Din Tai Fung

Shop 130, 3/F, Silvercord, 30 Canton Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong
Phone: +852 2730 6928

While it wasn’t the one I was most excited about, this was to be my first experience with a Michelin-starred restaurant. More about the other one late … I’m guessing most of you know the one I mean.

Anyway, @eatnik, @alexlobov and I met up at the Silvercord centre, a big, shiny shopping centre, much like all of the other big, shiny shopping centres in this area of Tsim Sha Tsui. Having come in at the wrong entrance, @eatnik and I weren’t sure if we were in the right place, as all we saw were hoardings promising a newly renovated food centre, coming soon!

We rounded the corner, however, and across the atrium lay the promised land. Encased, of course, in glass. This is Hong Kong, after all.

There were already quite a few people waiting, so we grabbed a ticket and waited for our number to be called. Din Tai Fung has a clever system where the ticketing numbers are split up by how many people you have in your group, and thankfully about three groups who were waiting for tables of 3-5 people must have pulled out, because the number advanced pretty quickly after the initial twenty minute wait. You can also grab a copy of the menu to peruse while you wait, which speeds up turnover I guess, but also has you salivating in anticipation. I guess the long-ish waiting also builds anticipation, so much so that we all cheered when our number was called. Alex suggested we belt out a chorus of ‘We are the champions‘ when our number was called, but we thought that might be going a little too far.
We were shown to a table towards the back of the restaurant, and incidentally greeted by every staff member we passed – service is clearly a significant part of why Din Tai Fug is Michelin-starred here – and presented with a second menu. There were a couple of clear ‘must-try’ dishes, namely the xiao long bao and the chilli wontons, and Alex spoke highly of their signature dan dan mian (spicy sesame noodles).

But we started off with some cold dishes: green beans fried with minced pork, and cucumbers with chilli oil.

The beans were good, but a little strange, as I’m more used to this dish being served hot. But the beans were plump and sweet, and the mince was nicely salty. The cucumber chunks were great. Cucumber is such a versatile and refreshing food, and I really should be eating more of it. Here, the freshness of the cucumber married well with the richness of the chilli oil.

Then the rest of the dishes started arriving, in quick succession. There’s a strange service hierarchy at play at Din Tai Fung. Beyond the usual distinction of waitstaff/bus-person, there’s a further distinction between the type of waitstaff, which was apparently signified by whether or not the waitress/waiter was wearing a white floppy hat. Those saddled with this hat appeared to be responsible for bringing food to the table, on a tray, and then waiting while another, hatless waitress/waiter would offload the food from the tray and place it on the table. It seemed unnecessarily complicated, but it also added an amusing theatricality to the dining experience.

So the next dishes to arrive were the xiao long bao. We ordered two serves of the standard ones, as well as one of the ones with crab roe inside. There’s also a truffled xlb on the menu, but given the amount of food we were ordering for three, it seemed a little too extravagant. And truth be know, I’m not sure truffles are my favourite thing, when paired with the other Chinese tastes on the table.

These xlb are pretty phenomenal. The flavour’s just right, the skin is wonderfully delicate, and of course, they’re sufficiently soupy. Given their reputation for xiao long bao, it’s not really that surprising how good these were, but I’m still very glad the reputation is, in my opinion, deserved.

Next up was the dan dan mian. Alex insisted that we try this, though it wasn’t really to my liking. I found the tahini-like sesame flavour of the sauce too overpowering, and though it would have been better if it was a bit more salty and spicy.

I ordered the hot and sour soup, which was a bit of a mistake, because again, it lacked any real spice, and also could have done with some more umami. Perhaps the few days I’d been in Asia had already increased my MSG tolerance.
The chilli wontons were great, though I think I actually prefer the ones at Hu Tong here in Melbourne. These just didn’t seem as meaty, somehow.
Despite most of their food seeming quite Shanghainese to me, Din Tai Fung is actually a chain which originated in Taiwan. So Alex suggested we try a pretty typical Taiwanese dish – pork chop on egg fried rice.
This sounds horribly gwai lo, but in fact, it’s pretty awesome. The pork chop is perfectly fried – I’m pretty sure deep fried – and the fried rice was amazing. Soft yet not sticky, well seasoned, and not oily at all, the simple strands of lightly scrambled egg and diced spring onion were well restrained and cooked to perfection.

Oh yeah, we also ordered some other dish of vegetables – snow pea shoots with garlic, I think? – but it wasn’t so memorable. It only made it to the group shot!

This was all that the three of us left behind, in the end:
I’m glad there’s a Din Tai Fung in Sydney, as I’m not sure I can wait until the next time I get overseas to go again.

Bun Rieu at Bo De Trai

94 Hopkins St, Footscray
Phone: 9689 9909

Back when I was living in Sai Gon, my housemate was a pescetarian/vegaquarian/whatchamacallit-fish-n-vegies-eater. Which isn’t all that hard to maintain in Viet Nam, but it does take a little vigilance, especially when it comes to soups. Never know when one of those sneaky pyjama ladies will slip a chicken carcass in that pot.

But I jest. In fact, it’s actually quite common to find vegetarian food in Sai Gon, if not all the time, then at least twice a month, on the first and fifteenth of each lunar month, when some Buddhists observe meat-free days. I quite liked these days – there was a bun mang vit (duck and bamboo shoot soup noodles) joint near my work which would serve awesome bun cha gio chay (rice vermicelli with vegetarian spring rolls) twice a month. For other times of the month, there was always the place near my gym that was run by a little old Buddhist nun, who spoke a surprisingly good amount of English. The braised pressed tofu balls there were amazing.

Anyway, I’d been meaning to try Bo de Trai since I moved to Footscray. It’s a vegetarian restaurant of the Buddhist variety. That means there’s lots of mock meat going on there. It’s run by a few little middle-aged Vietnamese ladies, who are warm and friendly. They remind me of my aunts.

I went on my own for lunch, and had the bun rieu, which is a crab and tomato based soup noodle. I wasn’t sure what to expect, because the crab and fermented shrimp paste are quite strong components of the flavour of bun rieu. When it arrived at  the table, I was impressed. It looked pretty great!

Sure, instead of the cha lua there were slices of tofu, but that’s to be expected. What would usually be loosely clumped balls of processed fish and crab meat was replaced by some sort of crumbly steamed egg. Texturally, it totally worked. And while it didn’t really taste like a proper bun rieu, it was still quite tasty.
My main complaint about the dish was that the noodles were overcooked, and must have been broken before they were cooked, because they were quite short. I like to slurp my soup noodles, and with noodles that short, there wasn’t really much slurping going on.

My other complaint about the place, and this applies pretty generally across most vegetarian restaurants, was the clientele. I wish I had brought my headphones with me, so I could block out the one girl at the table next to mine pontificating about her motivations for being vegetarian, and trying to generally show off how much she knows about various meat substitutes like seitan and Quorn. If only you could enjoy good vegetarian food without having to listen to the rants of militant vegetarians!

So not to be too hypocritical, I’ll end my rant there. As you can see, I really liked this bowl of noodles. Bo de Trai is definitely worth visiting.

Bo de Trai on Urbanspoon

Hotel Metropolitan

36-42 Courtney St, North Melbourne
Phone: 9328 4222

I like pubs which put the word ‘Hotel’ first in their name. There’s something vaguely Franco-phoney about it, and also, it reminds me of that karaoke classic Hotel California.

A few of my colleagues and I had a farewell lunch for Ms S late last year at the Hotel Metropolitan. I’d been there only once before, for a beer and to watch the Melbourne Cup. That’s a whole other story, but basically I knew the place was a relatively upscale pub. I’d only been in the bar side of it, however. I hadn’t seen that there’s also a large, airy, genteel dining room off to the side.

The walls are covered with inoffensive (read neutral) artwork and botany illustrations, and I could imagine sitting down to a Devonshire tea in the setting quite easily. Except there’s a lack of soft furnishings in the room, so it gets a little bit echo-ey. Anyway, the service definitely matches the setting – attentive, polite, and just a touch on the cool side of friendly. All in all, pretty good.

Ms S and I both ordered the chicken Parmigiana, and were a little taken aback when it arrived. It was massive! So big that they couldn’t avoid placing it on top of the bed of chips (it’s a pet peeve of mine when pubs do that, because it makes it hard to cut the parma without mushing the chips below, and so then I have to move everything around on the plate, and it all gets a bit OCD). The napoli was full of tomato-ey zing, and the cheese was just starting to go golden brown. Definitely one of the better parmas I’ve had in recent times.

Ms K got the fish and chips. She was very happy with it, and I’d just like to note the two different gauges of chips which the Metropolitan was serving up. I think that illustrates their attention to detail, and a devotion to the quality of their food. Most other pubs wouldn’t bother, serving the same chips up with a parma as they do with the fried fish. Points for the little things, I say!
Mr R had the burger, which again was pretty mammoth. I liked the look of the sunnyside egg – there’s not many things better in this world than a runny yolk-as-sauce.
Ms M had the bangers and mash, which she enjoyed a lot. I think I would’ve liked a bit more mash with it, but then I am a chronic carb-a-holic.

Hotel Metropolitan on Urbanspoon

Four Seasons Claypot Rice

46-58 Arthur Street, Yau Ma Tei
(between Temple Street and Nathan Road)

Back when I visited Hong Kong in 2000, I met my mother’s cousin Suit Ying for the first time. It was one of those overwhelming love-and-admiration-for-my-family moments. She was a taller, younger, more gaunt version of my mother. She had then recently been granted residency in Hong Kong, after a few years in a refugee detention centre (she had arrived in Hong Kong from Viet Nam as an illegal alien). She has a huge smile, and was full of laughter and quite clearly excited to see my mother again, after about twenty five years.

We met up with her near Temple St Market, because she was working at one of the little claypot rice restaurants which were springing up all over Hong Kong at the time. I don’t think it was Four Seasons, but it was over a decade ago, so I can’t really be sure. In any case, claypot rice was all the rage back then. And while it’s no longer so trendy, there are still quite a lot of places that specialise in it.

When researching places to eat in Hong Kong, of course @eatnik and I asked friends (and scoured their blogs). Both Phil and Jess had whet our appetites not only for claypot rice, but also for Four Seasons’ now famous oyster omelette. Oh, it also helps that Anthony Bourdain also recommended the place.

We met up with the @eatdrinkstagger kids, who were also holidaying in Hong Kong that week. Expect to see a lot of cross-posting over the next few weeks between them and me. There was a little confusion as to where this place was, partly because google maps’ print functionality blows chunks, and partly because we were too lazy to enter addresses in our notes on our eating map. In any case, some quick smartphone usage and guidebook map referencing later, we found the place. Having been warned about a line forming pretty early in the evening, we opted for a blue-rinse special dining time of around 5:30pm. Which meant we walked into a half-full restaurant, and had an excuse later for supper.

So, of course, the first thing we ordered was the oyster omelette. We got the large, which was quite simply humongous. The picture doesn’t really illustrate it very well.

Never fear! After the previous day’s performance in Macau, I wasn’t going to let more food go to waste! Between the four of us, we managed to finish it off. The omelette is more like a fritter, really. Crisp and crunchy, with a generous serve of fresh oysters scattered throughout the batter, and a handful of spring onions  thrown in for good measure, or just to make it slightly more aesthetically appealing, I’m not sure. I love oysters, and this omelette was full of them. The only problem I had with the dish was that the chilli sauce that it was served with was really salty. I would have preferred a chilli sauce with more vinegar in it, but I’m quibbling here.

Of course, we also tried the claypot rice. We ordered (from left to right) the traditional classic:chicken with Chinese sausage, as well as frog and mushroom, and pork spare ribs with eel and soy bean paste.

They weren’t all that exciting. Though to be fair, we probably didn’t douse them with enough soy sauce. My favourite was definitely the ribs and eel, partly because soy bean paste is such an underrated condiment, but also because it was probably burnt a bit more than it was supposed to be – you want a little of the rice to burn to form a crunchy layer on the bottom of the claypot – which ended up giving the eel a great smoked flavour.

We also ordered some tung choi – a.k.a. eng cai or kangkung or rau muong depending where in Asia you are – which was simply boiled and given a quick stir fry, with a dollop of fermented bean curd as the sauce on the side. Nothing special, but great comfort food. Oh, and fermented bean curd is also another hugely underrated condiment.

The jovial middle-aged lady who took our order also suggested that we might like to get some soup, and recommended the gai choi soup with tofu, pork slices and century egg. It was a wonderfully cleansing way to end the meal, after all that oil from the omelette, and a good introduction to century egg for the @eatdrinkstagger crew.

All up, this meal ended costing us about 40HKD each. Yup, less than $6AUD. Another reason why I freaking love Hong Kong.

Wong Chi Kei

After our little detour via the wet markets, @eatnik and I headed up the hill to the ruins of St Paul’s. Not really because we wanted to see the ruins – I’d seen them twice before – but more because I wanted to show @eatnik the wonder that is Jerky Street, which leads up to the historical church facade.

Jerky street (Rua de Sao Paulo) is lined with, well, jerky vendors. Predominant here is the bak gua style of jerky, though you can find the other ‘dried beef’ style too. Along this street, you can also find many almond cookie shops, and shops selling Portuguese egg tarts. It’s all very touristy, but in a tasty way.

After sampling our way up and down Jerky street, we wandered back down to Senado Square, and headed for Won Chi Kei. Again, this was another recommendation from Petite Crystal, who posted about a crab congee. As a self-respecting Chinese man, I could hardly bypass that!

The place was pretty easy to find – it’s right opposite the McDonald’s – but we weren’t sure as we walked in if it was the right place, mostly because the ground floor seating is pretty limited, and I was under the impression it was a pretty big place. But there’s more seating upstairs. You’ll still probably end up sharing a table with strangers if you’re less than a group of four, however, because it’s pretty busy. I guess the crab congee’s no secret, though Wong Chi Kei is pretty well known for its noodles too, apparently.

While we waited for our food to arrive, @eatnik and I sampled the chilli oil, something that was fast becoming a team #fatty habit. We were most impressed by the chilli oil here. It was salty and smoky, with a nice slow burn, but not too much initial heat.

@eatnik had the gon loh mien (dry-style egg noodles) with pig’s trotter. She wasn’t too impressed with the dish, and having tried a bit, I don’t quite understand where Wong Chi Kei’s reputation for noodles comes from. It was pretty lacklustre. And the pig’s trotter, though it had good flavour, was a bit on the tough/dry side.
When the bowl of congee came, it didn’t look like much. The crab was almost completely submerged, and I had to dig around before I found any of its bright orange shell.
There was what I’m pretty sure was an entire miniature crab in this bowl. There’s not a lot of meat going on, and it was pretty fiddly, but the crab meet was wonderfully sweet. The good thing about crab as a main dish is that you can go in with you hands; it’s a little more difficult when there’s no plate, and you don’t want to get hot congee all over your fingers.
The congee itself was nice and smooth. Years ago, a friend told me one of the secrets to good restaurant-quality congee: evaporated milk. It makes the rice porridge smoother, and well, more creamy. I’m not sure whether Wong Chi Kei use evaporated milk, but the congee was certainly very smooth and creamy, with that tendency to stick to your lips which good congee has.

Eyes bigger than our stomachs – read greedy here – we also made the mistake of ordering the ‘Eight treasures’ – what looked on the menu like a mixed entree platter. And it was, after a fashion… though there was nothing fried about this mixed entree selection.

Instead, it was a selection of braised and boiled items, pretty much all of which you could order with noodles. Chicken wings, shiitake mushrooms, sui gao, wontons, cuttlefish, and more of that not-so-great pig’s trotter. In the end, in a performance heaped shame upon my family, and would have saddened my mother to tears, we managed only to eat about a quarter of what was on this combo platter. I felt very guilty leaving that much food as we left.

Cafe Rubicon

50 Errol St, North Melbourne
Phone: 9329 3389

Right now I’m going to step back in time. With the flurry of eating, and the lack of posting, I have quite the backlog of photo-filled drafts waiting to be written. So I’m going to cast my mind back to December last year, when a group of us from the coal mine had our work Christmas lunch at Cafe Rubicon.

Details are a bit hazy, but overall, everyone enjoyed their lunch, and the office Kris Kringle played out to everyone’s satisfaction, too!

I ordered the chilli prawns. The menu at Rubicon is a little strange, in that it specifies exactly how many prawns are in the dish. I guess that’s good, in that you know what to expect, but really? Do I need to know that I’m getting twelve prawns in the dish before I order it?

I think it might be a ploy, because I didn’t receive twelve prawns – I got thirteen! Customer relationship management rule #17: lower expectations, then exceed them! The sauce itself was pretty tasty, if a touch on the sweet side, and lacking any real chilli punch.

From left to right: Chicken salad, Risotto di mare, Linguini marinara (the latter two topped with a fried soft-shelled crab!).

Saffron prawn risotto (with an unspecified number of prawns!).

Left: a rather mammoth Chicken burger. Right: Chicken Parmigiana.
Rubicon is a pretty standard cafe. None of the dishes are particularly innovative or out-of-the-ordinary, but it’s all of a respectable standard. It’s a good place to go when you have a group of people who feel like eating different things, and they’re very accommodating with special dietary requests. I found the service a little over-bearing, but at least they were attentive!

Oh, and the cakes and pies are a winner.
Rubicon Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Zhu pa bao

Continuing our adventures in Macau, @eatnik and I thought it might be prudent to go for a walk in between breakfasts. Because after the cheong fun we were cruising for crab congee. So we wandered across Senado Square, and down a side street, where we stumbled upon Ying Dei market (opposite St Dominic’s Church).

We wandered through three storeys of market stalls, sort of like a multi-leveled department store version of your average market. The first two floors were butchers of all sorts, including those selling live poultry and fish. This fellow was searing the hairs off a pig’s trotter, with the most impressive kitchen/butcher blowtorch we’d ever seen! He very obligingly posed for a shot when he saw our pyromaniac delight.

Photo courtesy of @eatnik

We wandered through another two floors of fruit and vegetables, and fresh tofu, which brought back memories of the markets in Sai Gon. There’s a slightly off-putting smell about a tofu stand, but the fresh stuff tastes so good, it’s worth it.

Finally, we reached the top floor, which was a cooked food centre – pretty much like a food court or hawker centre. There was a large range of food on offer – soup noodles, fried noodles, congee and various types of dim sum. But on our way in, I had spied an old lady, who looked like she worked in the market, biting into what looked like a pretty scrumptious zhu pa bao; that’d be Mandarin for PORK CHOP BUN.

Macau’s Pork chop buns are regionally famous. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of them before I went to Macau a couple of years ago, and at that point I didn’t get around to trying one. It sounded a bit pedestrian and McDonald’s-esque. Basically, it’s a deep-fried or pan-fried pork chop, in a bun. From what I understand, it should be no more, no less. Although it’s common to have the option – as with most things in Asia – of adding a fried egg to that.

Anyway, the little old lady was happily munching on her zhu pa bao and chatting with the owner of the stall from which she bought it. Another little old lady, though she wasn’t nearly as ancient as her customer. The fact that the older, munchier lady didn’t have all her teeth bode well, I thought, for the tenderness of the pork. So I ordered one, sans egg, and we sat down to see if I’d made a mistake.

The zhu pa bao arrived on a little homely plastic plate, resting on a serviette. The bun was soft and dusty, and like most bread in Asia, a bit sweet. The inside had been toasted and lightly buttered, and the pork chop itself was covered with just enough oil to make it glisten. This pork chop had been pan-fried, in case you were wondering.
The pictures really don’t do it justice, but every bite of this puffy morsel was pure joy. Cushioned by the fluffy, sweet bread, the pork chop would yield at the moment my teeth made contact with it, resisting only slightly, before succumbing to my toothy embrace, and giving up a moisture which neither @eatnik nor I could really ascertain one way or the other as meat juice or fat. But at that point, we were both beyond caring.
The pork chop was well seasoned, but not overly salty. The overall flavour impression I got was of pure pork. Not in that heavy, dry roast pork way, but in a sweet, tender, juicy, only-just-cooked way. I’m salivating just remembering the joy of that pork chop.

Sometimes it’s the little detours which you take, unexpectedly and on a whim, that lead to the greatest experiences when you’re on holiday. While we hadn’t planned our Hong Kong/Macau trip down with military precision, we had a pretty jam-packed google map of places we were aiming to hit. This tiny little stand in a local wet market wasn’t one of them. It also isn’t one of the places in Macau famous for zhu pa bao, but I’m oh-so-glad we found it!

Macau Cheong Fun Joint

Big props go to Petite Crystal of My Little World for posting about this place. Not really knowing where to go for food in Macau, I googled ‘macau breakfast’ and came up with a great entry on her blog.

So following her advice, @eatnik and I went down to Senado Square, and followed the map to Rua Dos Mercadores (see map below). About 20 metres from the intersection with Ave de Almeida Ribeiro, is a little doorway to a laneway called Patio do Cotovelo.

Inside, is a little breakfast joint which dishes up cheong fun (steamed rice paper/noodle), brisket noodles, and congee. We were only there for the cheong fun, though the locals seemed to chowing down on everything there quite happily.

I was a little at a loss with the menu – my recognition of characters isn’t the best in the morning – until one of the little ladies working there graciously started reciting everything to me. She clearly had other customers to serve, and I was in the way! I ordered the two types of cheong fun on offer – the plain, and the zha leong (steamed rice noodle wrapped around a Chinese donut).

As you would expect from a place that is renowned for their cheong fun, the rice noodle was thin and tissue-like. The plain one unrolled at a touch, and there was none of the claggy gelatinous texture which you get at a lot of yum cha places, due usually to over-steaming, I believe?

The thin silky layer of cheong fun wrapped around the crispy donut in a good zha leong creates a great textural combination. It’s an old favourite of mine when done well, and it certainly was done well here. I like the fact that there’s also a temperature contrast here, as the donut is cold when wrapped with the hot cheong fun.

I was very lucky, because at this point, @eatnik had decided that the next week was going to be a struggle for her if she were to try to match me bowl for bowl in the eating stakes. So I got to eat more cheong fun than was equitable!

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A tale of two of cha cas – Dong Que vs. Sapa Hills

This was something of an unexpected battle. Mostly because I wasn’t aware that any place in Melbourne served cha ca thang long other than Sapa Hills, but also, because I didn’t expect to have it twice on consecutive nights!

Cha ca thang long is a Northern Vietnamese grilled fish dish, which is often hard to find outside of Viet Nam. Most of the Vietnamese food we get here in Australia is of the Southern Vietnamese style. I think this has a lot to do historically with migration patterns, and the fact that a large proportion of Vietnamese refugees who settled here after the Viet Nam war were from Southern Viet Nam.

In any case, Sapa Hills became quite popular after opening just over a year ago, with glowing reviews in the mainstream media, and being that ‘little bit different’ by serving a menu which is heavily influenced with Northern and central style Vietnamese dishes, like bun cha and of course, cha ca. What I, and I assume most other people, didn’t know was that there are other Vietnamese places around, with just as interesting and diverse menus on offer. Such as Dong Que, a few doors down from Sapa Hills.

Dong Que – 102 Hopkins St, Footscray
Phone: 9689 4392

I had been to Dong Que once before, and was rather uninspired by the food. But when @eatnik and @meatnik declared that they were in the mood for banh xeo, I had to admit I was at a loss as to where we should go in Footscray. I guess I’ve been blinkered somewhat by my lust for soup noodles – namely pho and bun bo Hue – since I moved to Footscray, and I haven’t really been testing out the other staples of Vietnamese cuisine in the ‘hood. So as we walked along Hopkins St, Dong Que god the nod by default, because it was the first place with pictures of banh xeo in the window.

When it arrived, the banh xeo didn’t disappoint. Not too oily, and wonderfully crisp around the edges, the ‘crepe’ was laden with bean shoots, mung beans, belly pork and shrimp. A great version of what a banh xeo should be, in my opinion. The only thing I would say is that they could have used a touch more turmeric and coconut milk in the crepe batter itself. But I’m nitpicking here. Oh, and don’t let the picture fool you – that’s a big plate, and the banh xeo was even bigger!

On @msbaklover‘s recommendation, we also ordered the banh dap thit nuong – steamed rice paper with grilled pork, sandwiched between rice crackers. It’s like a crunchy Vietnamese quesadilla!
Although this was an interesting and fun dish to eat, I wouldn’t want to have one on my own; definitely a dish to share. The grilled pork was tasty, if a touch dry, but the sticky rice paper added a moistness to it, which was necessary, given the other ingredients were the rice crackers, some crushed peanuts, and spring onion. The overall cracker-sandwich nature of the dish made it feel more like a snack than a meal. Though again, not in size, because the portions at Dong Que are nothing if not generous.

But on to the main event – the cha ca! Arriving on a sizzling plate, the fish was beautifully grilled, with just a touch of crunchy char to the edges, and you can see the hefty use of turmeric and dill, the two signature flavours of cha ca.

Served with a good amount of rice vermicelli and fresh herbs and lettuce, I’d happily devour a dish of this on my own. The mam (fermented anchovy) dipping sauce was a good balance of salt, acid and pungent fishiness with a hint of sweetness. This sauce isn’t for everyone – due, obviously, to the pungent fishiness – so ask for the regular fish sauce (nuoc cham) if you like to play it safe.

Dong Que on Urbanspoon

Sapa Hills – 112 Hopkins St, Footscray
Phone: 9687 5729

The next night, I caught up with Mr I and Ms D. Both of them had read another recent review of Sapa Hills, and wanted to try it out. Never having been myself, I heartily agreed.

Living in Footscray, and eating a lot of Vietnamese food, leads me to often look through the menu for something which isn’t often found at other restaurants. At Sapa Hills, this meant there were quite a few attractive options. First up, we ordered the bun cha.

While this is similar to the Southern bun thit nuong in that they’re both dishes composed of rice vermicelli, grilled pork, with lettuce and herbs, bun cha is a notably different dish. The grilled pork comes in two forms; little mince patties, and thin slices of pork belly. Both are on the salty side, but that’s because you’re supposed to pair it with the sweetness of the nuoc cham and the fresh lettuce and herbs.
Sapa Hills’ version was pretty good, though you should eat it quickly, because the meat is quite fatty, and gets a bit greasy as it gets cold. Mr I particularly liked the little minced pork patties.

I was looking forward to the cha ca, despite having had it the previous night, because I’d heard a lot about Sapa Hills’ rendition.

To be completely honest, I was disappointed. The fish was a bit on the bland side, and lacked any sort of delicious charred-ness. The overall result was that texturally, the dish was soggy and limp. Not attractive. There was a good amount of dill, but the turmeric seemed to have been tempered somewhat, which was disappointing.

We also ordered the chicken and salted fish fried rice, which was quite good! Tasty, not too oily, and I love it when people cook lettuce, so points for that. I would have liked a little less chicken and a little more salted fish, though.

When ordering the two dishes and a fried rice, we thought we could probably squeeze in an entree, so we ordered the soft-shelled crab to share between the three of us. It arrived after all of the other dishes. Oops!
It was, however, quite good. Not the best soft-shelled crab I’ve had – the batter was a little heavy, and the seasoning was overly salty – but a decent effort, and it certainly would have whet our appetites, had it not arrived after all of the other dishes.

Sapa Hills on Urbanspoon

So when it comes down to it, both restaurants have their strong points, and there are many reasons on both menus that call for return visits. But when it comes to the crunch, Dong Que’s cha ca was streets ahead of Sapa Hills’, in my opinion.