Wednesday, February 5, 2014

HM Quan

Saying you have found great value in Footscray is kind of like saying you've found a tall tree in the Amazon.  But when it comes to dollars and cents, this is one meal that is going to be hard to beat.

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HM Quan has a menu of 15 different congees - thick rice porridge that is a popular food across Asia, from the Philippines to Vietnam.  And - get this - every one is $2.99.

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But to be honest, the first thing you will notice is not the price - it is the amazingly fabulous fake grass floor!  HM Quan is essentially the gateway to Footscray, being right at the very edge of "downtown" as you approach from the east (in the space formerly occupied by Indi Hots).  I cannot think of a more delightfully zany welcome mat.

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So the idea is, you sit down, tick your little menu with a texta and hand it in.  There aren't any right or wrong answers on this quiz, though.  I went for congee with "fish floss", which turned out to be tiny, crisp anchovies.

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Some other congees around the 'scray are seasoned, but this one was thicker and quite plain, meaning you can dress it up with your topping of choice, plus the seasonings on the table.  (Though be careful with the fish sauce - the bottle is just an open mouth, like you'd have for a spice jar, so it's easy to be heavy-handed!)

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HM's special bun (rice vermicelli) was very interesting and really good.  "Normal" Vietnamese bun has rice vermicelli with julienned cucumber, shredded lettuce, pickled carrots and (if you're lucky) some little buttons of crisp pork fat.  (Yes, that is what those little crunchy squares are - I didn't know for years and ate them with gusto, and now I do know - and I'm sorry to say, still eat with gusto.)  This was almost like a Korean-Vietnamese hybrid, with delicately cooked bamboo and spinach, plus a big dollop of what I think was gochujang (Korean chilli sauce).  Not what I was expecting but really good!  And - $7.99!

Oh and PS - do not try to eat both congee and another meal, like I did above.  You will not be able to - the congee looks small but it is really filling.

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I only found the Vietnamese version of the menu after I ordered when I realised I'd missed my new current obsession - banh trang.  They are translated on the English side as "rice paper rolls" which I can usually take or leave, but banh trang are skinnier versions with a curiously crunchy wrapper, and more intense fillings like beef jerky and green papaya.  (The above is my fave from Co Thu Quan in Little Saigon.)  Banh trang are definitely on the menu the next trip I take to HM Quan!

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HM Quan is quite similar to Co Thu Quan (yet definitely different enough to not be a carbon copy).  When Kenny and I were at Co Thu Quan, we had a chat to David, the security manager at Little Saigon.  In his opinion, CTQ was appealing to a younger Vietnamese-Australian generation who didn't want to just hunch over soup, but wanted a more fun - yet still authentic - experience.  HM Quan to me continues in this vein.  If this is the evolution of Footscray - and not chain stores like Gloria Jean's or Macca's - BRING IT ON.

HM Quan (Facebook)
Shop 5, 68-82 Hopkins Street, Footscray
Phone: 0432 423 979

23 comments:

  1. Nice!! Is this the site where Nam Samac used to be? If so it's next to a carpark bonus!!

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    1. I think Nam Samac might be before my time! It used to be Indi Hots for as long as I can remember, and is sort of next to Dai Duong which I think is closed down now. But yes, right next to car park!

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  2. I'm there! Hey Lauren have you seen the Korean Chilli sauce anywhere local to buy? I love the stuff and always buy some from the KoreanAir Skymall when we fly, but I'm sure it must be somewhere here. Thanks for another great eating out tip! Leah xx

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    1. Hi Leah! You can definitely find it in Melbourne - no need for a special plane trip when your stocks run low! ;) I have seen Korean stuff at KFL in Flemington. I am sure you would also find it at my favourite Melbourne Asian supermarket, Laguna at QV (so beautifully organised and they have everything). There are also a few specialist Korean grocers in the city - I think there are two opposite the Vic Market, near the corner of Elizabeth and Victoria. Or see Joyce's tip below!

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  3. I am soooooo there soon!!! Now how to stop myself ordering every single thing on the menu at one go ...

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  4. My parents love congee (can't stand the stuff myself) so will direct them here next time there in Footscray!

    PS there's a Korean grocers on Brunswick St Fitzroy that stocks Korean chilli sauce

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  5. Thanks for the review Lauren, walked pass myself and thought it was intriguing. I will now have to give it a go as they sell my favourite comfort food chao!
    As for the congee being plain - its because its Vietnam's simplest form of congee with the history of being eaten during the times of famine and hardship to stretch the rice ration. Usually consumed with pickled vegies or dried shrimp. It is also cooked for loved ones while they are ill or sick as its easy to digest.
    p.s. korean chilli paste/sauce can be found at most asian grocers! try KFL in footscray or the one around the corner where Forges used to be.

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    1. Thanks for the scoop, Celia! It is certainly very comforting and I can see myself eating a lot of this for a quick, healthy breakfast.

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  6. I'm equally enchanted by the sea of green astroturf! Makes you almost feel like you're in a seaside resort somewhere, when the reality is you're close to busy road junction, ha ha ha!

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    1. Isn't it just wild? Although my inner mum says, "How are they going to keep it clean?!"

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  7. Oh yes, agree for sure - this is the kind of evolution to be applauded!

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    1. Yup! Imagine having such a bar to go in that general neighbourhood after eating at a place such as this in this kind of weather!

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    2. Friends of mine were hoping to open a bar in the spot 8Bit is now in. Hard to regret having 8Bit, but I hope my friends find another cool bar spot soon.

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  8. Hi Lauren, thank you! My daughters (8 and 6yo) and I had dinner at HM Quan tonight based on your recommendation and it totally lived up to expectations. We had the rice paper rolls, the rice vermicelli with grilled pork and the congee with cotton meat (was yours the caramelised fish?). All very tasty. My 8yo tried a bit of everything, the 6yo less adventurous but definitely had enough to eat. We loved the décor too - the little seats perfect for small or bigger bottoms. We will definitely be heading back there. I mentioned as we were leaving that I had read about them on your food blog and the guy I spoke to (maybe the manager?) seemed surprised they had already made it onto a blog. I told him your name and then he remembered you :-) I think that they'll be pleased with your review and the custom they receive from it! Thanks again, Melinda

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    1. Hi Melinda, thanks for your comment! So glad your kiddos liked it - I'll have to take mine in soon! I'll introduce myself when I go in next ;-) Lauren

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  9. Hi Lauren, I went here after reading your blog, and I left feeling that HM Quan is more social experiment than restaurant.

    As soon as you walk in, you have no idea what to do. Order at the counter? Sit and wait for service? Since I read this blog, I knew about the order form, but what if I had no prior knowledge?

    The large print menu, if you can find one, has both English and Vietnamese descriptions, and is numbered. Annoyingly, the pictures are on the reverse side of the menu, so you have to flip back and forth if you wanted a preview of what something looked like. Even more annoying is that the order form is not numbered, so you have to match the text descriptions to mark the right box. I filled in a Vietnamese order form, only to discover later that some of the forms are in English.

    On top of having to source your own print menu, you may need to also source your own pen to fill out the order form, as was my experience.

    The bottom right box of the order form looked like it was for the table number (makes sense. How would they know which order was for which table, particularly when the place was full?). The table number was on the back side of the spice rack holding the condiments, which is fine except the spice rack is placed on one end of the table, with the back side facing away from the table, so you couldn't see the table number by default.

    For the congee menu items, you can pick between congee and rice though there is no obvious way to specify this on the order form and the staff had to come and ask us anyway. There was also a pricing discrepancy for the bun, marked as 7.99 on the form, but 8.99 on the print menu (the actual price).

    The tables and chairs are small and very low to the ground. Maybe the right size for kids, but certainly not for adults. There is no where for the legs to go, so you end up sitting either facing the table and too far away, or closer to the table but turned sideways.

    For congee, since it is served in a bowl, you can at least hold the bowl in one hand and try to sit in as comfortable position as you can. With other dishes served in either a small claypot or plate, like rice or bun, this is much harder to do, and you will need to leave the pot/plate on the table. This presents a challenge if you want to avoid mess (i.e. getting fish sauce on your pants), as you need to position your head over the plate, which means bending forward at an uncomfortable angle whilst sitting on a low chair.

    The chopsticks are very "thick"; there is very little difference in thickness between the "pointy" and "handle" ends. The spoons are similarly thick, and are serviceable for congee in a bowl but not much else. Very difficult to pick up or scoop up food on a flat plate using these.

    Trying to eat bun served on a plate, using thick chopsticks and spoon, bending forward at an awkward angle sitting in a small chair, ordered after mild confusion... memorable for the wrong reasons.

    The staff seemed lacking in the English department, and I don't even have a Vietnamese department, so I couldn't convey this feedback to them.

    -Vic

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  10. Hi Vic,

    Thanks for your comment. I have been back to HM Quan twice since this post and continue to find it one of the most exciting places to open in Footscray for years. I'll try to address some of your concerns...

    Since the first time I went, that printed menu with the photos has been made. We got around the whole flipping-over thing by asking for a second menu so we could have them side by side. I get that the whole order-form thing is confusing, as it isn't a common thing in a restaurant at all (although it is at hot-pot places in Melbourne). Certainly today I just went to the counter and told the staff what I would like, as quite a lot of what I wanted was on the specials board, and they just filled in the form for me.

    I have to say, I do take slight offence at you saying that "HM Quan is more social experiment than restaurant". I get that it is frustrating to not know how to order, and maybe you were there at a busy time when the staff didn't see you come in, but I don't think they are trying to be deliberately obtuse and make it hard for people to come and dine there. The price thing is a typo that could happen to anyone.

    I had a chat with the owner who is lovely. He is trying to replicate a particular style of eating that exists in Vietnam. That is where the low stools and tables come in, and the small portions (and low prices!) What I can suggest if it is uncomfortable to eat in that semi-squatting position, to ask for a side plate (tiny little bowls made of a half-coconut) and to hold it in your left hand at chest level, and eat out of it that way. I agree the chopsticks and the spoons are not as easy to use as regular ones, but to me, that rustic-ness is part of HM Quan's charm.

    I know HM Quan is very different in a lot of ways. The specials board is an absolute treasure trove of goodies, like fried fish paste balls, snails, and dumplings in the shape of flowers - but they are all in Vietnamese. But with a smartphone (to Google-image search the Vietnamese names) and a sense of adventure, you might back a winner.

    One reader said on Twitter of HM Quan: "Haven't had so much fun since backpacking". The way to approach this restaurant is with a sense of adventure and a curious mind. It will not be like anything you've ever had before - and I personally find it extremely exciting and totally delicious.

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    1. Hi Lauren, thank you for posting my previous comment.

      I am not suggesting that HM Quan are intentionally trying to be obtuse, but it does not make a good impression when the method of ordering is not made clear. The ordering form system itself is certainly nothing new, though the execution here most definitely has a roughness about the edges. If you can order at the counter and have the staff fill in the form for you, then it begs the question: why is the form even necessary in the first place?

      The food was both good and cheap, there is no doubt, and the venue is worth a visit because it is something different. As an adventure, sure it was something I had not seen before and definitely why I tried it in the first place.

      The discomfort with having to sit at such low tables is my top gripe. If you are prone to back problems, the seating arrangement at HM Quan won't be doing you any favours.

      Perhaps in trying to replicate the original style, they have (unconsciously) projected their own circumstances and knowledge on to their patrons. For example, they might assume that people know how to order and adjust their bodies to sit at such low tables. As a further example, although smartphones are prevalent these days, not everyone has one, and thus not everyone has the power of instant translation at their fingertips.

      I don't normally comment, but I had to this time. The tolerances for when a quirk becomes an annoyance or frustration differs between people, and you certainly are more forgiving than I am, Lauren.

      -Vic

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