What level Vietnamese diner are you?
Level 1: *crosses arms* "I don't eat chilli, seafood or garlic. Or rice." (Thinks: Can't wait till this birthday/office dinner is over and I can go to Macca's on the way home. Everyone knows when you eat Asian food, you're starving again an hour later!)
Level 2: *cracks open Fanta* "I'll have the beef in black bean and the prawn crackers. Hey, darl, next week let's try the Vietnamese food at Laksa King, eh?"
Level 3: *slurps iced water* "Oh...um...I don't know what I want. What do you want? *Flips pages helplessly* Let's just get some spring rolls and rice paper rolls." (Thinks: Why do I always order the same things? I need to try something different one day.)
Level 4: *blows delicately on cup of free tea* "The Vietnamese pancake, please."
Level 5: *swizzles cà phê sữa đá with long teaspoon* "The banh xeo, please."
Level 6: *sips corn milk and smiles* "Tôi muốn bánh xèo."Don't think I'm level 6. I got that phrase off Wikipedia. (Hopefully it doesn't actually mean "crazy hog mattress" or something equally bizarre, or rude, or embarrassing.) Anyway, if you are a level 3 through 6 - ie, if you're willing to try something really different - I have an absolute treat for you.
Typical southern dish - hu tieu mi (at Phu Vinh, Footscray)
So you know how there is northern and southern Vietnamese food? (Level 5s and 6s, of course you did.) The south is mad for sweetness, seafood, and mountains of herbs, whereas northern dishes are supposedly plainer (although to me, they taste equally - if not more - amazing).
Typical northern dish - bun ca (at Sen, Footscray)
Typically southern dishes include hu tieu mi (rice/egg noodle soup with prawns and pork - see pic above) and banh xeo (giant, coconutty filled pancake) while the north specialises in bun cha Ha Noi (chargrilled pork pieces and patties with rice vermicelli), cha ca (fish seasoned with turmeric and dill and served with rice vermicelli), and bun ca (fish soup with dill, tomato and taro stem).
Typical northern dish - bun cha Ha Noi (at Sapa Hills, Footscray)
But there's another entire Vietnamese regional cuisine that often gets completely overlooked - central Vietnamese cuisine. (Level 6s already knew that.) To quote Jamie Feldmar in this Serious Eats article, "Central Vietnam has its own spicy, strongly-flavoured cuisine, distinct from the Chinese-influenced fare of the North and the light tropical flavours in the steamy South". And Footscray now has a dedicated central Vietnamese restaurant for your dining pleasure.
Meet Qua'n 888, quite literally tucked away in Little Saigon market. This newbie serves food from the central Vietnamese cities of Hoi An, Hue and Da Nang.
The banh xeo or Vietnamese pancake mentioned above is normally a giant crepe as long as your forearm, stuffed to bursting with mung beans, bean shoots, prawns and chunks of pork. Apparently that is not "the" banh xeo, but southern-style banh xeo.
Here at Qua'n 888, the banh xeo is central style. That translates to these two fat, yellow little pancakes, not over-filled with prawns and bean shoots, plus herbs, two dipping sauces, and a really intriguing giant rice paper-wetting contraption.
What you do is set out your gridded plastic mat and then gently and quickly roll your rice paper around the thin yet deep reservoir of cool water in the rice paper holder. Place the still quite hard sheet of rice paper on the mat. Wait a minute or two and then start loading with 1/2 a banh xeo, herbs, rice vermicelli etc etc. Level 4 and below should put less in to start with. Level 5s and 6s can go to town right off the bat.
I won't explain here how to roll them up, but check out this YouTube video (I've started it at the "rolling" point). Suffice to say the finished product should look something like this.
You can then go crazy dipping your roll in either the house-made special sauce (I tasted sesame?) or the classic nuoc cham seasoned fish sauce. Want more chilli? Get stuck into the pot of sambal oelek-style chilli sauce on the table - Qua'n 888 make it themselves.
At first I was not so crazy about the banh xeo pancakes themselves - they didn't have that super coconut flavour and delicate texture that, say, Co Do's have - but once you've got them in the roll, I see how they really work with all the other textures and flavours. You've got the cool of the cucumber, the slippery rice vermicelli, the rich crunch and squidge of the pancake, plus a big dousing of the delicious dipping sauce (I preferred the nuoc cham with them) - you've just gotta try these.
Banh beo, nam, loc thap cam, $10
But what you really, REALLY have to try is the banh sampler. I have an ongoing obsession with these varieties of steamed cake. I order them whenever I see them (which is pretty much nowhere - Thanh Ha 2 in Richmond and Co Do in Sunshine spring to mind) - and I've always liked them. But now I realise I've liked them in the way you might like a croissant from Baker's Delight, until you taste one from Lune. THESE ARE OFF THE HOOK.
I've never seen the banh beo served traditionally like this in little dishes before and now I see why the best ones have to be contained - they are so delicate, like a rice custard almost. They're topped with minced shrimp, fried shallots and peanuts. Then there's the banh nam, a Vietnamese tamale of sorts - a delicate rice flour batter mixed with mushroom, prawns and pork. So delicious. Finally, banh loc, which I believe is tapioca flour with a bouncy, al dente texture (others I've had have tended towards gumminess - not here). Inside hid pieces of prawn and pork like fossils in amber. All were absolutely spectacular.
I really liked this green papaya salad with beef jerky. Sure, it didn't immediately punch you in the nose like some versions do (that's a compliment - sometimes that big rush of sweetness, herbs and chilli is exhilarating) but crept up on you slowly. The dressing was quite muted, but I liked being able to really taste that rich, deliciously dry and almost feathery seasoned beef jerky, the little roasted peanuts, and all the delicately julienned papaya without just tasting "things" drowned in nuoc cham.
Goi mit tron, $7
Likewise, I really enjoyed this steamed jackfruit salad, which I've never had anything like anywhere in Melbourne. Rather than being a maze of crunchiness like other Viet salads, the steamed jackfruit was tender, with bits of bouncy cooked prawn, bi (shredded pork skin) and julienned herbs. You pile it onto the crackers like a Vietnamese tostada. I shared this with my dad who thought it needed more kick, but I liked its humility.
Com ga Hoi An, $10
This is a special chicken dish from Hoi An - shredded chicken with a little cooked onion and herbs, with yellow rice, crunchy veg and a ginger dipping sauce. Level 1s and 2s, if you are dragged here by some intrepid foodie, this is the one for you to order. Level 3s, this might be a good place to start. The chicken and rice were fine; the ginger sauce was delicious...but I am more interested in the really unusual dishes on the menu.
More wrappy-rolly action with nem skewers. Do these in exactly the same way as the banh xeo. I didn't find the pork skewers particularly flavoursome but as with the banh xeo, once they are all tucked up with herbs, vermicelli and so on, the ensuing roll is really delicious. I reckon this one goes perfectly with the sesame sauce rather than the nuoc cham.
The lovely owners taught my dad how to ask for "strong coffee" - ca phe sua da "dam" (said like "dumb", with a low tone) - and this was the delicious result. And if you want to get some level 6 cred, try their sua bap or "corn milk", served in adorable peaked bottles. I haven't gone there yet, but I will!
Here are the super lovely owners of Qua'n 888, sisters Katie and Donna (L-R, with Donna's gorgeous bubby in between). They are originally from Da Nang and are very excited to share their regional specialties with you. They are so friendly and I am sure will be happy to give you any eating tips. Their dad comes in from time to time to help them out, so it's a real family business.
And you know, no matter how many bars, snazzy cafes or other tropes of gentrification manifest on the streets of the 'scray, it's THIS trend in Footscray's development that makes me the most excited. Younger first- or second-gen Vietnamese-Aussies like Thu at Co Thu Quan, Ashton at HM Quan and Donna and Katie here at Qua'n 888 starting small, uncompromisingly authentic food businesses that make no attempt to dumb down their food at all - and nor should they when it tastes this good.
From Qua'n 888's Facebook page
Two new regional Hoi An dishes have just landed at Qua'n 888 - cao lau, which is a dish of BBQ pork, croutons, greens and maybe some bean shoots on top of special noodles that can apparently only be made with a special type of well water from Hoi An. (Read more here.) Katie had told me about the cao lau (the second picture above), but I'm mystified by the other new dish (the first picture above) called "mi ca atixo", which I think translates to fish with egg noodles and artichoke?!
So if you fancy levelling up in the Vietnamese diner stakes, head through the Ryan Street entrance of little Saigon and hang a right. Sip that corn milk, that coffee or that tea (or all three!) and order up something you've never had before. And I reckon even if you're a Level 6, you will find something on Qua'n 888's menu that is completely new - and delicious - to you.
Shop 24, Little Saigon Shopping Centre, Ryan and Leeds Streets, Footscray
Hours: Roughly 10am-5pm daily (sometimes later on Friday and Saturday nights)