Sapa Hills is barely 18 months old but it has become the people's favourite. While other restaurants, both old and new, lie fallow, Sapa Hills is buzzing. People wander down Hopkins Street, bottle of wine under one arm, staring benignly into the restaurants, murmuring "well, where do you think?" until suddenly they spy the polished concrete floor and are sucked into a vortex through the door. It's like the Stuff Middle-Class People Like textbook Vietnamese restaurant.
I know others are rankled by this, that less "trendy" restaurants don't get a look-in, and I agree that there is so much great food to be found elsewhere if you look past the decor. However, to me Sapa Hills have a winning formula - pleasant decor which appeals to Western tastes, spiffy, switched-on waiters, good food, a liquor license, EFTPOS and above all no bloody telly blaring A Current Affair, which is pretty much a buzz kill for date night.
Cha Gio Tom (prawn spring rolls), $7
Gorgeous prawn spring rolls, effortlessly crisp and filled with real prawn flavour - no mush here. More mint though please!
Bo La Lot (beef in vine leaves), $7
This is a specialty of Sapa Hills and they are really delicious. The beef mince used is pretty fatty but it is only a small portion. Wrap each dolmades-like log in lettuce and herbs, toss on some pickled cabbage and carrot, roll up and dip in seasoned sauce. Yummo!
Cua lot (salt and pepper soft shell crab), $12
The best - juvenile crabs with edible skins deep-fried in light batter. These were really meaty, the soft, faintly fishy flesh contrasting with the crunchy legs. Textural variation also comes from the bed of crispy noodles underneath scattered with red onion, red capsicum and chilli. Oh boy, so good. The kids ate the legs and thought they were fantastic.
Canh chua ca chem (Vietnamese sour soup with barramundi), $25
I have been wanting to visit Sapa Hills with a group to try their mon an gia dinh or family dishes. Deb had tried this soup a while ago and highly recommended it. The bowl was absolutely gargantuan and filled with half a whole barra, bean shoots, tomato, okra, pineapple and interesting melon-like traditional vegetables. The broth is divine - very much like Thai tom yum but far more sweet than hot, with more a tang than a sourness.
The three adults had three bowls each and the bowl still looked untouched! I really enjoyed it. A bowl or two was enough for me but I think this is the idea, that everyone in the family has a bowl or two plus other drier dishes.
Suon kho tho (pork ribs in soy sauce and pepper claypot), $17
Another family-style dish, a sizzling cast-iron pot filled with sticky, delectable chopped pork ribs. These were liberally covered in spring and very thinly-sliced raw onion and the onions' freshness and bite cut through the unctuous pork and rich sauce. With white rice - really yummy. Not good for kids though due to small bones and chewiness (I don't mean toughness).
Dau hu xao gia he (stir-fried tofu and bean shoots), $11
We recently had a family dinner at another Stuff Middle-Class People Like Asian restaurant, Blue Chillies in Fitzroy. The service and the food were divine but my sister and I ignored the duck and roti with peanut sauce to fight over the kangkong belacan or water spinach with shrimp paste. We wanted to try the water spinach with preserved tofu here but they were out. Never mind; this fried tofu and lightly-cooked bean shoot dish in a very light gravy was delicious.
For dessert, forgo the fried banana and try a smoothie. We had jackfruit and custard apple and they were fab. The jackfruit was vaguely reminiscent of mango while the custard apple tasted like banana and lemon. We also had Saigon 333 beers which were very good and only $5.
So I reckon good on Sapa Hills. The owner works on the floor and is really friendly and passionate. The waiter we had was gorgeous and instead of tittering at my hopeless efforts to say the menu items in Vietnamese, he slowly said each thing and encouraged me to pronounce them correctly. They are really the odd-one-out restaurant in Footscray - you can imagine them worrying if they should be opening in Yarraville or Flemington instead - but their gamble has paid off in spades.
So is Sapa Hills setting a trend for Footscray? Walking back to the car, we noticed the new "Westville Central" complex, on Nicholson Street facing Little Saigon Market, is almost completed. Peering in, among the vacant shops is a hairdresser (in Footscray? NO WAY! What next, a chemist?) and also the flagship restaurant, the enormous "Footscray Asian Buffet Restaurant - All You Can Eat".
RUN FOR THE HILLS!
112 Hopkins Street, Footscray (map)
Phone: 9687 5729
Hours: 10am-10pm, 7 days
No wheelchair access