Phở Tam, Footscray

Cafe sua da

I’ve been a bit down on the phở scene in over the last few months.

One of my regular go-to joints, Phở Tam on the corner of Leeds and Ryan streets has been hugely inconsistent on the soup front. They do a great bún riêu and have the hardish-to-find street food bánh bột lọc on the menu. Their phở bộ đặc biệt is above average: always packed with sizeable chunks of tendon, a thick slice of peppery sausage and toothsome strips of tripe.

The broth however ranges from sweet and watery to dense, beefy and rich depending on which day you hit it. I’m convinced that the broth gets watered down on a busy day, especially weekends; an undeniable conspiracy against the nine-to-five working man. The consolation is the above cà phê sữa đá – condensed milk sweet, rich and as predictable as a metronome.

Location: Corner of Leeds and Ryan Street, Footscray, Melbourne, Australia.

At least she didn’t mention the war.

What is the point of swallowing the last 10 years of Hanoi food writing from U.S. magazines, visiting said city for a holiday-come-assignment, talking to the self same people you’ve read about in those U.S. magazines and spewing 2,129 words of uninspired, unoriginal, factually inaccurate, poop out the orifice of an American printing press at the other end? I dunno, but maybe the editors at The Smithsonian can tell us.

It’s worth taking a look over at Noodlepie as Graham Holliday eviscerates the latest steamy gut-pile of parachute journalism on Hanoian phở. I’m still amazed that there is a market for articles where the journalists interview just the “cultural translators” – those handy English-speaking experts who can be relied on for a pithy quote – rather than the people who cook the dish on a daily basis.

“It’s a minefield even for Asians”

I had dinner on Saturday at Poon’s Chinese Restaurant in Barkly Street, Footscray. It was the worst Cantonese meal that I’ve eaten in Melbourne. The service was gracious and friendly considering that they were packed and it was dirt cheap. The meal was a mistake but not an expensive one and it filled me with regret but not salmonella. The food was uniformly tasteless like some non-toxic, starchy glue.

Poon’s however, is popular enough to be ranked a local institution much of which seems to revolve around the ritual of regular dining in the same place over a period of decades. The result of a family decision where Friday night is fish and chips, Saturday night is Poon’s. Single sex groupings dining together, having the Boy’s Night Out with a table filled with Crownies; women on other tables sharing a bottle of Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay and splitting Poon’s gigantic (and suspiciously Chiko Roll-like) spring rolls. There were no chopsticks on offer, anywhere.

At a guess, it has been doing the same food in the same place for half a century and the punters love it. Here’s a review from Menulog:

i have been a ‘patron’ of ‘Poons’ for at least 40 years, and would not go anywhere else. The food is fresh, nutritional and very easy to eat. The variations on the Menu are wonderful.

The staff and Management have ALWAYS been good to me and i feel part of their family after all these years, at being treated as part of their family.

i only wish they could deliver to Carlton to where i live, but at least i get a chance to mix with some of the ‘cream of the crop people in our Society when i visit them regularly.

Thank you for allowing me to tell you this wonderful news about ‘Poons’. ( i tell everyone i go there and love it and the staff too )

Who in Australia cares about “Asian food” in a world where Poon’s is rating as well as Flower Drum or Lau’s on user-generated review sites?

When it comes to food from Asia, most Australians are happy with average food. “Chinese food” means a regionless choice of meat stir fried in your choice of bland starchy sauce. Most Australians are content with the local Thai joint doing the traffic light curries (red, green, yellow) straight from the bucket of Mae Ploy. Vietnamese means pho alone. Japanese is aseasonal and what rich people eat (except for sushi, which is no longer associated with Japan). The rest of Asia is a vague unknown, summarised in the thinner chapters of cookbooks with the word Oriental in the title. Above all, the food must be “very easy to eat”. No bones, no heads, no need to even chew.

So Necia Wilden’s article in The Australian newspaper regarding her inability to find or discern premium Asian ingredients was no great surprise to me. Boneless and free from the shackles of mastication. I’m only bringing it up because of the interesting discussion it has spawned over at Progressive Dinner Party. Like Zoe, I read it in the physical newspaper. I paid good money for it in the hope that food journalism in The Australian (and coverage of food from Asia) would be better in 2009 under Lethlean and Wilden’s gaze. I haven’t bought an edition of The Australian since. If it’s been a bumper year for food writing in The Australian, apologies for not supporting it.

I’m not going to tackle the racism behind grouping food from Asia together into an undifferentiated and monolithic bloc, skipping between cuisines as if there was no need for specialist knowledge in any of them. Provincial food for The Australian, it seems, only comes from refined palates in Europe.

It’s the Chicken Tonight approach to food that also concerns me: if only I had the right stir-through sauce recommended to me as authentic, the curry would taste the same as at my hotel in Phuket. So how to come by this knowledge? Getting a recommendation from the person that owns the store is just not good enough, as Wilden puts it:

“How do I know this soy sauce is organic?” I ask the young woman in the Japanese grocery store near my home. “Because it says so on the label,” she says, pointing to the Japanese characters on the bottle’s posh paper wrapping. Ah, right.

The key, according to the article, is to get a chef to tell you what is good, preferably one with an Asian last name or a cookbook the size of a family sedan. Actually going out, buying a few things and then tasting them is not mentioned. You only learn to cook through your own experiences and your sense of taste is subtly different to everyone else and above all, should be trusted. If David Thompson recommends Megachef brand fish sauce but you enjoy $3 a bottle Tiparos, go with your own tastes. At most, experimenting with different brands will be less than $5 a hit.

Buying ingredients is no minefield as Tony Tan mentions in the article, at least in comparison to the minefields that I’ve seen built for Cambodians and by Cambodians. Ask the shopkeeper. Try different things. You won’t step on anything that will turn you, your children or your livestock into a fine pink mist. So who is this article meant to service? What is to gain from making cooking certain cuisines at home look more difficult and less satisfying?

Just to put on a particularly Bolshie hat, newspapers have so little to gain from pimping out fresh food – it is the Simon Johnson’s of the world that buy ads in the food sections of newspapers and not your local Vietnamese grocer. There is a need for newspapers to prop up a system that recommends branded goods over raw ingredients. If word got out that fresh ingredients make much more of a difference in cooking than processed ones, all hell would break loose. People would be smashing in the Lean Cuisine fridges in your local duopolist supermarket in a fit of rage.

Just to bring things back to the world of Poon’s rather than some parallel universe where people care about what they eat, The Australian’s food section is aimed squarely at the Poon’s market and not at me. It’s aimed at people who buy the best fish sauce as a display to others that they buy the best fish sauce rather than as a pungent condiment whose value is in its consumption. This is the food journalism for the people who have been eating the same Chinese food for decades and are unwilling or unable to try somewhere new without someone else validating and translating the experience for them.

Hùng Vương, Footscray

You could probably map pho in Footscray as a means to learn Vietnamese legends of prehistory. Hùng Vương was a mythical king; the founder of the first Vietnamese dynasty. He descended from a dragon and taught the Vietnamese people to cultivate rice. Nothing of Hùng Vương’s past can be verified.

The restaurant Hùng Vương’s past is easily verified. It has been serving up phở on Hopkins Street, Footscray, for almost two decades – a period that has seen it gentrify from cheap phở joint to slightly upmarket phở joint. The renovations from a few years ago – dark timber veneer and polished floors – looks like a loving homage to Vietnamese phở franchise juggernaut Phở 24.

Phở from Hung Vuong, Footscray

The pho remains constant: sweet and beefy; soggy flat noodles and a hint of cinnamon. The tendon count is impressive in the phở bo dac biet: two gigantic, glossy chunks of connective tissue. It is also one of the few times that I craved more slices of lung in a dish.

In something of an attempt to be more social, I met up with food blogger Jeroxie, non-food blogger but pho aficionado Cloudcontrol and chilli junky Th0i3 for the trip, a short gustatory interlude before hitting Saigon Supermarket for Vina supplies. I have never seen a man put more chilli (oil, fresh and sauce) into a bowl of pho and retain some vestige of sanity.

Having lived in a nation where I was the only food blogger, it still seems like a novelty that there are hundreds of people doing the same nearby. I probably should get out more.

Location: 128 Hopkins St, Footscray
Phone: (03) 9689 6002

Bánh Xèo from Đình Sơn

Yes, I’m going a bit nuts on the Vina diacritics.

Banh Xeo, Melbourne

The equation that can’t be avoided when you travel for food is the one where you compare Third World prices to First World and try to account for the differences, offseting rent, ingredient quality and labour. It is a fun but fruitless diversion. The above bánh xèo from Quan Đình Sơn, next to Saigon Supermarket in Footscray is $10 for a crepe the size of your forearm. A full cubit of bánh xèo.

$10 would buy 16 plates of bánh xèo from my local market in Cambodia but it wouldn’t buy one this good. Once again, my weekend phở trip gets derailed.

Half eaten Bánh Xèo, Melbourne

Đình Sơn’s is packed with shelled prawns and slices of fatty pork. The crepe skirts the border of crispy and chewy. It’s rich and coconut-y. The side plate of cos and butter lettuce, used for rolling up chunks of the crepe and dipping in the sweet dipping sauce nước chấm, is generous and refilled as I plough through it. There isn’t much else in the way of distraction in the restaurant: the obligatory TV is on the blink; there’s barely enough mirrored tiles to form an entrancing hall of mirrors; their shrine is perfunctory. Shoppers pass on the way into Saigon Supermarket and pick up meals to go from the bain marie.

The menu boasts about a hundred Chinese and Vietnamese dishes but the key here is to order from the corkboard just below the plastic menu board which contains a few kho dishes, dry fried noodles and the bánh xèo, written up in permanent marker.

Dinh Son restaurant at Saigon Supermarket, Footscray

Location: Shop 1, 63 Nicholson Street (cnr Byron St), Footscray VIC 3011

Phở Chu The, Footscray

Pho Chu The, Footscray

I had grand plans to work my way through the phở of the Melbourne suburb of , bucket-sized bowls of beef soup every weekend, but never quite got there. There are no less than 20 phở establishments within easy walking distance but every time that I kick things off, I get the nagging feeling that it is just not worth the effort. Phở in Melbourne is above average. Terrible phở is the exception (but not impossible to find). Brilliant phở only exists in people’s homes.

I’d love to be proven wrong.

You’ll never find a rich, herbal phở on the streets of Melbourne. The herbage that accompanies usually will only stretch to basil with the occasional appearance of mint. Sawtooth coriander, ngo om (rice paddy herb), or any other miscellaneous herb that could differentiate an outstanding bowl of phở, while widely available across Melbourne, never make it into a phở restaurant. The broths are beefy but the spice is toned down. The meat in each bowl is great – a big step above the Saigon street corner – but it can’t carry the dish.

Chu The has two outlets: one in Richmond, the other in the dead centre of Footscray, opposite the market. The Footscray joint is packed, all the time. Their phở bo dac biet (beef special), above, is sweet and umami. A few glassy fingers of tendon are glassy and cooked to rubbery perfection but it is otherwise much of the same.

The damage: small bowl of phở bo dac biet: A$7.50

Location: 92 Hopkins St, Footscray

Mekong on Swanston St: The meaty taste of disappointment

Mekong on Swanston Street, Melbourne

I’m starting to become accustomed to the sense of betrayal that I feel after eating once again at old favourites in Melbourne. Most continue to please (or at least, meet expectations). But Mekong on Swanston Street in , to use more common language, has gone to shit.

Well before I left Australia for Cambodia, Mekong on Swanston St was my reliable lunch joint. I’d worked my way through every offal-packed variation on their basic beef (bo) and chicken (ga). The stock was shining example of pho in Australia: both meaty (which is the key to Australian-style pho) and evenly spiced with star anise and cinnamon. Week to week, there was no variance. At a rough estimate, I would have spent between one and two thousand dollars at Mekong over the years.

It became my yardstick for a damn good bowl of phở; the sort of joint that you would recommend to newcomers to Melbourne to whet their appetite for the more challenging journey into suburban . Their staff had a vindictive shirtiness that was always refreshing. A friend often described one of their staff members as a “malign dwarf” but it came from a warm place in his heart.

But no more.

Phở from Mekong, Swanston St, Melbourne

These days the pho at Mekong is like your average oil rig worker: big, meaty and covered in grease. The subtlety has disappeared; the serving sizes seem more gargantuan. The restaurant is still as packed as ever.

Bill Clinton had two bowls

Also, the mention that “Bill Clinton had two bowls” is a lie. He ate two bowls at Pho 2000 in Saigon, Vietnam and has never set foot in Mekong in Melbourne. Unless he had two bowls sent up to him on one of speaking engagements in Melbourne, Bill Clinton did not eat two bowls of this particular pho.

Location: Mekong Restaurant, 241 Swanston St, Melbourne, Australia

Bánh Mì Xiu Mai

banh mi xiu mai

Bánh mì xiu mai is the ultimate culinary mashup: a strange interpretation of Cantonese food in a French baguette via Saigon. The banh mi is your average baguette filled with a slap of pate, pickled carrot and stalks of coriander. The xiu mai part is utterly bewildering.

banh mi siew mai
Picking the xiu mai from the sauce

The Vietnamese version of the Cantonese siew mai bears only the most basic resemblance to its Chinese compadre. It is both made from ground pork and is the size of a golf ball but lacks the thin wonton skin of the Cantonese dumpling. Instead of being gently steamed, the Vietnamese version is boiled in a tomato sauce.

The further that you delve into the origins and history of the recipe, the stranger it becomes. Andrea Nguyen from Vietworldkitchen hints that it might be a Vietnamese version of an Italian meatball sub and to illustrate the point, uses a modified Cambodian recipe for them. I’ve certainly seen them around Cambodia: there was a vendor in the Russian Market in Phnom Penh who sold them from an aluminum soup bain marie, in the same thin and oily tomato sauce. Graham from Noodlepie spots them about Saigon.

As far as I can find, there is no canonical Vietnamese recipe or even one that closely accords with the others. This recipe in Vietnamese, for example, calls for devilled ham along with ketchup. Another specifies Hunt’s brand tomato sauce and breadcrumbs. This lack of consistency and extensive use of more typically “Western” ingredients suggests that the xiu mai (for banh mi purposes) is a fairly recent addition to the Vietnamese culinary pantheon, even if the Cantonese siew mai have been cooked around Vietnam for millenia. Xiu mai just happened to be the most convenient word already in common usage.

This leaves the more difficult question of whether the banh mi xiu mai originated in Vietnam, and if so, how long has it been there?

banh mi ba le, footscray

If you happen to be in Footscray, Banh Mi Ba Le does an excellent banh mi xiu mai for A$3, with the bread amply soaking up the oily sauce and squishy pork ball. It comes a close second to the nearby banh mi thit nuong.

Address: 2/28A Leeds St, Footscray VIC 3011, Australia