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.

Huu Thanh

Food Court, Footscray Market, Irving St, Footscray

A little while ago, Kenny alerted me to the fact that taking photos in Footscray Market is not allowed, which of course makes me want to do it all the more. So after my naive documentation of T&T Takeaway, I’m wilfully flouting the rules and working my way around the food court. Next stop, Huu Thanh.

What I like about both T&T and Huu Thanh is that they’re completely unpretentious. But that might have something to do with the fact  they face onto a food court, and the strains of market vendors spruiking their wares (what IS that “baile-baile-baile” phrase they yell!? is it “buy lah, buy lah, buy lah”?). I love the way that you can sit in the front of the stall, and watch the people go about their shopping. It reminds me a little of the food stands at Tan Dinh market where I used to have lunch in Sai Gon.

Anyway, my cousin had told me that my uncle’s favourite pho joint was in the food court at Footscray Market. I think it’s T&T Takeaway. After all, that was the place that his wife suggested to my mother that we eat at, and well, Huu Thanh doesn’t have pho on the menu. Anyway, T&T Takeaway was full that morning, and I was in need of some soup noodle healing, after a(nother) big night out on the booze. So I went next door to Huu Thanh, and ordered the next best thing for a hangover, the bun bo Hue.

It was a little disappointing. There was a complete lack of pork knuckle, and the beef was a bit on the bland side. The whole bowl seemed to be dominated by a massive slice of cha lua, which is probably my least favourite thing in the dish. The broth, while flavoursome in a non-specific way – there’s definitely more to it than MSG, but what that is, is hard to say – lacked the lemongrass hit for which I love the Dong Ba version.

I will say this: it’s a steal of a lunch meal at $7.50. That’s one thing you’ll find about both Huu Thanh and T&T. The prices are just marginally cheaper than already cheap Vietnamese restaurants in the area.

Huu Thanh has quite an extensive menu (well, about 12 items) of Vietnamese soup noodles. I’ll be back, but next time I’m going to try something else. Hopefully their other noodle soups are better. I’m thinking mi Quang might be the new bun bo Hue this year…

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

Hao Phong

136 Hopkins St, Footscray
Phone: 9689 8373

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hao Phong on Urbanspoon

T&T Takeaway

Food Court, Footscray Market, Irving St, Footscray

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dong Ba

133 Hopkins St, Footscray
Phone: 9689 0608

After weeks of living in limbo, house sitting for my sister while she was on her honeymoon, I’m finally ensconced in my new apartment in Footscray! So let the exploration of my new ‘hood begin in earnest!

The intrepid Ms D and I wandered the main drag of Hopkins St last Sunday, looking for some lunch. She was in the mood for bun bo Hue, so I suggested we try Dong Ba, because its signage mentions bun bo Hue, so it must specialise in it, right?

Dong Ba is a classic Vietnamese kitsch restaurant, with daggy furniture, colourful walls, and menus on the wall. There’s also a printed menu, with many more options, but Ms D and I went for two of their specialities. She had the bun bo Hue.

A ‘medium’, this was a hefty bowl of noodles. Filled with all the meat and offal goodness that befits a bun bo Hue, Ms D was very satisfied. She kindly let me sample some of the broth before tucking in, and I must say, it was just beautiful. Most people think bun bo Hue is a chilli beef noodle soup, which is probably due to the amount of orange chilli oil floating on the top. However, it’s actually supposed to be a lemongrass beef noodle soup , and Dong Ba’s version certainly hit the mark there. I’m definitely getting a bowl for myself next time I’m there!

This time, I opted for the bun mang vit (rice vermicelli with duck and bamboo shoot), one of my favourites from a stall near my work when I was living in Saigon.

For me, the make-or-break factor in a bun mang vit is the bamboo shoot. They should have been braised in in some sort of master stock, so they will both have a savoury taste to them, as well that their characteristic pungent bamboo shoot-iness. Dong Ba’s were pretty good, on this count. The broth, too, was clear and tasty, though there was some definite MSG action, it wasn’t heavy handed. The duck itself was a tad disappointing, being slightly overcooked and dry. But all in all, a great rendition.

Some of my friends are quite East or South-centric, and still perceive Footscray to be a hotbed of crime and not very safe. I don’t know about all of that just yet, but I do know that I’m so happy to be surrounded by quality soup noodles in my new neighbourhood!

Dong Ba on Urbanspoon