Thanh Nga 9

160 Victoria St, Richmond
Phone: 9427 7068

One of the greatest things about having a new home to set up is that it gives me an excuse to go to IKEA. I know, I know, IKEA is kind of evil, and I’m not going to completely surround myself with soul-less flat-packery. But it’s very useful when you need a wardrobe, or some stupidly large beer glasses. One of the greatest things (apart from the satisfaction of entering through the checkouts and being in and out in under half an hour – like a ninja!) is it’s a good excuse to hit the Vietnamese restaurants on Victoria St. Not that you really need an excuse, but…

Anyway, I had heard good things about Thanh Nga Nine on the twitters, and finally stopped in last week. Thanh Nga Nine is (to the best of my knowledge) not the ninth in a chain of restaurants. The menu is slightly different from most places in the strip; yes, it has all your favourites, but there’s also a definite nod to the owner’s Mekong delta origins, with specialties from the area clearly marked on the menu. Well, clearly if you know the names of delta towns.

My pathetIKEA friend Mr D (his words, not mine) came along, because he was in need of some flat-packery. For some reason, even though we’d arranged to meet for dinner, he’d already eaten beforehand, so he had the Soc Trang style fried rice cakes.

These are a southern take on the more the more ubiquitous banh beo, which are a traditional dish from central Viet Nam. Basically, the ‘cake’ is made from glutinous rice flour, which is steamed, then topped with mung bean paste, and ground minced prawns. In this version, the rice cake is deep fried before the toppings are added, giving it a nice crispy rim. The cake is also much thinner, with more mung bean, which I though was a good move, as the rice cake is somewhat dull, and the mung bean paste is much more satisfying. The cakes came with two dipping sauces – a nuoc cham which was a bit heavy on the sweet chilli to my liking, and a salted coconut milk. Which sounds weird, but is awesome.

Needing a more hearty feed, I chose the bun rieu cua mien tay (South Western style crab and tomato noodles). The broth was wonderfully rich and full of crab flavour, though there was definitely a big dose of MSG in there too. Not in a terribly bad way.

The ‘toppings’ included prawns, fish, tofu puffs, and to my delight, congealed blood (the brown cube on the right). The actual bun used was a thick rice vermicelli. A good selection of herbs and shredded vegetables which come with the dish added that freshness and lightness which is one of the things I love about Vietnamese food.
If these dishes are representative of the rest of the menu, I’m definitely going back. Even if the proprietress was a little overwhelmingly friendly. But that’s just more authenticity for you!

Thanh Nga Nine on Urbanspoon

Thanh Tam

172 Victoria St, Richmond
Phone: 9429 8130

There’s apparently some sort of superstition amongst the Vietnamese that to have a restaurant with the same name for too long is bad luck. Or so the story goes. That hasn’t stopped local favourites like Pho Dzung, Pho Chu The or Thy Thy from trading under the same name for decades. There’s another theory that by changing the trading name, a restaurant does something of a ‘clean slate’ thing with the tax office, etc. I’m thinking the change from Thanh Ha to Thanh Tam is probably something closer to the latter. Of course, this does nothing to alleviate the confusion caused by the fact that Thanh Ha 2 is still very much in business down the street! And nothing else about Thanh Tam has changed from when it was Thanh Ha, either.

Thanh Ha was always one of my favourite restaurants along Victoria St, and I think Thanh Tam will remain one too. This is in part because they make a mean banh xeo, my favourite Vietnamese dish. For the variety available on the menu alone, this place is a WIN. And by variety, I don’t mean four different options of meat multiplied by twenty different sauces. They’re one of only a few restaurants along the strip that serve banh hoi – a superfine rice vermicelli that comes in little ‘cakes’ – and banh cuon – steamed rice noodle.

Most recently, I stopped in for a classic. Com tam bi suon cha trung. Broken rice with the lot (shredded pork skin, grilled pork chop, steamed pork and egg pate, and a fried egg).

It was a solid effort, but I’ll be honest and say I’ve had better. The pork chop was a little on the dry and tough side, which funnily reminds me of Viet Nam, and the egg was similarly far too overcooked. One of my favourite things about com tam is the runny yolk mixing with the fish sauce and coating the broken rice. Simple pleasure. The shredded pork skin was well flavoured, and the pork and egg pate was OK, if not great. Little lardons as a garnish were a nice touch.

On a separate occasion, I had the bun dac biet Thanh Ha (Thanh Ha special rice vermicelli).

Topped with grilled pork, prawn and pork spring rolls, and a couple of sauteed prawns, you douse this whole dish with the fish sauce provided, toss through the lettuce and cucumber strips, and away you go. The standard versions of this are bun thit nuong and bun cha gio, with either grilled pork or spring rolls. So this version is good if you can’t decide what you want!

Mr D had the Vietnamese coleslaw with chicken.

He agreed to me removing a couple of the prawn crackers from this side of the dish so I could show you all the mound of coleslaw hidden underneath. And before you scoff at prawn crackers, this is how it’s served in Viet Nam. You take a bit of the coleslaw, place it on the cracker, and it’s like chip’n’dip, only SO. MUCH. BETTER. This is also a great dish to share as an entree amongst a few people. My only criticism of it was that the fish sauce vinaigrette was a bit on the sweet side, and could have used a bit more lemon.

When people ask me to recommend places along Victoria St, I inevitably ask them what they’re after: pho, rice, banh xeo? Thanh Tam is a good option that I give them if they say they don’t know. Reliably good, and ridiculously cheap.

Thanh Tam on Urbanspoon

Tom Toon Thai Noodle Cafe

241 Victoria Parade, Abbotsford
Phone: 9417 7447

Opening up a Thai restaurant a couple of doors up from the institution that is Ying Thai is either a gutsy or a foolhardy move. A move, however, which seems to have paid off for the owners of Tom Toon Thai Noodle Cafe, and has also further cemented tiny stretch at the Hoddle street end of Victoria St as a little Thai enclave, next to its much more sprawling Vietnamese cousin.

I’d been to Tom Toon once before, when Mr B and I had feasted ourselves silly on Larb Moo, Som Tum – not on the menu, but on the board on the wall above the counter – and pad Thai. It being a noodle cafe, I wanted to return to try more noodles. Though I was immediately distracted by the promise of “BBQ Chicken skin skewer”. Chicken skin? Hell yes, please!
Unfortunately, either I had been deemed not capable/worthy of eating the chicken skin, ordered incorrectly, or the chicken skin had been mystically transubstantiated, because what arrived were skewers of skinless chicken. Disappointment city: population me.
To be fair, the skewers were well marinated, and quite tasty, if a little overcooked. The dipping sauce was an interesting tamarind-based sauce, with a hint of chilli, and the ground roasted rice gave it a great aroma.
The disappointment started to fade when the Pork Noodle Gravy Soup (Kuitiw Nur Toon) arrived. There were four different types of pork in the bowl! From top right, working clockwise: boiled pork, braised pork shoulder, pork ‘balls’ – reconstituted meat is quite common in South East Asia, more pork shoulder, and the tan/orange-y things at the top are FRIED LARDONS. Oh yeah. Also in the noodles were some kangkung, bean shoots and coriander.
Check out the superfine rice vermicelli! Such an amazing texture. While it’s actually quite a pedestrian dish – it’s essentially street food in Thailand – the soup was so evocative of the late night cart noodles I’d had in Phuket earlier this year. When food so clearly brings up memories of great holidays, it scores bonus points. Bonus points also get given for things being cheap. While no match for the 45THB I paid for noodles in Phuket, Tom Toon’s noodles are still pretty cheap at $9.90.

Tom Toon does pretty authentic Thai food, but be warned: there are no curries at this Thai restaurant. Somewhat incongruous, but what they do, they do well.

Tom Toon Thai Noodle Cafe on Urbanspoon

Pho at Co Do

196 Victoria St, Richmond
Phone: 9421 2418

I think it might be because I’m Asian. Or it might be that I lived in Sai Gon for a year. I’m not sure which is more to blame, really, but I always seem to get asked for recommendations for Vietnamese restaurants. Especially for restaurants along Victoria St, which makes sense, because it’s my closest Vina-hub (for now – I’m moving to the awesomeness that is Footscray in a few months).

Anyway, one of the places which always makes it onto my list of places you should go for Vietnamese food on Victoria St is Co Do. Or Co Ðo, if I could be bothered inserting the right character every time. Which I can’t, and I’m sure you googlers out there can’t either. Co Do (see? lazy) had been introduced to me by family as the place to go for Hue-style dishes such as banh beo and the eponymous bun bo Hue which I still find something of a contradiction, because the star of the dish, for me, is always the giant pig’s knuckle floating amongst the chilli beef broth.

But I digress. This post is about the pho at Co Do. I wasn’t actually aware that Co Do made pho, to be honest, until a friend told me recently. I suppose it’s not really surprising, as most restaurants along the strip are jack-of-all-trades types, if not pho specialists. I was a little sceptical, because jack-of-all-trades usually equals master-of-none, when it comes to restaurants. I was pleasantly surprised.

The broth was wonderfully fragrant – the hints of star anise and black cardamom were present, but not overpowering. The MSG in the broth wasn’t too noticeable. I’m fairly sure it’s Phil Lees that I have borrowed the phrase from – the use of MSG was judicious. Altogether, a successfully balanced broth. The pho was plentiful, and the accompaniments were pretty standard. The standout in all of this, however, was the tripe.

Now I understand that not all of you are fans of offal. And while I struggle to wrap my head around denying yourself the textural pleasures, I get the cultural squeamishness of eating an animal’s insides. Nonetheless, if you order “the special beef” as a lot of pho joints refer to pho bo dac biet, then you’ll know that the beef flank is usually the same, the rare beef is likewise, the beef sausage has a spectrum flavours, but often veers towards having too much pepper – that might be to do with the whole black peppercorns!? – and the distinguishing factor for beef balls is the springiness of the processed meat. My main issue with the tripe at a lot of places is that you get the thin part of the cow’s stomach, which is texturally interesting, a lot like jellyfish, but inferior to the thicker (though not the honeycomb-patterned) section of the stomach. It’s more than a lot of you will care to know, so suffice it to say Co Do serve just the right portion of the cow’s stomach in their pho bo dac biet.

For a restaurant that isn’t a pho specialist, Co Do does a more than admirable job. I’d heartily recommend the place, especially if Pho Chu The is full – as it often is on weekends.

Co Do on Urbanspoon

Pho dac biet at Little Saigon

258 Victoria St, Richmond
Phone: 9428 8288

Yup, yet another pho review. The soup was very tasty, but this was more a result of too much MSG than anything else. Good noodle to meat ratio, but there was a lack of peppery beef sausage, and the greens/shoots were a little on the stingy side. Not bad, but only go there if Pho Chu The is closed or full.

Little Saigon on Urbanspoon