There's a little eating place called "Chu Nam Quan", said Marine, eat there if you get a chance, it is delicious! Especially the Beef casserole rice noodle soup- to die for! Thus we found ourselves at Chu Nam Quan, a wide rather than long Vietnamese cafe with salmon-coloured walls and lucky red and gold Chinese New Year decorations.
As well as a full menu, specials line the walls including some I recognise like de (goat) and bo la lop (beef in betel leaves). Can anyone help me translate ga farm chat lot cai xanh, lau duoi bo thiem thuoc bac or ngu linh don tom? (I'm sorry they are missing the accents; I don't know how to make the computer do them) When I tried to put ngu linh don tom into my Vietnamese-English auto-translator, it came back with "foolishly miraculously the shell-fish collect", so I am thoroughly mystified!
Bun bo xao, $8
Bun bo xao xa ot or beef with lemongrass and chilli was one of the first Vietnamese dishes I fell in love with. Bun rice vermicelli salads will have warm noodles, salad vegetables either fresh or lightly pickled as well as your choice of protein, be it sugarcane prawns (a type of prawn loaf grilled on sugarcane), grilled pork or even a special order of vegetarian spring rolls. A bowl of seasoned fish sauce will be provided as a light, almost oil-free dressing. Chu Nam Quan's beef and lemongrass was good, tender and juicy with a real lemongrass marinade. I do like more wok hei or crispy, charred, quickly-wokked flavour. The presentation was quite rustic with rough-hewn herbs and lots of crushed peanut but I would have liked more pickled vegetables though.
Hu tieu bo kho, $8
Until recently the only bo kho I had had was Billy's dad's amazing family recipe which is thick and rich, very much like the stew or casserole that its English translation would make you expect. Another bo kho I had recently though was quite thin, like a soup. This is not a bad thing, I would imagine, as restaurants usually give you a choice of a bread roll or noodles. It was Marine's recommendation to have this feisty bowl of beef with hu tieu or rice noodles and it was a good call as it was the thinner style of bo kho. Such full beefy flavour in a very rich broth redolent with tomato and cinnamon. The beefy chunks were fork-tender, really fabulous although some were quite fatty. The richness was complemented by the peppery, aniseed flavour of the Thai basil and the tangy raw onion. Some tripe provided an unexpected bonus and was enjoyed greatly by my 19-month-old. I must say this bo kho was very rich and indeed too rich for me but that is personal preference. Good call Marine!
Bun cha ca, $8
Fish and dill is a traditional Vietnamese combo and when I first came across it, I was thoroughly surprised as it was a flavour combination I had associated with Northern Europe. Deb recently cooked a very impressive cha ca or fish with turmeric and dill. This dish was bun cha ca, a rice vermicelli noodle soup with (homemade?) fish cakes and dill. It was fabulous and was a big hit with the kids. Perfect noodles, really tasty broth with heaps of refreshing dill and thin, chewy, tasty fish cakes. LeLe has a gorgeous family recipe here (be mindful of the great selection of Vietnamese pop tracks that play, if reading this at work!!)
Cafe su da, $3
The number one reason, though, to visit Chu Nam Quan is this amazing cafe su da or Vietnamese iced coffee. I literally swooned upon sipping it. Perfectly brewed, almost chocolaty coffee, marrying with the rich condensed milk perfectly. The shaved ice rather than cubed meant that it melted just that bit faster, creating a long, cold, delectable drink. I would go back to St Albans just for this coffee - it was that good. Sitting out at Chu Nam Quan's al fresco dining area with a long, tall glass - delightful!
Next time I want to try the classic pork chop on broken rice which I saw some other customers enjoying and which came with that simple yet seemingly unattainable pleasure in most Vietnamese restaurants - a freshly fried egg with a wibbly wobbly yolk. And as for my justification for coming to St Albans that evening, any guilt was assuaged by the pure pleasure of strolling up and down Alfrieda Street's pleasant, tree-lined expanse, full bellies and sweet coffee on the lips, as the cool change rolled through Melbourne and a collective sigh went up across the city. Surely that must be the greatest pleasure of a Melbourne summer.
Chu Nam Quan
65 Alfrieda St, St Albans (map)
Phone: 9364 5880
Hours: 7 days from 9am