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.

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

The Wok Hei Economy

One of the great mysteries of eating in Penang is the economics of the hawker center. A group of vendors cluster around a kedai kopi, a cafe serving drinks and work almost independently of the cafe. Some pay rent, others are owned by the cafe, some seem to have agglomerated at a single point in an organic manner like a coral reef of wok burners accumulating on a restaurant atoll. The cafe often provides electricity and an awning to make monsoonal downpours tolerable for the vendors. Each cluster of vendors seems to be in competition, but there is value in assuring that the competing stalls all perform good business, thus attracting overflowing customers to your stall. The proper etiquette seems to be to order at the vendor at the front, then at least buy a single drink from the roaming waiter so that the kedai kopi owner gets their piece of the action.

Lorong Selamat Hawker Centre

Two hawker centres loom large. The Lorong Selamat center (above), with its reputation for serving the best char kway teow in Penang (and by inference, the world) and the ramshackle collection of hawkers on Swatow Lane (for ABC Special and Ice Kacang), just off Jalan Burma.

Char Kway Teow

I’m apprehensive about the approach to anything as hyped and as personal as this (above). I tend to place more value on the nubs of deep-fried pork fat, prawns and cockles that go into the dish (and the smoky wok hei flavour), than I value the core element: noodles. The noodles here are creamy and soak up charcoal smoke aplenty, a real lardy highlight. The only valid criticism is price. At RM7.50, the dish is roughly double the price of the average plate of char kway teow on Penang, a point that locals tend to debate and then eat on Lorong Selamat anyhow. It is too good not to eat there and the price serves as a talking point rather than deterrent.

Lor Bak

We finished with a plate of , marinated lean pork wrapped in bean curd skin then deep-fried, served with a starchy bowl of broth thickened with egg and another bowl of chilli sauce. In this case, it was plated on top of an array of other deep fried delights and a local sausage.

Location: 84 Lorong Selamat, ,

Pig’s brain tom yam and the morbidly obese dog.

Austin told me that there would be pig’s brain tom yam. An offal and coconut soup aberration buried in Bangkok’s inner suburbs within walking distance of some of the other rarer gems in Thailand’s food scene. A mere taxi ride from the Gut Feelings safehouse where I was holed up beside the pool. We’d conversed earlier, online, transcript as follows:

Austin: Fancy tom yam samong muu
pig brain tom yam?
me: It all looks great
That whole prion thing puts me off pig brain a little
Austin: prion?
me: They’re what causes mad cow disease. They collect in the brains/spinal cords of animals – although I have a feeling that pigs aren’t a problem. At least ones that haven’t been fed a steady diet of pork
Austin: i’m pretty sure the pigs here eat lotsa pork–the left over school lunch (which was mostly pork) is used as pig feed!
me: That’s bad news.
Austin: Yep

He’d somehow got the idea that I’m a massive offal fan. I do believe that if you’re going to eat meat then you may as well do your butcher a favor and eat the whole animal (just like most of the world’s population) but I’m not always seeking out the best pipe and lung dishes. His confusion of my love for innards was the result of me shooting some of the worst shots of Cambodian offal that I could find while he did his professional photographer “work” in Phnom Penh last year. After a while, I can’t take my own food photography with any seriousness.

After rallying Hock from Gut Feelings to form a mini Southeast Asian food blogging conference, we headed towards Chote Chitr.

Chom Chitr

Chote Chitr had gained a reputation as the restaurant that Bangkok food aficionados go when they want to show off the subtler side of Thai food to visiting journalists. The New York Times has previously given the hole-in-wall joint the thumbs up. The mee krob is a standout dish. Crispy and balancing sweet and sour on a knife’s edge without the tinned pineapple acidity and cheap starchy sauce that I associate with Chinese sweet and sour. According to Austin, the sour citrus note comes from the peel of the local som saa fruit. Hock mentioned that this was how he imagined Kylie Kwong would do sweet and sour pork. Older Bangkok cuisine seems to be more focussed on sweetness and balance rather than just the razor-sharp edge of chilli that cuts through more modern Bangkok fare.

Our stop for pig’s brain tom yam, the ostensible reason for swapping the sin of poolside sloth for freestyle gluttony, was fruitless. The store was fresh out of brains.

curry
We regrouped and hit up Udom Pochana, a restaurant doing what Austin imagined was a Chinese chef’s version of an Indian curry, but somehow turned out much more like the Golden Curry-brand that Japanese people seem to love. It is something of a Thai rarity and appealing as a cultural artefact from a nation that otherwise cooks a mean curry but this dish ends up sweet and altogether a bit dull.

thaitaco

Next, Khanom Beuang Phraeng Nara on Thanon Phraeng Nara for khanom bueang . These sweet crispy taco-like shells are ubiquitous throughout Bangkok, normally filled with a saccharine meringue cream. These were a world apart, redolent with smoke from the charcoal brazier and filled with sweet duck egg paste, coconut meat and dried fruit. This, like Chote Chitr, are worth crossing oceans for. We discussed the possibility of renting a house in this neighbourhood, wondering if each Chinese shophouse had a spare room.

phadseeew

Pad see ew: the boat noodle. Along with char kway teow, this is my favourite fried noodle dish. The dish promotes the wok hei smoke flavour like few others. I took no notes on it and still have no idea what street it was on. With the tom yam with brains tip off, Austin had in his possession a map indicating that good streetside goat stew could be found at Ko Lun restaurant, near a morbidly obese dog on Thanon Mahanop.

The dog was easy to find; a possible result of its inability to move. Ko Lun’s goat stew in “red sauce” was only average, despite being paired with some piquant shreds of galangal on the side. My thought was that they were fattening up that dog with grim intent.

We ended the impromptu food crawl at a cafe where Austin ordered two of the most lurid Thai foods I’d seen: a glass of milk with red food coloring and toast with viscous tangerine goop. This is what he eats when he’s not trying to show off to the rest of the world that he is a mature adult, somehow a fitting seventh and final course

Locations:

Chote Chitr
146 Thanon Phraeng Phuthon
02 221 4082
10am-10pm

Khanom Beuang Phraeng Nara
Thanon Phraeng Nara

Ko Lun
Thanon Mahanop

The Other History of Khao Soi

Khao soi from lam duan
Khao soi from Khao Soi Lamduan, Chiang Mai

The best food on earth is the result of cultures butting heads with each other. Khao soi is one of them: a synthesis of Yunnanese-Muslim (Hui or in Thai, Cin Haw) and Shan cuisines that came together in Northern generally thought to be the result of Chiang Mai’s place on the trade route through the Golden Triangle. Hui caravans traded throughout Southeast Asia with the Yunnanese economy more dependent on the southern caravan trade than trade with the rest of China. The Hui population further expanded after the failed Panthay Rebellion caused refugees to flee Yunnan and into Chiang Mai.

Calling it curry noodles is oversimplification. The oily and slightly coconut-creamy curry is cut through with sides of tart pickled cabbage and lime juice, served over flat egg noodles. It is then finished with a hefty handful of deep-fried noodles topping the dish. The spice is dominant but not too much chili heat. While beef and chicken are the most common meats on offer, pork (both meat and ribs) can be found; all falling off the bone or in moist and stringy chunks. You’ll want to eat every bowl that you see, regardless of the animal on offer. There are small variations between vendors – tarter pickles, some finish the dish with a spoon of fresh coconut cream, subtle variations in the spice blend, less or more coconut milk – and there is a need to test the limits both of the dish and your ability to fit as much of it into you as you can while in Northern Thailand.

khao soi
Streetside khao soi

There is a slight similarity between khao soi and the Malaysian laksa – which begs question, is it possible that the dish is more recent and has different origins to the accepted history? The dish definitely has Muslim roots (and most likely, Burmese, given the physical and linguistic similarity to the Shan dish “hkauk hswe”) and the khao soi restaurants are predominantly Muslim-owned, but could they have come from elsewhere? CPA Media answers:

Towards the end of the 19th century, following the Pahang Rising of 1891-95, a group of Malay Muslims was deported to Chiang Mai by the Siamese government. These Malay Muslims eventually assimilated with the Bengali Muslims of the Chang Peuak area, but not before they had introduced peninsular cuisine in the form of satay and peanut sauce, salad khaek, murtabak, etc., to this far northern city

Following their various arrivals in Chiang Mai during the 19th century, the Bengali, Yunnanese and Malay Muslims intermarried to a certain degree. In addition, all groups took local Thai wives and raised their children as Muslims in a convenient and fair exchange – Muslim religion for Northern Thai cultural characteristics.

Maybe the khao soi story is even more labyrinthine (and possibly, shorter) than previously imagined. Does anyone have another reference for pre-1895 khao soi?

Location: In Chiang Mai, the best: Khao Soi Lamduan, Faham Rd, about 200 metres north of Rama IX Bridge opposite a resort named The Resort. Also worth a mention is Khao Soi Islam, soi 1 between Chang Klan and Charoenprathet Roads, near Ban Hor Mosque. In Maehongson, the no-name khao soi joint at the entrance to the market on Singhanatbamrung St.

See Also: In Thailand, Austin Bush has far too many pages of khao soi related material for someone who lives in Bangkok. In New York, Nat is undertaking the task of eating American khao soi. Good luck, Sisyphus. EatingAsia got me thinking about the laksa link.

Miming for Bun

When you wander into a restaurant and can’t speak the local language then there is a short moment when you steel yourself for the interaction with the waiter, who in most cases, will look as confused as you. Bun Bo Nam Bo in Hanoi circumvents this great moment to test out your miming skills by serving a single, eponymous dish in its long, packed hallway of tables. Sit down and your beef noodle combination arrives before you can imagine what Marcel Marceau would do, if only he could escape from that glass box in time for lunch.

bun bo nam bo

The servery out the front pumps out endless bowls of the beef-packed noodles, topped with crushed peanuts, slices of fresh carrot, paper thin wafers of papaya and a fistful of fresh bean shoots. A layer of greenery lies beneath the white bun. Despite the freshness of the vegie components, the beef shines through and dominates the dish. I don’t think that I’d be surprising anyone by saying that Hanoians love their meat front and centre of most dishes.

The eating hall has all the ambience of dark subway tunnel with patrons eating quickly enough to suggest that they know when the oncoming train will arrive. A mezzanine level seems tacked on above the fray, with a ceiling not more than four feet high. Underfoot lies a layer of banana leaves, discarded in the frenzied destruction of nem chua, small packages of cured pork.

Location: Bun Bo Nam Bo, 67 Hang Dieu St, Hanoi

See also: Stickyrice’s coverage

Cha Cha Cha

buncha1
Putting the char into bun cha

is a blunt instrument. For all the subtlety engendered by Vietnamese cuisine, bun cha acts as a counterpoint: blackened rissoles of pork teamed with charred slices of pork belly in a thin fish sauce, vinegar and sugar stock with sides of bun noodles and assorted greens. Depending on season, either slices of green papaya or chayote (choko) are set afloat upon the stock.

bun cha meat fest

The emphasis however is on the barbecued meat. After mixing components, loose charcoal from the pork is suffused through and suspended in the stock, leaving a thin black ring of charred detritus around the bowl and clinging to every slurp of noodles. The dish is omnipresent at lunchtime in the north of Vietnam, tough to find in the south, practically impossible to stumble upon overseas without guidance or a moment of serendipity. The above bowl was from Bun Cha Dac Kim on Hang Manh Street, Hanoi, not quite “utter bollocks” as one of my favourite food writers denounced them but certainly not the best bowl. The bun cha at 20 Ta Hien St is a much better bet – their fish sauce is punchy and lively, and leaves Dac Kim in its fragrant wake.

I’m beginning to suspect that the quality of food in Vietnam is inversely proportional to the height of the plastic chairs at the restaurant or stall. If a restaurant has stools short enough for your elbows to knock into your knees each time you slurp at your bun then it’s a good find; if plastic chairs are absent then all the better. I’m not sure how folding metal tables work into this equation but they’re somehow vital to it functioning at all.

bun cha greens and condiment
The sides

What Dac Kim lacks in vim, it compensates with bulk. The greens are plated a foot high, the damp bun noodles weighing in at about two pounds, and a spare bowl of stock and papaya is at hand just in case your bowl runs dry. I noticed a trend down south in Veitnam for pho joints to list that “Bill Clinton ate 2 bowls” on the door, regardless of whether he ate there at all. I’m hoping that Dac Kim will follow the trend and list “Bill Clinton ate 2 bowls, then lapsed into a food-related coma”.

bun cha joint
the servery

Location: Bun Cha Dac Kim, 1 Hang Manh St., Hanoi. A better bowl can be found at Bun Cha, 20 Ta Hien St. .

Price: 35000 VND with a plate of spring rolls for good measure.