A basic Footscray food crawl (of sorts)

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

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

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Miss Chu

297 Exhibition St Shop 2, Melbourne
Phone: 9077 1097

I don’t want to dwell on the Melbourne/Sydney thing too much. Because apparently only Melbourne people do that, due to a chip on our collective shoulder about being the second largest, and probably not even the second most recognisable, city in Australia. It’s often said that Sydney has better Thai food, and better Japanese food, while Melbourne arguably has better Vietnamese food. I’m not sure whether that’s true, especially since food is such a subjective thing anyway, but if patterns of migration and migrant community populations are anything to go by, these assertions might be justified.

Which is why it seems a little strange that a Vietnamese restaurant from Sydney would open up a Melbourne outlet. Miss Chu opened early last year to some excitement, but probably just as much skepticism. Vietnamese food purveyors from Sydney? That’s almost like Hanoians setting up shop in Sai Gon. Which, for the record, has been quite successful in a number of cases. But I was definitely one of the skeptics when I first heard about it.

My preconceptions of the place weren’t helped by the buzz around Miss Chu serving wagyu pho. Seriously? That’s almost as nonsensical as Spice Temple’s wagyu brisket. Braised brisket is about slow cooking, releasing flavours from tough cuts of meat, and breaking down the flesh until it melts apart. To me, it seems like both a waste and a ruination of wagyu. Similarly, the beef in pho tai (rare beef pho) should have a certain springiness to it, something which is utterly lacking in (ironically) good wagyu. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Miss Chu touts herself as the ‘Queen of rice paper rolls’. And in this, I’m quite happy to agree. Well, she’s a high Lady in that arena, in any case. I have had better, but I lived in Viet Nam for a year, so you would expect that to be the case. Nonetheless, the rice paper rolls at Miss Chu were pretty special. I ordered the tiger prawn and green mango ones, which while pricey, were well worth the extra cost. The sauce bottle was cute, but not really that functional; a little dipping plate would have been useful. The sauce was a little overly sweet, too.

imageOnto the main event: the wagyu pho. A few things distressed me about this whole situation. First of all, the fresh basil and bean shoots were already applied for you by the kitchen. Which is a minor travesty, because it takes something integral away about the ritual of eating pho; the tearing of the basil leaves from the stalks, the topping of your owl with a mound of beanshoots, and the dunking and stirring of all the fresh ingredients through the steaming hot soup. These are all a part of the experience which I love about having pho, and this was denied to me at Miss Chu. So things weren’t off to a good start.

Another part of my ritual is to try the broth before adding anything (lemon, chilli) to it. Again, Miss Chu’s pho fell flat. The broth was on the bland side, with neither the ‘beefiness’ nor the warm spices which typify good pho broth coming through. I was a little hasty in pre-judging the use of wagyu, as the soup was served at a cool enough temperature that the beef didn’t fully cook. Which might leave some people screaming salmonella, but is fine by me. Wagyu – and any good cut of meat, really – should be eaten rare, in my book. In this case, it helped the beef retain a bit of chewiness, which pho needs, texturally.imageUnfortunately, things don’t get any better when it comes to the actual pho noodles. I’m not sure about this, but it seems like Miss Chu is using re-hydrated dried ride noodles instead of fresh pho noodles. The noodles were thin, totally slippery, and worst of all, broken and short. I ended up having to eat most of them with my spoon, rather than slurping them off my chopsticks. That’s another point deduction, experientially. Oh, who are we kidding, points? This dish was a monster fail. Of course, me being me, I still ate it all. imageAnd proceeded to order dessert. A custard bun. Which was yet another let-down. The custard inside was on the dry and crumbly side, and the dough was a bit heavy. imageI know I’m pretty spoilt when it comes to Vietnamese food; I live in Footscray, after all. For the most part, Miss Chu just wasn’t up to scratch for me. But perhaps that was to do with my selection. There are many good Vietnamese restaurants that serve pho – mediocre or bad pho – but that excel in other dishes. I think Miss Chu might be one of these. The rice vermicelli salads looked pretty good, and the rice paper rolls were excellent, too. I could probably be convinced to go back – the atmosphere is fun and bustling, and the service is brisk, but friendly –  I’d just avoid that woeful pho.

MissChu on Urbanspoon

Pho Phi Truong

255 Hampshire Rd, Sunshine
Ph: 9311 6522

It’s taken me about a year since I moved out West, but I’ve finally started exploring beyond Footscray. It took this long partly because I’m lazy, but also it’s something of a testament to the huge number of great restaurants in my ‘hood.

So recently I was out visiting a friend on a weekend morning in Sunshine. He had to go to his parents’ place for lunch, so I wandered down to Hampshire Road, the main drag of Sunshine. I think. I still don’t really get the layout of that suburb. Anyway, I didn’t get very far before I came across a pho joint. And for me, there’s not really many better options for solo lunching than pho. It’s funny, but I tend to mostly be on my own when I eat pho. It’s partly because not that many other people have it for breakfast, but also I think it’s a subliminal thing – I tend to inhale it, and then have to sit around waiting while others finish off their bowls.imagePho Phi Truong strikes a nice balance between that slick modern Vietnamese restaurant which seems to be opening up everywhere, usually an existing restaurant which has renovated, and something a little more homely. There are still TV screens on the wall, as well as slightly kitsch Orientalist art. These things are the tropes I look for in a Vietnamese restaurant. These, the thermos of hot tea which confounds newbies due to the lack of a visible spout or opening, and of course the condiment station, which I like to peruse while I wait for my pho. Come to think of it, I think I may need to start documenting these. The staff here were also very friendly, and the waitress tried to speak Vietnamese to me – which I always take as a compliment – before I baffled her by replying “Xin loi, khong hieu (Sorry, I don’t understand)!” imageIf this bowl of pho were to be a food porn rip-off of a mainstream movie, it would be “Crunching Herbs, Hidden Offal”. The basil was super fresh and the bean shoots nice and crunchy.

imageThen the pho arrived – I ordered my usual bowl of pho bo dac biet – and I was a little underwhelmed. A healthy mound of onion and spring onions floated in the centre of the bowl, with a few islands of rare beef dotting the broth around the continental garnish. I was a little worried.
imageI didn’t need to be. There was plenty – and I mean plenty of beef and offal hiding under the onions. The broth was also pretty good – yes, there’s liberal use of MSG here, but I’ve never been averse to that – having a good balance between being beefy and warmly spiced with cardamom and star anise. My one major complaint about the pho here is that I could have done with a little more actual pho. So plentiful was all of the meat and offal, I ran out of noodles well before I ran out of the accompanying cow parts. That could just have been an unlucky one off – has anyone else who’s been there had the same experience?
imageI’m not a coffee drinker, but I am partial to some ca phe sua da (ice coffee). Phi Truong does it the ‘proper’ way – ie. the way I became accustomed to having it in Sai Gon – with crushed ice instead of cubes. I prefer it this way, because the ice melts faster, meaning even your first few sips aren’t so intensely sweet from all of that condensed milk.imageI went back a couple of weeks later with Lauren and her girls, to test out the other items on the menu. I’ve said it many times before that Vietnamese restaurants often have encyclopaedic menus, but usually only do a few dishes exceptionally well. And more often than not, pho joints are prototypical of this theory. Great pho usually means the rest of the menu is mediocre, and vice versa. Phi Truong, however, has managed to strike a balance. Good pho – though not quite great – while also serving up impressive rice dishes and salads. The bo luc lac var com chien (‘shaking beef’ with fried rice) was excellent; juicy and charred, and virtually without sauce. The way it ought to be, in my book. I’m not a fan of bo luc lac with a sauce, which is pretty common, and probably a valid way of doing it. I seem to remember that’s how Luke Nguyen’s version is, but I prefer it unsauced, with lemon and five-spice, salt and pepper to dip it in. The ‘red’ fried rice – there’s not magic ingredient here, just tomato sauce – was also wonderfully garlicky here.imageWe also shared the goi hai san (seafood coleslaw) which was light and refreshing, full of squid and prawns, and tons of fresh herbs. Surprisingly, not served with those white prawn crackers to which I’m quite partial, though.  imageLauren’s daughters shared the com tam suon bi trung (broken rice with grilled pork chop, shredded pork skin and pork/egg pate) and some salt and pepper chicken ribs. They’re still only little though, so we helped them polish both dishes off. Actually, if memory serves, we weren’t actually able to finish all of this food. The pork chop was well marinated, and still on the juicy side of well done.imageIt’s hard to go wrong with salt and pepper-dusted fried anything/ Chicken ribs are a prime example of this. These were great, though if I were to have this on its own, I’d want some more vegetables, or maybe a little bowl of chicken broth, or some lemon juice. Something to alleviate the dryness. Not that the chicken itself was dry; far from it, it was still moist and tender.imageBoth times I visited were on weekends for lunch, and both times the place was bustling with local families having lunch. Always a good sign. Interestingly though, I recently was down in Sunshine on a Friday night, and Phi Truong was virtually empty, while the place next door was completely full. I’m not sure if their kitchen closes earlier? Anyway, I think Phi Truong is worth a visit.imageAnd yeah, in case you’re that way inclined, they also have a spit for hire (I think they can arrange animals to put on it, too). There’s a big sign for it up at the counter when you go up to pay.

Pho Phi Truong on Urbanspoon

Pho at Pho Tam

1/7-9 Leeds St, Footscray
Phone: 9687 2680

Now I know I’ve reviewed this place before, but after some buzz from various other bloggers, I thought I should give it another shot, and more specifically, try their pho. After all, the place is called Pho Tam. So you’d hope that pho would be their signature dish.

The previous time I’d been in, it was a lazy Sunday afternoon, and the place was in that slack caretaker mode which drops over a lot of restaurants after the lunch rush ends, like the food coma which hits you after a satisfyingly carb-laden lunch. This time around, I was in on a late Saturday morning, just pipping the lunch crowd. I thought I’d eat before doing my grocery shopping at the nearby Little Saigon market, though clearly most people do it the other way around, judging by the laden carts and shopping bags people hauled in with them.

I had a bit of a hangover that morning – which is becoming an unsettling trend – so what that usually means for me is I want more offal in my pho. Liver and tongue, in particular. Unfortunately, in my years of living back in Australia, my Vietnamese has dropped off considerably, and I don’t really remember how to ask for extras. I suppose I could just ask in English, but there’s some pride at stake!

Anyway, I deviated from my usual, and ordered the pho bo ga dac biet. Regular readers will know that I usually eschew the ga (chicken) when it comes to pho, unless I’m sick. But being hung over is somewhat like being ill, so run with me here.

The bowl is heavily laden with all sorts of wonderful offal, from beef tripe, tongue and tendon, to chicken hearts and liver. Of course, there’s also some beef and chicken in there, but who cares about the flesh, when there are organs to be had, really? Surprisingly, there was no cube of congealed pig’s blood; a regular guest star in a pho ga dac biet. Perhaps it would be too much iron in a bowl already heaving with both chicken and cow bits.
The broth was pretty amazing. Not overly noticeable MSG, and not too sweet, though there was a definite umami kick. The spices were also definitely there, but they weren’t too in your face. I’m not a broth drinker, unlike some pho connoisseurs, but I almost polished off all of this bowl. We’re talking a seriously good broth this morning. I have heard, however, that they can be a bit inconsistent with their broth, so perhaps I was just very lucky. Or my hangover may also have clouded my judgement, but still, it was delectable.
To finish it off, and to put a kick into my day, I had a ca phe sua da. Nothing says bliss like equal parts coffee and condensed milk.
So in summary, if you’re going to Pho Tam, I recommend you try the pho. Who woulda thunk it, right?
Pho Tam on Urbanspoon

Pho Hien Vuong 1

37 Leeds St, Footscray
Phone: 9687 1470

Pho Hien Vuong is oldskool. Neon lights in the window: check. Mirrored walls: check. Bad 80s chairs: check.In short, there’s very little not to like about the place. The deal was sealed, however, when I stopped in on a Saturday morning and they were playing old pop ballads from the 60s. We used to have a tape (yes, kids, we’re talking cassettes here) of old 60s songs that my father loved, playing on loop in our restaurant when I was growing up. I always imagined to him listening to the songs in Viet Nam out of an old transistor radio when he was a teenager.

Anyway, there’s a feeling of authenticity when you walk into Pho Hien Vuong 1. It’s probably due for a nuskool makeover, but I hope not anytime soon, because there’s a certain charm about its complete lack of regard for modern decor. Something charmingly Vietnamese. If it ain’t broke, right?

As per usual, I had the pho bo dac biet. There was a good amount of beef, and I remember running out of pho noodles before I got through all of the meat and offal in the bowl.
I really wanted to love this place, because the outward appearance is just about everything I think a pho joint should be, but what let it down was the broth. It was just too sweet, even for me! I believe that you should never have to adjust good pho broth – just add the fresh lemon and chilli as accents, but if I have to touch the fish sauce bottle on the table, something’s amiss. I had to add some fish sauce at Hien Vuong 1.

The crowd on that day was an interesting mix of Vietnamese people and Caucasian punters who were clearly about to go, or had just come from Footscray Market, and stopped in because of Hien Vuong’s convenient location. Once again, which is an increasingly troubling trend, Hien Vuong 1’s pho is not bad, but it’s not great. It’s mediocre. And according to the rule of proximal pho, that’s just not good enough.

Hien Vuong 1 on Urbanspoon

Pho Chu The

270 Victoria St, Richmond
Phone: 9427 7749

For those of you readers who follow mt on twitter, it might stagger you beyond belief that I have not actually reviewed Pho Chu The before. Indeed it was a surprise to myself when I recently met up with friends for some pho that I had actually neglected to blog about Chu The up until that point.

Perhaps it was not wanting to make the perennially popular pho joint even more famous; because it’s hard enough to get a seat in there on weekend lunchtimes, or some evenings. Anyway, when Mr E came down from Canberra, I met up with him, Ms T and Ms G to show him what pho in Melbourne is about. He’d recently returned from a holiday Viet Nam, armed with my map of Saigon hotspots, so I guess the lack of good pho (or so I’m told) in Canberra was felt all the more keenly.

As always, I ordered the pho bo dac biet. As always, the broth was wonderfully spiced; the anise and cardamom singing out against a solid background of beefiness. Yes, there was detectable MSG action, but that’s a part of good pho broth, in my estimation. It wasn’t over-the-top, which is what matters.

I’m not going to go into too much detail, as you’ve all heard me wax lyrical about pho before. Suffice it to say that Chu The serves up a reliably good version of the life-force sustaining soup noodle, and there’s a reason it’s on the top of my list of places to recommend for pho in Richmond.

Pho Chu The on Urbanspoon

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

Pho Pasteur

709 George St, Haymarket
Phone: (02) 9212 5622

I first tried Pho Pasteur last year in May. I was in Sydney for a conference, and, well, the conference food was abominably bad. Thankfully, the hotel we were staying in was not far from Central Station so only a short walk to Chinatown. And on the South end of Chinatown,are a smattering of Vietnamese restaurants. We all know my weakness for pho by now, right?

I stopped in at Pho Pasteur, purely because it was the closest pho joint to the hotel, but it also helped that it was referencing Pho Hoa in Sai Gon (on Pasteur St) which is an institution in pho. And I wasn’t disappointed, that time. The pho was good! The broth was flavoursome without being overtly MSG-laden, and the beef-to-noodle ratio was satisfying.

I returned with Mr I and Ms D more recently, after we were disappointed by Gumshara’s early closing time of 8:30pm on a Saturday night.

We shared some prawn spring rolls to begin with – these were prawn reasonably good, though the amount of nuoc cham (fish sauce for dipping) was pretty paltry.
Mr I stuck to his regular, the pho bo tai – pho with rare beef – which he was pretty happy with. Pho Pasteur seems to be of that school which prepares its rare beef by finely dicing it (like a tartare) as opposed to finely slicing it. While this means you can get away with serving a cheaper cut of beef, this isn’t always a bad thing, as these cuts often have better flavour, and I’ve seen this practice quite often in Viet Nam.
Ms D had my personal favourite, the pho bo dac biet – special beef pho, with fatty beef flank, beef balls, tendon and tripe.
Having tried the pho before, I thought I’d be adventurous, and try their bun bo Hue.
BIG mistake. This was probably the singular worst version of bun bo Hue I’ve ever eaten. There was virtually no chilli, and the broth tasted more like a bak kut teh than a bun bo Hue. There was a serious absence of pork knuckle, too. Words cannot convey how disappointed I was by this dish.

So moral of the story? When you go to a pho joint, get the pho. MAYBE try spring rolls or the com tam (broken rice). Do NOT deviate. Or you will be sorry.

Pasteur 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