Saigon Pho

73A Nicholson St, Footscray
Phone: 9689 8806

You know, I place a lot of emphasis in my life these days about proximity. I like the idea of living (relatively) close to work, I am happy that I have markets, shops and restaurants all within a short stroll from my building, and the idea of heading to visit my parents across the other side of Melbourne can only be described as a sojourn. Is it laziness, or efficiency that causes this force of inertia within me? And within us all, I think? I think it’s a bit of both, and it’s something we should all try to overcome a little. Sure, eating and shopping locally are great things, but sometimes it works against us.

Take, for example, a simple (joyous) activity like sitting down for a hearty bowl of pho bo dac biet. Given that I live in Footscray, it’s not hard to find decent pho. With a little trial and error, you can find good pho. But the principle of proximity led me to mediocre pho. At Saigon Pho. Literally (by about half a block) the closest pho joint to my home.

Don’t get me wrong – if Saigon Pho were in the CBD, or in Fitzroy, it would be quite passable. But again, proximity weighs in. It’s half a block from Hien Vuong Pasteur, Hung Vuong, and about a block further away is Pho Chu The. So the availability of quality pho in the very proximal area creates an obligation for pho greatness. Up to which, unfortunately, Saigon Pho does not live.

The broth is rather one-dimensional, and that dimension is called MSG. It’s not particularly clear, either, which is odd, because that means there must have been some beef involved in the creation of the broth. The rare beef was good, as was the amount of offal (tripe, tendon) but the brisket was something of a dry let down. Not enough fat. Enough said? The noodles were quite good, but I could have dealt with a bit more in that department.

It’s not horribly bad pho. It’s just not that good. Which in Footscray, is not good enough. And that, my friends, is the rule of proximal pho.

Saigon Pho on Urbanspoon

Hao Phong

136 Hopkins St, Footscray
Phone: 9689 8373

I tend to get a little bi-polar when I’ve had a few drinks. Either I’ll be assertive and a bit alpha-male, insisting that I’m right about everything, or I’ll be massively indecisive and just want to go along with whatever someone suggests, as long as I don’t have to think. This isn’t always the best behavioural trait when you’re out on a date and things take a turn for the boozy. But I digress, as usual.

I’d had a few post-work drinks before meeting up with Mr I to finally get around to recording a new episode of our podcast. We went to grab a bite to eat before recording, and spent about 10 minutes wandering up and down Hopkins st, with me vacillating about which restaurant deserved our custom. To be honest, we walked past Hao Phong the first time, because I was unimpressed by the ethnic mix of people inside; there weren’t nearly enough Vietnamese people in there for my liking. Yes, let’s be honest, I do judge a restaurant by the clientele it attracts; especially Asian restaurants. Anyway, as I wasn’t in the mood for pho – I know, what the!? – we were rather uninspired by the restaurants which we passed, and we ended up back at Hao Phong.

Now this makes Hao Phong sound rather lacklustre, which isn’t fair. The place is inoffensive, in that new-school decor Vietnamese way, and the service was prompt, if a little on the characterless, efficient side. The menu, like most Vietnamese restaurants, was voluminous. You might have trouble deciding on what you want to eat, rather than finding something in the menu that appeals.

On this occasion, I went for one of the classics – bun thit nuong (rice vermicelli with grilled pork) with some cha gio (spring rolls) thrown in for good measure. There are probably five dishes on which I will judge a Vietnamese restaurant, and bun thit nuong is definitely one of them.

The pork was well seasoned, and satisfyingly moist and tender. The spring rolls weren’t bad, and overall, the dish was pretty good.

Mr I chose the seafood combination with stir-fried rice noodle.

This dish was pretty close to a Sha Hor Fun – stir-fried flat rice noodle topped with seafood, vegetables and a thick, crystalline gravy. It wasn’t what Mr I was expecting – I think he thought it would be more along the lines of a Singapore noodle, with rice vermicelli, but he enjoyed it nonetheless. I had a quick sample of the noodles, and it was pretty magnificent. Wok hei out the wazoo. Impressive. I wouldn’t normally order this dish off a menu, but I’d consider it here next time.

All in all, Hao Phong was a pleasant place to eat, and I think we may have stumbled upon the Minh Minh of Footscray – the place where the Gays like to eat – as we definitely weren’t the only gays in the village that night. It’s often busy, but there’s more tables out the back, so if it looks full, still pop your head in and try asking.

The lesson here is not to judge a restaurant by who goes there, right? I’m still not going to Poon’s or Jim Wong’s. Unless I’m drunk and indecisive. Oh, looks like maybe I am, then.

Hao Phong on Urbanspoon

T&T Takeaway

Food Court, Footscray Market, Irving St, Footscray

After hauling my new washing machine 250 metres up Barkly St with my parents – they had parked the car in front of the wrong building, and unloaded the thing before letting me know they’d arrived – I wandered down to Footscray Market with them for some lunch and to do some grocery shopping.

Mum had a ‘hot tip’ from one of my aunts about a good place in the market to eat, so we sat down at one of the eateries in the food court. Interestingly T&T offers both Vietnamese and Filipino food. I’m not sure how that works with respect to the ‘authenticity’ stakes, but I imagine they might actually just be two proprietors sharing a kitchen space? Most of the Filipino stuff appeared to be pre-made, whereas a lot of the Vietnamese dishes on the board were made to order in the kitchen out the back.

Mum had the bun mang goi vit (apologies for the upside down photo) which came with the goi vit on the side.
Goi vit basically means duck salad.
I tried a little, and the bamboo wasn’t really up to scratch for me. It was neither pungently bamboo-ey nor was it braised in a tasty enough master stock. The duck was alright, but as it’s just braised/boiled, duck in this dish is never as stellar as a roast duck.

I ordered the bun mam, which is a rice vermicelli noodle soup made with fermented fish paste as the stock base. T&T’s bun mam broth was well balanced; strong without being overly fishy or salty. A squeeze of lemon helps to lift the flavour, which is otherwise quite intense. I thought i a little odd to be given chunks of roasted belly pork and large prawns, yet there was a lack of cha lua or any other processed pork. Still, when it arrived, the crackling on the pork was still crunchy, so I can’t complain too much!

Dad ordered the bun bo Hue. I sipped a little of his broth, and I have to say it was, well, weird. It was somehow sweet, and lacked the lemongrass,and even chilli characteristics that I associate with good bun bo Hue.
All in all, I think perhaps my aunt either chose better dishes, or just has different tastes to me. I wasn’t that impressed with T&T. There are better places in Footscray, also serving $8 bowls of noodle soup.

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

Hien Vuong

aka Pho Hien Vuong Pasteur
146 Hopkins St, Footscray
Phone: 9687 1470

I’m almost ashamed to say it, but father forgive me, it’s been over two months since my last bowl of pho. I know, it’s somewhat blasphemous. I used to eat it pretty much every other day when I was living in Viet Nam. Mostly for breakfast, sometimes lunch. For those of you who are planning a visit to Sai Gon, here’s my googlemap of gustatory goodness.

Anyway, I recently had time to stop in at Footscray for a late lunch on my way between work meetings. So there really wasn’t a decision to be made as to what I was going to eat, it was just a matter of where. As I was coming from the West, I thought it would be good to be methodical about these things, so I stopped at the first Pho specialist on Hopkins St. I’ll be systematically working my way down Hopkins St, before trying the other streets of Footscray in search of the ultimate pho.

So first up, on the Westernmost end of Hopkins St, is Hien Vuong. Or rather, Pho Hien Vuong Pasteur. The Pho part of the name is a bit superfluous, but as the noun precedes the adjectival phrase in Vietnamese, I suppose it’s like saying ‘Hien Vuong’s Pho’, the way you’d say Danny’s Burgers. The ‘Pasteur’ part is, I believe, the restaurant’s attempt to attach itself to the legendary Pho Hoa restaurant on Pasteur St, opposite the Pasteur Institute, in Sai Gon. There’s a Pho Pasteur in Sydney doing the same thing… oh, and I’ll be blogging on that soon!

Hien Vuong is an unassuming pho specialist joint, with the requisite TV screens – oddly playing children’s television and not some Vietnamese entertainment gala (there were no children in the restaurant at the time) – mirrored walls, laminated tables and accents of bad 90s decor. Everything a pho joint should have, on the surface.

For those of you who don’t know, or can’t remember, I almost invariably order the pho bo dac biet, more commonly referred to as the beef special. For some reason, I decided to go for the ‘small’ this day. As I’ve expounded before, I have a theory that at some restaurants, this just means you get the same amount of pho in a smaller bowl. I think it’s the case at Hien Vuong.
There are three things that make or break a pho for me. The broth, the beef (and offal), and of course the noodles.

First, and most importantly, the broth. This is what varies the most from restaurant to restaurant, each having their own recipe, no doubt. Pho broth should be clear, and relatively oil-free. It should smell punchy and fragrant, with cinnamon, cardamom, star-anise and cloves all present in the mix. There should be the tiniest bite from the ginger, and a sweetness from the onions. It should taste like beef, not MSG. Though the umami should be palpable. You should NEVER have to add fish sauce nor hoi sin sauce to a good broth. They’re at the table for you to dip your tripe and other offal into. It pains me to see people with murky dark brown pho broth, almost as much as it pains me to see people dumping soy sauce all over their fried rice. The only things you should be adding to flavour your pho broth are lemon juice, and fresh chillies.

The broth at Hien Vuong was pretty good, despite a definite, though not too heavy-handed, use of MSG.

There are various standard items involved in a pho bo dac biet. The core of these comprises of the beef brisket – which should have a certain amount of fat on it, I feel – and the rare beef, which is essentially raw fillet, over which the piping hot broth is ladled. It should arrive at your table still pink. A little jiggling around in the broth usually cooks it to the right degree.

Then you have your processed meats. There’s almost always some beef balls (no, not bull testicles, but more hyper-processed meat balls, with a springy texture) and usually, you get a slice of a peppery beef sausage.

Finally, there’s the offal. Tripe, and if you’re lucky, tendon. Most places serve up the thinner part of the tripe, which looks something like those strippy curtains you see at an automatic car wash, or some tatty vertical blinds. I’m always pleasantly surprised when I get a chunkier piece, though it still usually won’t be the honeycomb tripe you get at yum cha. The tendon pieces are usually chunky cylinders with a texture somewhere between chewy and gelatinous. They’re something of an acquired taste, I think. I used to be a bit put off by them as a child, but I love them now. Both of these, I like to dip in a mixture of hoi sin and chilli sauce.

The various beef goods at Hien Vuong were of good quality – especially the rare beef, and the peppery beef sausage. The brisket could have done with a little more fat, but I’m being picky now.

The noodles, in my experience in Melbourne, don’t tend to vary too much from restaurant to restaurant. However, what is important here is the noodle-to-beef ratio. You don’t want too much noodle and not enough beef, but at the same time, I hate running out of noodles and having all this beef left over floating around in the broth. So it’s a tender balancing act. Hien Vuong walks the line on this quite well.

While it’s got stiff competition I’m sure, Hien Vuong stands up quite well, and I’m sure I’ll be back, barring the discovery of Ultimate pho.

Hien Vuong (Pasteur) on Urbanspoon

Tan Truc Giang

36A Leeds St Footscray VIC 3011 – (03) 9689 9509
Open Mon-Sat 9am-8pm

NB – update 30 Dec 2013: Truc Giang is now under new management. I haven’t been back yet.

I stopped in here for a quick lunch with my parents in between weekend errands. The food on display certainly was enticing:

I’d like to think it was just because we chose poorly, because what we were presented with was a little lackluster. I had the broken rice with a fermented prawn version of the steamed egg pate (mam trung) and braised tofu with pork and prawns on the side. The tofu, pork and prawn dish was flavoured well, but altogether too tough.

Dad had some tomato-stewed prawns, and braised basa cutlet, with rice. Again, the prawns were too tough. I think the (quite open) use of microwaves might be to blame here. But at $10 per serve, that’s a little poor, if you ask me.

Mum ordered the ‘house specialty’, Bun Mam (rice vermicelli with fermented fish stock) which didn’t arrive until about 15 minutes after our rice dishes, and even then that was only after prompting. Also, it didn’t resemble any Bun Mam we’d ever seen – there was a distinct lack of fermented fish flavour. It looked more like Hu Tieu Nam Vang to me.

As I said, though, I like to think we perhaps chose poorly on this occasion, as all of the grilled meats and the spring rolls looked very delectable behind the glass. I’ll be back, but I’ll try something else next time. The banh mi station looks like a good option.

Truc Giang on Urbanspoon

Pho Tam

1/7-9 Leeds St
Phone: (03) 9687 2680

This is a pretty typical Vietnamese restaurant in Footscray. And I know it’s bad practice to post a negative review based on one visit, but it was pretty average. The food was OK – I had the com tam dac biet (broken rice special – with grilled pork chop, shredded pork skin, fried egg and steamed egg pate). The rice was quite obvously reheated, the pork chop was a little tough, and the pate didn’t have enough pepper in it for my liking.

The lady running front of house – I think she was the owner – seemed more intent on chatting on the phone than remembering to bring me my lemon soda. It finally arrived after I asked again for it, and as I was finishing my meal.

Like I said, it’s probably not all that fair – they might have been short-staffed or having an off day – but this place was pretty average. And in an area with such a high density of good Vietnamese restaurants, being average is pretty poor, really.

Pho Tam on Urbanspoon

Com tam suon bi cha trung at Dong Que

102 Hopkins St, Footscray
Phone: 9689 4392

I will admit to being drawn in by the photos of food in the window (which often is not a good move) but I was reassured by the breadth and presentation of the menu – a display folder with thick plastic sleeves, and photos of the specialty dishes.

The com tam (broken rice) was satisfactory, but not amazing. The pork chop was a little underseasoned, and the nuoc cham (prepared fish sauce) lacked punch. Points for a perfectly fried egg, and ample amounts of bi (shredded pork and pork skin).

From the look of the menu, perhaps I should have been a little more adventurous, but com tam is often a good benchmark for Vietnamese restaurants in Australia, I find.

Dong Que on Urbanspoon