This is a guest post for Footscray Food Blog by Alexandra Polysyllabic. Alexandra has been a Footscray resident for many years and is heavily involved in the area's craft and permaculture scene/s. She's a delight who is equally likely to be found planting out crystal apple cucumbers as cooking up a Cape Malay curry, baby on hip and dogs at her feet. Thank you so much for your fabulous contribution!
Footscray and me, we go way back. Back to when Footscray was a gangly, intransigent punk kid who spat at me, but somehow charmed me into staying, all the same. Back to when Aangan had just opened its doors and was a single shop, using someone else’s bain marie, and so quiet that I used to get a lift home after collecting my take away dinner. Back to when - and this is the Footscray I miss the most - I used to sit out the back of a little noodle shop in the dark of the closed market, having dinner. We surreptitiously drank beer out of tea cups along with all the fishmongers in their white boots, slurping on hand-made noodles, sticky eggplant, pickled pigs ear and the ubiquitous dumplings; more often than not, a kitchen hand worked at one of the shiny metal tables, threading lamb skewers with one hand, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette with the other, mobile glued to his ear. Oh, and of course there was the occasional rat, skittering down the corridor, perplexed by the noise and the smoke and the delicious chaos.
Something about the charm of Huu Huu Thanh takes me back to those smoky, surly days when Footscray and I were really getting to know one another. Huu Huu Thanh gives you a space in which to eat delicious food and watch the passers-by; fabulous hospitality, speedy service and a feeling of community, without the fag, the rat, and the smuggled beer.
Situated opposite the large supermarket at Footscray Market, Huu Huu Thanh is the little cousin of Tan Huu Thanh on Hopkins Street. The menu is smaller, but the food is more than equal in quantity, and an abbreviated menu allows for a fast brunch halfway through the madness of the weekly market shop. While the Vietnamese menu is more extensive, the English menu offers six items, all for eight dollars. It is here that HHT could improve their offering - simply by disclosing the full contents of the Vietnamese menu to its non-Vietnamese diners.
Two of my favourite things to eat are congee and Vietnamese coleslaw, so the first encounter with HHT’s chao goi ga - congee and chicken coleslaw - was a much anticipated pairing. I was not disappointed. The congee is made with a base of toothsome chicken stock - aromatic, salty, steaming hot. In fact, it’s so irresistably delicious that Baby F plunged her hand into it - and our fabulous host rushed over with a bowl of cold water for her hand.
Scattered with fried shallots, coriander and spring onion, all it needs is a spoonful of pickled red chilli to enliven it. In fact, this is one of the best things about HHT for this chilli fiend - the chilli on offer extends to whole red birds eye chillies in vinegar, along with the usual sate and pickled chilli. There’s not a dried scallop or pork knuckle in sight, but that’s ok - it provides a wonderful foil for the chicken coleslaw with which it is served.
The coleslaw is humbly plated, but perfectly pitched. It's simple but lovingly assembled - finely chiffonaded cabbage, julienned and lightly pickled carrot, torn mint and coriander, freshly roasted peanuts that retain crunch. The chicken included requires a divorce from the western palate that insists that chicken breast is best; it’s not, and certainly not here. On occasion, the coleslaw includes a chicken wing; shredded chicken skin appears in the jumble of ingredients, and much of the chicken is dark meat. The coleslaw gets the balance right between sweet, hot, salty and sour; the accompanying nuoc cham allows you to up the ante, with the fragrance of pickled garlic dominating. It is just fantastic, and for me sums up all that I love about Vietnamese cuisine with its clean, fresh and delicate flavours; accompanied by the congee, it is more than enough for one person.
M ordered the bun bo hue, or spicy beef and pork leg soup, one of his favourites. This dish again demonstrates the ability of HHT to imbue dishes with the right balance of aromatics, chilli and palate-pleasing depth, and to offer fresh ingredients, fondly assembled. Offered a choice between ‘normal’ or ‘less chilli’, we ordered ‘normal’ - and it was punchy, but not as fiery as others on offer in Footscray, and the key ingredients well expressed. The sa-te bun bo hue is delicious - a lovely concoction of salty shrimp, lemongrass, garlic and chilli that again demonstrates the chef’s skill with aromatics - and we dig greedily into the extra on the table.
The pork sausage was freshly cooked, and tender rather than rubbery; it’s with this that many other restaurants fail. The beef was tender, and the noodles perfectly cooked - again, they retained bite and flavour, rather than tasting pre-cooked and carelessly reheated. The garnish of pickled onion, spring onion and coriander was generous and tasty; the accompanying salad of red cabbage, bean shoots and lettuce was a delicious improvement on other renditions that tend toward soggy and discoloured.
If these dishes are not reason enough, you should visit HHT for their stunning bun canh chua, or sweet and sour soup with rice noodles. This is a take on the eponymous canh chua ca, the tamarind and pineapple broth with silver perch, that is served as a hotpot or family dish elsewhere in Footscray, and one of my favourites. Slivers of poached fish, whole prawns, elephant ear stem, diced tomato and sliced okra cooked to perfection; a tamarind, pineapple and fish scented broth that was heady and moreish; and again, beautifully cooked and fresh noodles. Rice paddy herb gives this dish its subtle aniseed flavour. This is a visual and sensual delight, with contrasts of texture and flavour that give substance to the descriptor of ‘sweet and sour’. It almost trumps the sweet and sour soup at Bo De Trai, of which I am inordinately fond, and the noodles make it a meal in itself.
So, the punk kid has grown up somewhat, as have I. Footscray Market now offers me not only somewhere to eat delicious food and people watch, but also a place where I can buy delice de bourginon, goats curd, and daffinois blue. There may not be contraband beer, but there are maroon walls, chartreuse ceilings, and a wobbly wall clock; a cooling bowl of water for my baby’s burnt hand; and enough gorgeous food to keep me coming back.
Um - HOW GOOD IS THAT?! What an absolute delight to read. Thank you so much Alex for your wonderful recollections, gorgeous photos and most of all, the directions to that unreal bowl of congee that I would like to dive right into. (Lovely readers, if it's not too much to ask, I would love it if you could say a little "cheers" to Alex by leaving a comment, here on the blog or on Facebook :-)