One of the things I love most about Footscray is that rather than a single main drag like Victoria St, Richmond, its pseudo-circular layout gives it the feeling of a little village, full of nooks and crannies to explore. A shopping trip is not just a plod up and back like a train journey, stopping all stations. I love to wind my way up and down streets, tiptoeing through arcades, popping in and out of markets at different entrances that open in a splash of noise and life to totally different vistas every time.
Tucked up Nicholson Street near the Little Saigon Market is a little treasure, Tra Vinh. It's a hu tieu mi shop which means it specialises in hu tieu (rice noodle) or mi (egg noodle) dishes that come either in soup (nuoc) or 'dry' (kho), with a small bowl of soup on the side. They also have a range of bun dishes which are warm rice vermicelli salads, as well as com or rice dishes such as the much-beloved pork chop and egg on rice.
Hu tieu mi kho Tra Vinh (dac biet - "special"), $9.50
This is a mix of rice and egg noodles, vegies such as bean sprouts and carrot and a lucky dip of goodies including a prawn, a piece of calamari, some liver, shredded pork, quail egg and a piece of fish cake. The accompanying broth was real chicken stock with tasty pork mince on the bottom. The noodles were fantastic - I love the contrast of the two types, the rice translucent and delicate, the egg squigglier and "meatier" with a toothy, bouncy texure. They were salty and slightly sweet, tasting like they had been tossed with a dark soy/caramel sauce perhaps?
I had had this dish before at Phu Vinh and bagged it for the use of sweet chilli, assuming this was a cheat's version of nuoc mam cham or seasoned fish sauce. Reader Hung set me straight (as I so appreciate him and others doing, as everything I know, which is not all that much, is from friends, books and trial & error - I have never been to Vietnam) and said that sweet chilli sauce is really what makes this style of hu tieu mi. Even though I am not a mad fan of sweet chilli, I followed Hung's instructions of adding a little of the broth to moisten the dish and mixing it all through. It was so delicious, although I do think Tra Vinh had a better balance than Phu Vinh as the sweet chilli was not nearly as overpowering.
Bun dac biet, $10
Bun or rice vermicelli salads are a great starting point if you are unfamiliar with this branch of Vietnamese food. Billy's salad above had the aforementioned rice vermicelli, lots of vegies like lettuce, cucumber and carrot, and was topped with the dac biet or "special" mix of spring rolls, grilled pork or thit nuong and bi or shredded pork skin. You get a bowl of seasoned fish sauce to tip over as a dressing. The spring rolls here were excellent - at some places they can be nothing more than a crunch-fest with negligible filling, but here you could really taste the well-made filling of pork, mung bean and black fungus. Yum!! Vegetarians, I'm not sure if they do it here, but at other places try asking for bun cha gio chay (vegie spring roll rice vermicelli salad), although check that the accompanying dressing is vegetarian.
Pennywort drink and orange egg soda, $3 each
I cannot get enough of the jasmine tea that is complimentary at every Vietnamese restaurant in a thermos on the table. It is my number one hangover cure, preferably imbibed with copious amounts of yum cha. Today we tried some Vietnamese cold drinks. You HAVE to try the orange egg soda or sua hot ga. It's a home-made soft drink made with orange juice, condensed milk and egg and tastes like a rich orange and mango milkshake - kids would go mad for it. My pennywort drink was equally delicious, sweet with a very refreshing, almost grassy flavour. Pennywort is apparently much prized in traditional medicine as an anti-anxiety agent, stamina-builder and is even thought to lower blood pressure. In any case, after a crazy week, a great lunch with a lovely friend will do all of that anyway.
70 Nicholson St, Footscray (map)