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

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.
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.

Lunch with Nanna, at Truong Tien

246 Springvale Rd, Springvale
Phone: 9548 0707

It’s not often I head as far South East as Springvale. When you live in the West, you don’t often head all the way across town unless you have a good reason. I think visiting my Nanna is a good reason. I’ll be honest, I probably don’t see her as often as I should. Partly it’s because I’m busy with my own life, but it’s also because I’m too lazy to make more time to fit family in to my life. Which is a shameful thing to have to admit.

One of my earliest memories of Melbourne is lunch with my Nanna. I would have been about 8 at the time, and was staying with my cousins while I visited the big smoke on school holidays. They lived in the Commission flats in South Yarra back then, and Nanna lived with them. I can’t remember why, but for some reason my cousins were off with their parents that day, so I was home with Nanna. We took the tram up Church St, and wandered down Victoria St until we got to Minh Xuong. We both had roast duck soup noodles, and Nanna taught me to take out the duck and put it on a side plate so the slightly crispy skin wouldn’t get soggy, and so I could get  to the noodles more easily, but to dunk the duck back in the soup before eating it, so it would warm up a bit after cooling on the side plate. Some memories etch themselves into your brain, and shape who you are. To this day, I prefer Minh Xuong for roast duck to any other place in Richmond. It might not even be objectively better than others, but it will always be my favourite.

Nanna recently moved into a nursing home. It’s been a troubling turn of events for the family, because traditionally, it’s just not the done thing in Chinese families, as the elderly are supposed to see out their days living with family. But with both of her sons living in empty nests, my Nanna became increasingly frustrated and bored, as she doesn’t speak or understand any English, and as a result rarely left the house on her own. So even though it goes against her beliefs and values, she came to grips to her situation and decided it was time for a change; to strike out on her own, in a manner of speaking. At 86 years young, I think this is a pretty awe-inspiring thing.

She’s been in the nursing home for three weeks, and seems to be liking her new home. She’s got more people to chat with, and has made fast friends with a Teochew couple who also live in the home. I don’ think I’ve actually ever seen her as chatty and light-hearted as when I visited her on the weekend. Maybe they’re dosing the residents up good there? So I’m happy that she’s happy, but it’s a bittersweet thing, seeing my Nanna living – albeit quite cheerfully – in a nursing home.

We went to Springvale, and not really knowing the area, I thought Nanna might have some tips. Alas, this wasn’t the case; I had forgotten that she doesn’t get out much. So we stopped in at a restaurant next to the one my cousin likes to go to, according to Nanna. We didn’t actually go into the one my cousin likes, because it looked too busy, and Nanna’s not into that. Which was fine with me, because Nanna’s pretty softly spoken, so a bustling restaurant would make conversation more difficult.

After perusing the menu – which has lots of pictures, thankfully, because Nanna doesn’t read English or Vietnamese – I settled on the bun bo Hue, which is fast becoming one of my benchmarking dishes. Perhaps it’s just because it’s winter, and many Vietnamese dishes seem quite summery to me.imageTo be frank, it was a little disappointing. The broth was flavoursome, but the most striking flavour was that of the MSG. There wasn’t much else going on there, but this was partly made up for by the impressive array of meats in the bowl. Apart from the regular beef brisket, pork and cha lua (processed pork loaf), there were slices of a peppery beef sausage – similar to that found in a good pho bo dac biet – as well as a big chunk of pork knuckle, and a couple of cubes of congealed blood (see below).image

imageNanna was a little intimidated by the range of things on offer – and also hesitant to order anything too large, because apparently they’re given a lot of food to eat at the nursing home – so she went for a familiar classic: won ton noodle soup. Along with the won tons came four thick slices of char siu, which she put in my bowl, along with two of the won tons. I started to object, but she insisted that she wouldn’t be able to eat it all, and that she couldn’t chew the char siu with her falsies. Turned out that she needn’t have worried, because the char siu was pretty tender, and marinated well, with a nice sweetness to it. The won tons were alright, but could have dealt with a little more seasoning in the filling, I thought.imageSo despite the lengthy drive out to Springvale, I think I’m going to visit my Nanna a lot more often in the coming days. Partly because I’ve been meaning to explore Springvale for years now, but mostly because I realised that I don’t really know my Nanna very well, and that’s a sad thing. This picture of her isn’t, though!image

Truong Tien on Urbanspoon


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

Bun bo Hue at Thien An

32 Irving St, Footscray
Phone: 9687 0398

When I was a uni student – which is appallingly a decade ago – one of my close friends was dating a Vietnamese guy who lived in Altona. To be honest, I never really understood what she saw in him, but let’s not to be too uncharitable. He did introduce us to Thien An, or as we knew it back then, ‘Colourful Tables and Chairs’. Back then, it was on the other side of Irving Street, and a much smaller, unassuming place. With mismatched, surprise surprise, colourful tables and chairs. We used to go there for soup noodles, com tam and bo luc lac, and it was the first place I’d been introduced to avocado smoothies. They were good times.

But you can’t stop the winds of change, and it seems success saw Thien An move across the street, into bigger, ‘ritzier’ premises. Complete with a white leather chaise in the front window – from nearby Franco Cozzo? – and a chandelier, if memory serves. Don’t be intimidated by such finery (kitschery!) though, like a lot of the Vietnamese restaurants in Footscray, Thien An has just gone a bit overboard with the Vietnamese idea of modern and stylish when renovating.

I stopped in on a Sunday afternoon, hangover in tow, with a mind to try their pho bo dac biet. Only they don’t have pho on the menu! Denied! So I went for my second favourite hangover soup noodle, bun bo Hue.

The bowl arrived, and even I was a little daunted at its size. Make no mistake, the servings are generous. Though I’ll insert a caveat here: I’ve heard the food is a bit inconsistent. But upon first inspection, there was cause for excitement. Thinly sliced beef flank: check. Congealed blood cube: check. Processed cha lua sausage: check. Most importantly, PORK KNUCKLE: check! The pork knuckle is an oft-omitted, but in my humble opinion essential ingredient in a good bun bo Hue. Which is strange, because it’s a beef noodle soup, not a pork noodle soup. In any case, all the elements were there, and the broth was not bad, either. It lacked the fragrance of the broth at Dong Ba, but there was a hint of the lemongrass which is sometimes missing.

There have been many and varied reports of a slide in quality at Thien An over the past few years. And yet when my parents came over to Footscray for dinner a few weeks ago, Dad said my uncle had recommended Thien An to him only a few months ago. It having been a decade between visits for me, it’s hard to say if that’s true. All I know is I was quite happy with this bun bo Hue, and will be back to try some other things there. I’ll keep you posted!

Thien An on Urbanspoon

Vivid Star

11o Hopkins St, Footscray
Phone: 9689 1888

This one’s for the Nagoya Ramen Ninja. He complained that my posts of late have been too far flung, and I’m not doing my duty as a Footscravian food blogger. So it’s time I did a little more representing for the ‘hood. Hopefully in return, he’ll share his Nagoya Ramen tips with the interwebs again?

Vivid Star is one of the newer Vietnamese restaurants on the Hopkins St strip. It strikes a balance between the modern slicker stylings of Hung Vuong and Sapa Hills – that always tend to make me wary, seeming to pander for the Anglo market – and the beyond-help tacky-yet-charming style of classic Vietnamese eateries, with their pastel walls, ample use of mirrors, plastic condiment baskets and drapery-upholstered chairs.

The irony of the situation is that more often than not, the daggier the restaurant, the better the food. As evidenced recently when I tried two versions of cha ca locally.

In fact, I ended up at Vivid Star because Dong Que was closed on a Monday night, which was a sad discovery, because @tammois and I had a banh xeo craving. @jeroxie and her Mister came along as well, for what was a lively and fun-filled evening eating great food and talking about food. @tammois is writing her PhD about food and culture in Melbourne, you see.

I had also been meant to go to Vivid Star late last year with some neighbours for a x-mas get-together, but didn’t quite make it in the end. Having heard great things from Lauren, I was glad to finally have a chance to try it out. Even if it meant navigating their diagrammatic menu!

We started off with some fried silken tofu, and soft shelled crab.

The tofu was delicate and soft, with the crispy exterior providing just enough of a shell to enable us to pick it up, and the pork floss on top was, as @tammois declared, “genius!” The soft-shelled crab was also good – still juicy inside, though the coating was a touch on the salty side. Still, it’s soft-shelled crab, so I’m generally pretty forgiving.

We also ordered some rice paper rolls with pork and prawn.

These were fresh and springy, though there was too much rice vermicelli and not enough lettuce in them for my liking.Also, I like it when restaurants put in some perilla, basil, mint and/or chives in their rice paper rolls. Were it not for the peanut/hoi sin dipping sauce, these rolls would have been quite bland.

I had been tasked with ordering for the table, which tends to happen when friends come to Vietnamese restaurants with me. I find this a little strange, as I don’t think having knowledge about a particular type of cuisine necessarily equates to knowing what to order at a particular restaurant, and often this happens at places I haven’t eaten at before.

In this situation, I always try to order a combination of dishes to create a balance of flavours and ingredients. I think it’s a pretty common Asian thing – Thai and Vietnamese people often talk about balancing flavours of salty, sweet, spicy and sour in dishes, whereas I think it happens on more of a combination of dishes level in Chinese custom, rather than an individual dish level.

Anyway, I always try to get a range of different proteins, a good amount of vegetables, usually something sweet or sour, and at least one dish with a decent chilli kick. However, often this becomes difficult if there’s not so many people in the group. This night was one example of me composing a well-rounded selection of dishes, which lead to there being too much food. I’m a little ashamed to say that this happens a lot.

The first dish to arrive was the pork spare ribs with fish sauce. This dish was nothing like what I expected.

I had expected that it would be something like a thit kho, pork braised (often in a claypot) in fish sauce. I was expecting little chunks of spare ribs, sort of like what you might get at yum cha. What came out instead was a dish of fried de-boned spare ribs, glazed with a fish sauce reduction. It was certainly unexpected, but oi troi oi (that’s southern Vietnamese for OMG) was it good! The pork was juicy and tender, the batter crispy and barely there, and the fish sauce was rich and just a touch smoky.

Next up was the fried flounder, with salt and pepper. A standard on the Chinese-Vietnamese menu, this
is always one of my favourites to share. Simple flavours of salf, pepper, five spice, chilli and garlic, that work well with just about any seafood. The fish was a bit on the over-cooked side, sadly, but it was still pretty enjoyable.

Being in a Vietnamese restaurant, there was hardly any choice involved in ordering the rau muong (water spinach, or kang kung) which I will always consider Viet Nam’s national vegetable. In Viet Nam, it’s the equivalent to choy sum – ubiquitous, cheap, and versatile. It also happens to be one of my favourite vegetables.

Here, we just had it stir-fried with garlic. This was the ‘bland’ dish of the bunch. I don’t say that in a bad way. The thing is, when you’re ordering a selection of dishes, you should order at least one dish which is bland, or more subtle, I think. It’s kind of like giving you taste buds a break to catch their breath when trying to run a marathon. Sometimes you can ignore this principle, but I’ll guarantee you that you’ll eat a lot more rice. And then there are other times, when you opt for something other than steamed rice.

I went for the chicken and salted fish fried rice, because I’ve had a slight fascination with it lately. Vivid Star’s version is pretty great, too!

I really should have stopped there, but of course, it didn’t seem balanced, so I though I’d order a beef dish. I went for the bo luc lac, because to my surprise, @tammois hadn’t tried it before.
The bo luc lac at Vivid Star is pretty good – not as amazingly steak-y as one I’d had years ago at Thien An, or as my father makes, but pretty good nonetheless.

I think Vivid Star is likely to be one of my regular fall-back local options. The quality of the food and the service is great, but there didn’t seem to be anything amazingly special on the menu that sets them apart from other places along Hopkins St. Oh, except that you can bring your own seafood (perhaps from the live fishmonger store around the corner in Leeds St?) and they will cook if for you in any style you want, for a nominal fee of $15.

Vivid Star on Urbanspoon

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