the gossip – began in earnest. We started off with some char siu buns, but not the steamed ones, the baked ones.imageThese were a little sweet, and thoroughly disappointing after having tried the ‘pineapple bun’ version of them at Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong. That’s not to say they were bad per se, they just weren’t great.

Next up, some tripe and a prawn-stuffed tofu topped with scallops. The tripe was nicely braised, though the flavour was a little boring. The tofu was wonderfully soft, and the twin seafood pleasures of prawn and scallop were both strong, and yet remained distinct from one another.imageThe loh baak gao (daikon cake) was a touch on the soft side, and I would’ve preferred a little more daikon in the mix. Still, it had a nice crust, and wasn’t too oily.imageOf course, we had to have the fried taro dumplings. I tried making a version of these on the weekend, and though they tasted pretty good, they were an utter failure in terms of getting the taro to puff and feather like these. I have new-found respect for yum cha fry chefs. The ones at Dai Duong clearly know what they’re doing. These were great, but it’s not often that fried taro dumplings are not, really.imageSteamed crab dumplings came next, and they were a little disappointing. I couldn’t really taste the crab. It was more like prawn, which is to say, it was more like a lot of other versions of a prawn dumpling that you’ll often see at yum cha. Not bad, just not what it should have been. The skins were nice and light, though.imageOne of my favourite dumplings at yum cha is the chive dumpling. Chives are such a perfect flavour match to prawns. A winner, every time. imageThen we had the classic siu mai. Probably the modern Aussie dim sim’s closes ancestor, the siu mai is the porkiest of yum cha dumplings. The siu mai at Dai Duong were big, plump and succulent.imageIl coinquilino hadn’t tried cheong fun (steamed rice paper/noodle) before, so I decided to order the zha leong, which is a Chinese donut and some Chinese broccoli wrapped in steamed rice paper. When it’s done well, like here in Macau, it’s pretty amazing. Unfortunately, Dai Duong’s version didn’t quite live up to that. The rice paper was a little thick, and therefore felt a bit claggy in the mouth. A good cheong fun should be light and ribbon-like. The donut was also a little cold, which made the dish even less pleasant. A bit of a miss there.imageFinally, for dessert, we had the egg custard buns. A perennial favourite, it’s a good option if you want to skip the cold dessert cart.imageThe steamed bread portion of this was excellent: light, fluffy, with just the right amount of sweetness. The custard, however, was a bit of a miss. It was rather grainy, and definitely over-cooked for my liking, being a bit crumbly, instead of like a thick jam.imageAll in all, I wouldn’t say yum cha at Dai Duong is great, but it’s definitely passable, and a good option for Footscray locals. And at around $15 a head between three of us, it’s excellent value. They’ve also got some pretty cheap crab specials on at the moment; it being crab season and all!

Dai Duong Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Awash

82 Hopkins St, Footscray
Phone: 9687 1955

I’ve been meaning to get our of my local dining rut. Which isn’t so much of a rut as a predilection to eating at Vietnamese restaurants when I go out for dinner locally. It’s hard  to stop myself from heading for the enticing tastes of fish sauce, chilli and lemongrass. But as those who live in the area, and those who are clued in enough to read Lauren’s Footscray Food Blog know, there’s a lot more to the ‘hood than pho and broken rice.

When Mr J agreed to come out West for dinner one Saturday night, I thought I’d take the chance to suggest we hit up one of the African restaurants nearby. Now I use the term African only out of ignorance – I don’t really know much of the intricacies which would distinguish between an Ethiopian or Eritrean restaurant, nor any other country; though these two seem to be the most common in Footscray.  I feel a little guilty, as I rankle at the thought of someone referring to a Korean or Thai restaurant as an ‘Asian’ restaurant. I’ll make an effort to educate myself further in these matters soon.

Originally, I had thought to go to Adulis, but it’s recently closed – though another restaurant of indeterminate African origin has sprung up in its place – so went to Awash, as it had more people dining there. It’s something of a sheep-like move, but I still get put off eating at restaurants with no patrons in them, unless I’ve been recommended to go there. I avoid places with spruikers on the street in the same way. So we stepped in out of the rain, and were met by bright green walls, the smell of bebere and the happy beats and chanting of the African music playing in the background. There were no staff in sight, so we seated ourselves, and a moment later, an earth-mother type lady came out with menus. The place is pretty small, and I think pretty much just run by a family who work both in the kitchen and front of house.

Mr J had never eaten food of any African variety, so he was pretty excited. This was during my Lenten red meat fast, so we ordered the vegetarian combination, and the doro wat – a chicken ‘curry’ – along with two Ethiopian beers to wash it down.


Three of the great things about Ethiopian/Eritrean food is that it’s served on injera, it’s a shared meal, and you eat it with your hands. Food’s always more playful and enjoyable when you eat it with your hands, I think. And there’s a sense of bonding that comes with that process. Hence the term ‘to break bread’ with someone. So as long as you’re not too crazily clumsy, Ethiopian is probably a great second date option. Things get a bit messy, especially towards the end, when the injera has soaked up a lot of sauce and starts falling apart in your hands. But it’s a pretty level playing field, so as long as your date has a sense of humour – why are you on a second date if s/he doesn’t – it’s a lot of fun.


The various lentils and vegetables were full of flavour, though the heavy use of spices without any real chilli heat is something of a confusing thing to my palate. I’m fairly sure that’s just because I have turned into something of a chilli fiend in the past year or so. There were three different types of lentils, along with a braised kale (or silverbeet) and another dish of carrots and cabbage. My favourite was the kale. The doro wat was also really tasty, though the chicken was a bit dry.


It’s probably not the greatest African food I’ve had, but it was pretty good. All in all, Awash is a great, casual place. Given the nature of the ‘hands on’ eating, I’d only go there with friends, or people I want to get friendly with!

Awash on Urbanspoon