Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Thien An

Once upon a time, there was an unassuming little restaurant called Thien An.  It huddled by Footscray station and didn't make a fuss.  Then it moved across to road to more expansive, modern premises, trading mirrored walls for chaise longues in the front windows.  Sunday papers gave it the thumbs up and its windows filled up with Anglo diners and many wannabe foodies, me included, turned their noses up.  "That place must be too Anglified," we said, and lumbered off in search of dingier (and therefore more authentic) premises.

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I did have one meal there that I thought was OK but on the whole, in the past I admit to having been a reverse snob about Thien An and actively bypassing it to look for less well-known restaurants.  The thing is, diners can have a real herd mentality - everyone wants to know where "the good one" is, while there are actually usually multiple "good ones".  I guess I didn't want to just default to Thien An simply because the decor is more appealing to Western/middle class tastes.

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Billy and I were chatting and he said that the place his Vietnamese-Chinese relatives always recommended in Footscray was Thien An.  Time to shrug off the tall poppy prejudices and give it another try, then!  Three years after opening, rather than trendy, the decor is actually pretty out there.  It's chintzy in an endearing way, with a marble-esque floor, an enormous 3D galloping horse artwork, a huge backlit chunk of amythest and giant country-chic floral installation suspended on the wall.  A crazy chandelier, a neon-lit espresso machine, gilt-edged mirrors - it's a real bowerbird's nest of decor!

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These pork spring rolls were pretty awesome, fat enough to have real meaty flavour.  Ignore the busted-up one at the front of the picture.  My daughter was mid-crunch but when she saw me pick up the camera, she put it back without being asked.  Pity the children of food bloggers!

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Big points for freshly-wrapped rice paper rolls.  The wrappers come dried, like giant communion wafers and are rehydrated before wrapping.  If they are stored for too long, the wrappers dry out again and become like leather.  I prefer vegetarian rice paper rolls - I like bi (shredded pork skin) but I am not an enormous fan.  These were well-made, though.  Unreal vegetarian rice paper rolls for takeaway at Tan Truc Giang in Leeds Street.

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The best part of Vietnamese food - all that wonderful crunch and flavour!  Lettuces and herbs for wrapping our banh xeo or Vietnamese pancake.  The bowls of clear sauce with shredded carrot and chilli are for dipping both the banh xeo and the spring rolls, while the rice paper rolls have a hoi sin or peanut based sauce.  The small bowl of red sauce is lovely thick chilli sauce.

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I really loved this banh xeo!  The crepe is made from a thin yet rich batter of rice flour, coconut and turmeric, and it is then loaded with cooked bean sprouts, cooked yellow mung beans, prawns and pork.  The pork here was thin slices, some of which had become crispy and almost bacon-like.  You take sections, wrap in lettuce and dip.  I thought this was one of the better banh xeos I have eaten as it was super crispy (many can veer towards gluggy) but Billy said it wasn't crunchy enough.  I am excited there are crunchier specimens out there!  Vegetarians, Thien An do a vegetarian version of this that comes highly recommended, as well as a tofu bun rice vermicelli salad.

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This is not a common Vietnamese menu item so I was keen to try it.  It's normally a breakfast food, made up of long rolls of noodle sheets (somewhat like yum cha item cheong fun) with Vietnamese smallgoods.  Here there is cha lua, a very mild, springy pork sausage, and nem chua which is raw pork that has been cured with special pickling salts and spices.  There's a snack version that all the Asian grocers sell - you can often see it next to the cash register, wrapped in bamboo with a raw garlic clove and chilli on it.  I loved the noodles with crunchy fried shallots and cucumber, doused in seasoned fish sauce, but I am ambivalent about the mixed hams, not so much from Thien An but generally. My favourite banh mi is not the classic mixed ham but the hot offerings like BBQ chicken or pork.  I am keen to try this home-style dish again, though.

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The translation of this dish's name is "shaking beef" because it should really just be chunks of steak, quickly wokked and served with a small dish of lemon, salt and pepper as the only seasoning.  Some places do a thick pepper sauce but this was traditional and quite perfect.  The beef was just cooked, tasty and of good quality.  The accompanying rice is traditionally flavoured with tomato.  A simple dish done very well.

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A home-style classic, fried rice with salted fish.  The salted fish is dried, salted fish that is chopped and used in tiny quantities to give savoury umami zing to this simple dish.  It comes with small pieces of chicken, egg and here, cooked lettuce which is surprisingly delicious.

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Great BBQ chicken, a richly-seasoned thigh with plenty of crusty grilled flavour.  Thien An differs to most local Vietnamese restaurants in its large, round, cafe-style crockery.  The other thing that stood out was every dish, while balanced in flavour, had a real element of sweetness.  This is a characteristic of southern Vietnamese cuisine.

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Excellent custard apple smoothie!  This really tasted like a light, delicate sorbet.  It may be because custard apples have recently come into season, but it had a genuine custard apple flavour.  We also tried an avocado smoothie which is totally OTT - avocado and condensed milk, oh my!

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Great Vietnamese coffee too.  The strong coffee is dripped through a customised filter onto a layer of condensed milk.  You then whip this together with your spoon and pour over ice.  It is such a heartstarter - I love it.  Perfect for gearing up for an evening's work!

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I am sorry I overlooked Thien An for a long time on the basis of one ordinary meal, and because they were "trendy".  Their food is really good and they can hold their own with the Hopkins Street heroes.

Thien An on Urbanspoon

Thien An
32 Irving Street, Footscray (map)
Phone:  9687 0398
Hours:  7 days, 11am-9pm 


  1. Wow the crepe looks amazing - what a combination, coconut and tumeric... I'm intrigued!

  2. LOL!!! ---> and lumbered off in search of dingier (and therefore more authentic) premises.

    Totally feel the same way about that. Haha! Once my favourite Singapore stall upgrades into a shiny looking almost-touristy place, I'd internally feel it's gone to shit. lolol!

  3. I remember Thien An around 2000, when it was across the road and the first new-school Vietnamese restaurant in Footscray - all colourful formica and paint with piles of fresh fruit near the counter. It was popular with my (Anglo) workmates due to this. However I had perhaps the worst pho EVER around that time. Highly suspect and made me rather ill. I've tried it a couple of times since it moved. It's improved greatly, however I've always found it to be a bit lacklustre on the food front. Certainly nothing compared to Huy Huy and Hao Phong. Maybe time to try again, particularly as it's hard to find a decent banh xeo in Footscray

    1. I have a confession. I almost overlooked Thien an due to it modern decor. Ended up eating there because I can't be bothered walking to main road. Ordered tomato rice with grilled spare ribs. The best tomatoes rice I ever tried. The ribs are nicely flavoured however they are very tough. I will come back to try their crepe

  4. If you're after a great banh uot (the steamed rice noodle) try Thanh Tam in Victoria St in Richmond. I'm yet to find a really good one in Footscray, though I must admit I don't really go looking for it.

  5. Anon, interesting! I must say, I almost always avoid pho in a non-pho-only restaurant (Pho Tam an exception). I am definitely due return visits to stalwarts Hao Phong and Huy Huy. I did enjoy my meal at Thien An though and was pleasantly surprised. RE banh xeo, I have had a few tips that Dong Que do an excellent one.

    Billy, there is a place in Sunshine that does it - been meaning to head there for a while!

    Jess, they are really cool! You must try. They do vary hugely in quality and crispness between places, though.

  6. Lauren - I'll definitely check out Dong Que's banh xeo. Thanks for the tip. I've been a regular at Huy Huy since 2000 (when I first moved west) and have to say that it's a wonderful restaurant. Consistently great food and lovely owners.

  7. I totally agree that one of the many beauties of Vietnamese good are all the fresh crunchy herbs and lettuces. I'm so intrigued by this pancake with turmeric!

  8. Yasmeen, we had a bloggers' meetup at Abesha in Footscray a while ago and I have been meaning to get around to organising another. I had Dong Que in mind purely because their pancake is good. I know lots of people are curious about it! Won't happen for a month or two but I will keep you posted!

  9. Awesome, Lauren! Please do let me know, I'd love to go.

  10. Well we went there tonight on your say so.

    I was disappointed with my meal but everyone else (5) loved theirs.

    The meals for each person also didn't come out together or even close. More like 45 minutes apart.

    I think going there as 2 people would be better.

    Onto your next suggestion.

  11. I don’t think I have been to Thien An since it moved (across the road). My parents and my brother have and have all had not so great experiences – it doesn’t taste the same and my mum got sponge and metal scourer in her pho. My best friend still loves it there, but I'm working myself up to go back - still a bit weary.

  12. I'm really glad you gave Thien An a good review. I live locally and eat regularly at various Vietnamese restaurants in Footscray and rate Thien An highly for consistency, service and, most importantly, impeccable freshness and quality of the dishes (and iced white coffee, yum!).

    I don't mind dingy places one bit, but Thien An is a good all rounder and above par food and decor makes it a good pick for more conservative friends and rellies and fussy small children.

    Love your blog, keep up the good work!

    1. "I don't mind dingy places one bit, but Thien An is a good all rounder and above par food and decor makes it a good pick for more conservative friends and rellies and fussy small children." Yes - I completely agree! I have a few places around the traps that fill this description. There are many courses and there are many horses.

      Thank you, glad you like the blog! I haven't been to Thien An for a while - you start the Hopkins Street crawl and sometimes you forget about them, tucked away there. Must go again soon :)


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