Thursday, October 28, 2010


"You have better watch out," said Mr Baklover, crisply snapping the sports section of the paper, "or you are going to become the Vietnamese Food Blog rather than the Footscray Food Blog".  "Well!" harrumphed I.  Yes, I have been to a disproportionate number of Vietnamese restaurants recently, I suppose, but that label - "Vietnamese restaurant" - is somewhat unhelpful.  I am reminded of a time eating on Victoria Street when a friend and I brought his sister to our favourite place.  We had been there once before with her, but she sighed and said, "Let's go somewhere different.  They're all the same after all," and before we could protest, had stepped into the place next door, which incidentally was more a BBQ meats place than a bun rice vermicelli salad place.

There's my problem, I explained to Mr Baklover - a "Vietnamese restaurant" could mean a pho joint, a hu tieu mi (clear rice/egg noodle soup) house, a no-nonsense com tam lunch spot, a crowded banh mi counter or a show-stopping, full-banquet, Vietnamese/Chinese extravaganza!  Nevertheless he did have a point, I suppose, so on date night we headed for Ethiopian.  Little did I know that the very diversity I had just acknowledged under the Vietnamese banner would now reappear where I least expected it.

Adulis is the newest East African restaurant in Footscray, having just opened in May of this year.  Eating out regularly in Footscray, we are so used to function rather than style, so the charming dining room and atmosphere came as a pleasant surprise.  The tables were draped with white tablecloths (albeit with a nonna-style clear plastic tablecloth over the top) and set with wine glasses.

The walls were painted in a very sexy bronze metallic tone and hung thoughtfully with African-style art.  Funky ethnobeat played on the stereo.  The delightful owner served us with charm and totally un-self-conscious flair.

Sambusa, $2 and Green Chilly, $2

This sambusa, a local version of the more widely-known Indian samosa, was yummy, filled with spicy lamb with just the right amount of richness.  The green chilli was simply a raw chilli, deseeded and split, and filled with a tomato and onion mixture made luscious through long marination in lemon and olive oil.  It was surprisingly delicious, like a fresh, healthy nacho chip.

Beb 'Ainetu meat ($20) and veg ($15)

Ethiopian restaurants are a paradise for the indecisive - there's always a chef's selection that gives you the best of everything.  A huge round platter was proudly presented to us, draped with kitcha or barley-based, pancake-like local bread.  Starting from the 12 o'clock position we had doro kulwha (mild "yellow" chicken), doro wat (chicken curry), zigni (sauteed beef), alicha (which I know as tikil gomen, cabbage and carrots), yellow lentils, "spinach" and misir wat (spicy lentils).

Oh boy - where to start?  This food was simply fabulous.  The doro kulwha was an absolute revelation.  Gingery, lemony and zingy, with the undertone of sweet caramelised onions and tender chicken.  Its spicier cousin, the doro wat, was a rich, earthy, earthly delight of red berbere spice, tomato paste and onions, surrounding tender chicken and a hard-boiled egg.  The zigni was similar to the doro wat but included small tender cubes of meat instead and was lusciously buttery.

Misir wat (red lentils) and spinach

Moving on to the vegies, the alicha was excellent - perfectly cooked cabbage, carrots and green beans in butter and turmeric.  The yellow lentils were cooked with similar simple aromatics like ginger and turmeric and provided a contrast to the misir wat or spicy lentils which, like the doro wat, had been cooked with berbere.  The "spinach" (which I think may have been kale?) was fantastic, a dry, perfectly cooked, just slightly pleasantly bitter delight with the tang of iron on your tongue.

Shoro (part of Beb 'Ainetu or chef's selection)

With a proud flourish, we were also presented with this intriguing pot of shoro (aka shiro) or chickpea-flour stew, served in a gorgeous shiny black pot complete with matching lid.  Oh gods, this was just divine.  I have had shiro before at Ethiopian restaurants and have never liked it, finding it to be a dry, crumbly pseudo-dal that is redeemed only by the green chillis spiked throughout.  Adulis' shoro is absolutely nothing like that.  It is rich and luscious, the chickpea flour smooth and thick, the undertones of onion and just a little tomato radiating throughout the whole pot.  So - totally - divine !

We also received this little dish of traditional hot sauce.  We had fun trying to unravel the many threads of flavour running through this little pot of red gold.  It is hot but not overly so, but the overwhelming flavour is that of smokiness, almost like chipotle chilli.  Yes, we did ask what was in it, but only got a shake of the head and a friendly wink - "Secret!"


As well as the barley-based, sturdier kitcha or pancake-bread upon which our meal was served, we received a basket of pillow-soft, tangy, wheat-based white injera.  This traditional East African bread is made by fermenting a batter of various flours (giving a pleasant sour flavour, just like sourdough bread) and then pouring onto a large, flat pan so that one side is covered in millions of little craters that act as sponges for all the delicious flavours.

We ate until we were stuffed and then we ate some more.  The food was that good.  Everything belied a really careful hand.  Sometimes Ethiopian dishes such as doro wat which involve slow-cooked onion can have a very slight bitter undertone if the onions were allowed to brown instead of caramelise - not so here.  Again, at some restaurants everything can taste a bit "same-same", whereas here at Adulis every dish had its own individual, very distinct flavours.  The ingredients were quality and had been treated with care - no grey hard-boiled egg yolk here.  My only criticism is they have no Ethiopian beers.

Most times I eat Ethiopian, after I finish I have to go and wash my hands straight away, not because I am overly fastidious (as anyone who has seen my bedroom floor would know) but because the food can be really, really oily.  This was absolutely not the case at Adulis - oil was used judiciously.  The flavours were so clean and the ingredients of such quality that there was no need to drown everything in cooking oil.

Later a friend asked how it compared to The Abyssinian in Kensington.  I replied it was as good if not better, and the comparison got me thinking.  The Abyssinian is actually Eritrean before it is Ethiopian, and with a little research, I believe Adulis is actually Eritrean too.  So next time you are out and fancy Ethiopian, ask yourself if you wouldn't rather try Eritrean.  Hey, even if you feel like Vietnamese, go try it.  Do support this delightful restaurant - you won't be disappointed!

Two cocktail umbrellas up - way up!

Adulis on Urbanspoon
Shop 1, 68A Hopkins St, Footscray (map)
Phone: 9687 3375
Open:  Tuesday to Sunday

In respose to a reader request I am delighted to now include a small separate review on the restaurant's wheelchair accessibility as well as a "wheelchair accessible" tag for easy navigation.  Exactly what "wheelchair accessible" means has been somewhat of a challenge for me to work out, though!  There's no "checklist" or "wishlist" online I could find.  How high is too high for a step?  When is a lip a step?  What about the amount of room in and around tables?  Does bathroom access come into it?  Please write in and give me your suggestions as to how to improve this section.

Wheelchair Accessibility
Entry:  Double doors level to the ground.
Layout:  Spacious with plenty of room around tables.
Bathroom:  Not viewed.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Dong Que

On the great wagon trail of life, it's easy to get stuck in a rut.  With Vietnamese food, I have a real tendency to get stuck on certain dishes.  For an inordinately long time, I couldn't eat anything but sliced beef pho.  My affection for these seemingly bottomless bowls of broth seemed similarly limitless.  Later I became obsessed with sugarcane prawns or beef & lemongrass rice vermicelli salads.  Like a fly trapped in honey, being in love with a particular dish is a delicious problem to have.  Every so often, though, you have to wrench yourself away from your comfy surroundings and go in search of new territory.

Dong Que is a great little restaurant where I am sure that even the most seasoned Vietnamese food conoisseurs would find something to surprise them.  The walls are covered in enticing pictures of its specialties.  The dishes here have a northern Vietnamese bent, with its offerings of grilled fish with dill (cha ca thang long), steamed rice paper (banh cuon), and snail soup (bun oc).

Southern Vietnamese food is known for its lush use of herbs and other greenery, and it is this subset of Vietnamese cuisine that dominates the Vietnamese restaurants here in Australia.  In southern Vietnam, lime and tamarind are used to add a sour flavour, and coconut milk is used for sweet and mild curries.  Northern Vietnamese food is said to be somewhat plainer and more reminiscent of its Chinese heritage.  Soy sauce is used as freely as fish sauce, vinegar may be used to add sourness, while black pepper can add heat rather than chillies.  Long, slow cooking is used to draw out flavour - indeed, pho has its origins in northern Vietnam and did not become popular in the South until the 1950s.

 Cha gio Dong Que (authentic Vietnamese spring rolls), $10

Think you know everything there is to know about the humble cha gio or spring roll?  Think again.  The truly traditional cha gio is not made with a wheat wrapper, but with rice paper, a la goi cuon or Vietnamese rice paper rolls.  As Wandering Chopsticks explains, when the first Vietnamese communities were being established both in the USA and here, rice paper was not readily available, so cooks turned to the more freely available Chinese wheat wrappers.  I have also read that wheat wrappers retain their crispness better, and I would imagine that they freeze better than rice paper, so despite the face that rice paper is now freely available, the wheat wrappers continue to be popular.

Dong Que's authentic rice paper spring rolls were a lot fatter than ordinary cha gio.  While I find that many cha gio have quite indistinct fillings (it's impossible to tell the difference between the prawn, pork, or prawn and pork), the stubbiness of these specimens meant the quality of the filling was unmissable.  It was the classic blend of minced pork, black fungus, and bean thread noodles, and was very tasty.  The rice paper skin is pleasantly bubbly, but after wrapping in mint and lettuce and dipping in nuoc mam cham (seasoned fish sauce), I think their fatness did let them down somewhat as there wasn't enough crispy crunch.  The ultra-crispy, wheat-wrapped, cigarette-shaped cha gio is better for serious lettuce and dipping action.

Banh dap thit nuong (Steamed rice paper with grilled pork and rice cracker), $10

Well, our desire for crunch was well-fulfilled with this fabulous "Vietnamese taco".  Banh cuon or a very similar round rice noodle is topped with smoky grilled pork, peanuts, and spring onion, and sandwiched between seriously crunchy, thick, black sesame rice crackers.  This is served with mam nem, which is related to that most odiously odorous of dipping sauces, the fermented prawn mam tomMam nem is not nearly as strong, tasting like a thicker, richer nuoc mam cham.

Banh bot chien (Fried mixed flour cake with egg), $9

I first had this on Mei Ling's "Taste of Vietnam" tour, and it was the reason I wanted to go back to Dong Que.  It is so, so yummy - squares of rice flour cake (made very simply by steaming rice flour and water), fried, then bound with lightly beaten egg.  It's served with a sweetened, light soy sauce.  Fantastic, and the kids loved it.  I did realise later than this is just a simple snack, often eaten after school.  Yep, we were the weird Anglos sighing and moaning over the equivalent of a teenager's two-minute noodles!!

Goi du du bo kho (Dried beef with shredded green papaya coleslaw), $12

This coleslaw was absolutely divine!  Crunchy green papaya, perfectly shredded, mixed with lightly pickled carrot, crunchy roasted peanuts, and topped with beef jerky.  I'm not sure how the jerky was prepared, but it was chewy, rich, and tasty, yet somewhat tenderised by the tangy, light, soy-based dressing.  The prawn crackers are there for piling with salad then eating, somewhat like a Mexican tostada.

I'm curious to try more northern Vietnamese dishes here, particularly to see how their pho differs from say, Hung Vuong Saigon's.  I spied a couple eating bo la lot or beef in betel leaves, which came with rice paper sheets which they dipped in water to soften, before rolling their own DIY rice paper rolls.  They also had a seafood/vegie stirfry on crispy noodles, which they dressed with Chinese black vinegar.  Intriguing!

My only criticism is being forced to watch the racist, consumerist, keep-fear-alive shit that is Channel 7's Today Tonight, and also for my kids to have to be forced to watch it too (they have two huge TVs, one at the front and one at the back of the restaurant).  Now that way of looking at the world is a rut I never want to get into, let alone get stuck in.

Dong Que on Urbanspoon

Dong Que
102 Hopkins St, Footscray (map)
Phone: 9689 4392
Hours: 10am-10pm Mon-Wed and Fri-Sat (closed Thurs), 11am-10pm Sun

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Pound Cafe

My ideal cafe epitomises Melbourne's charm - small, skinny, and secret like a laneway, full of nooks, crannies, and other intimate spaces.  In my mind's eye, I imagine leaning back against the bare brick walls, micro-roasted coffee in hand, gazing up at a local artist's work while RRR's album of the week plays.  The pale, wintery sunshine streams in, illuminating exciting food and fashion magazines on the communal table, while the Synesso coffee machine clicks and hums.

When I have the three screaming kids with me, though, all the positives suddenly become negatives.  The narrow doorway and mismatched retro chairs become hazards to ram apologetically with my embarrassing double stroller, the art or air-freighted magazines become liabilities to be smeared with hands made sticky with overpriced friands, and the tinkle of scintillating conversation is drowned out by the sound of smashing babycino cups.  In a nutshell, I don't really bother taking the kids to cafes any more.

A lovely friend recently recommended the Pound at the Whitten Oval to me.  Alarm bells started ringing - firstly, the name sounds like some outer suburban nightclub with free Midori Illusions for the ladeez.  It is at the Western Bulldogs' home ground just over Gordon St, in Footscray.

Now, my memories of eating at the football are "potato planks" at the MCG and those revolting udders you would squeeze to squirt dead horse (tomato sauce) all over your lukewarm Four n' Twenty pie, so the whole football-food association thing was not working for me.  Nevertheless, my friend rated it, so I was game to check it out.

The cafe is just inside the doors, basically in the foyer of the Whitten Oval visitors' centre.  Tables and chairs are neatly set out, and at the back there is a long, high-backed banquette.  Floor-to-ceiling windows look out onto the oval.  I admit, I was initially very doubtful - these sort of cafes that are within an institution, such as a hospital, university, or a museum, tend to be terrible as they have somewhat of a captive audience and no incentive to exceed expectations.

The first thing that surprised me was the great value - $12.50 for parma, salad, and chips, or a Caesar salad with bacon, croutons, and poached egg for $11.  Ordering is efficiently and cheerfully undertaken at the counter, which displays a selection of sandwiches, slices, and muffins.  The location in the lobby means there was plenty of space to park our enormous prams without running over anyone's toes.  Big points, too, for no EFTPOS minimum.

Open steak sandwich, $9.50

This was just lovely - the steak thin, yet tender and juicy.  The onions were sweet and the bread was crunchy and substantial, holding up its end of the bargain.  A side salad or chips would have cost just a mere $1.50 extra.

Lemon pepper calamari, $12.50

This calamari was so tender and juicy.  It was very lightly coated in a zingy lemon, herb, and breadcrumb blend, and was totally moreish.  I opted for extra salad instead of chips, and it was a crisp mix of julienned vegies, salad leaves, and snow pea sprouts.  My only complaint was the dressing was a bit bland. 
Fruit platter with passionfruit syrup and honey yoghurt, $7.50

This was from the all-day breakfast menu and was the ideal snack for my daughters.  Everyone had a favourite and the yoghurt sweetened the deal.  Perfect!
Cappuccino, $3.20

The food passed the muster, now for the final test - the coffee.  Mmmm - well-made, just the right temperature, with silky milk.  The coffee blend is quite mild, and though I do prefer a bolder bean, it really was a delicious cup of chino.  Loyalty cards are available - get the 7th coffee free.  Bonus!

The amount of space both inside and outside means the kids have room to breathe, the staff are not precious at all, and it's casual enough that you could slop down there in your trackies and not feel out of place.  The menu doesn't push any boundaries, but I like that - it knows what it is and it does it well.  They are fully licensed, so if it's been a particularly fractious morning, you can have a wine instead of a latte.  Commendations, too, for no crappy kids' menu of nuggets and other rubbish.

The Bulldogs market themselves as "the community club," and I do commend them for their involvement in the local community, particularly with disengaged young people through SpiritWest (although their endeavour to build a pokies pub at Edgewater is strangely at odds with their mission).  The Pound is a great addition to the local community and despite its lack of reclaimed industrial decor or emo-fringed, funky-aproned staff, I am definitely planning to become a regular.

Bulldogs fight, and bulldogs roar... and they make a nice coffee, too!

Pound Cafe

Whitten Oval, Whitten Avenue, Footscray (map)
Phone: 1300 GO DOGS
Hours: Mon-Sat 8am-5pm (closed Sun)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Roti Ria

Authenticity is a concept as slippery as one of Marco Polo's noodles.  Many great dishes start out as haphazard "fusion foods" that, accidentally or otherwise, strike a new and harmonious chord.  That most classic of Thai foods (or at least as seen by Westerners), Pad Thai, is merely a Thai take on Chinese fried noodles.  Pho, arguably the pinnacle of Vietnamese soups, is actually a fairly recent invention, a happy menage-a-trois between Chinese noodles, a French-style beef broth, and plenty of fresh Vietnamese herbs.  I am particularly fond of Indian Chinese food or "Desi Chinese", an Indian take on perceived Chinese classics.  Gobi Manchurian is one of my favourite dishes at the moment - think battered cauliflower, a la sweet & sour pork, but tossed in a dry red sauce of chilli, cumin seeds, soy sauce and curry leaves.

But as well as perfect harmonies, there are a few clangers out there, like Phil's recently discovered Hawaiian spam sushi.  Sometimes the fusion isn't really conscious but just comes from making do with local ingredients or cooking things in a local style.  This can of course produce some fantastic results, like banh mi, but it doesn't always work.  I have cooked some shocking things from cookbooks over the years which were lazily made "Asian" by dousing in sweet chilli sauce.  Such ignorance is reflected in Rachel Ray's (a popular cooking show host in the US) "Phunky Pho", a "Thai-inspired soup... loaded with exotic flavors!"  As someone in the comments said - "Phucked-Up".

I had driven past Roti Ria in Sunshine to and from my new favourite place, Sunshine Plaza (Aldi, Best & Less, the Reject Shop and Not Quite Right all in a row - go western suburbs!!)  Unreal, I thought, a Malaysian place just down the street!  One lunchtime I hastily scuttled over there and waltzed expectantly up to the counter.  I expected a steaming bain marie of coconutty delights, perhaps the clang of wok sang on wok out the back as a char kway teow came to life, but I was greeted instead by shredded iceberg and cubed tomato.

Roti Ria is a regular sandwich bar that uses roti chanai or Malaysian bread as a wrap or as they put it, "Asian style kebab".  As well as sandwich bar standbys such as tuna and falafel, it offers fillings such as beef or chicken satay, murtabak (spiced ground lamb) and vegetarian tempeh (compressed soybean cake).  Sort of a Malaysian take on Subway, perhaps?  Incidentally, roti itself is a kind of fusion food, having been brought to Malaysia by Indian migrant workers, hence the fact that 'roti' is available in Indian restaurants, albeit totally different to Malaysian roti.

Well, I was disappointed.  I wanted my authentic roti, sambal and curry sauce on a steel plate, preferably with a Milo dinosaur on the side.  The service was delightful but it was with a heavy heart I ordered a beef satay wrap.

Beef satay roti wrap, $6.50

My "Asian style kebab" arrived on a disposable plastic plate (come on!!  That is just lazy.  Points off.)  The roti itself was nice.  They are pre-made and warmed through on a flat plate.  The satay beef was also nice - very mild, very peanutty, and the beef my favourite way - slow-cooked for so long that it was so tender you could shred it with a fork.  But I just couldn't get over the shredded iceberg, bits of tomato, and overpowering onion rings.  I kept having flashbacks to my teenage years eating gut-mangling souvlakis from Hollywood Palace in Richmond, which came with the exact same toppings.  Maybe if the filling was a posh baby lettuce mix I could have dug Roti Ria, but this time I just wanted "authentic".  It might be a slippery concept, but sometimes you just dig your heels in and refuse to slide any further.

Roti Ria
Shop 44/324 Hampshire Rd, Sunshine (map)
Phone: 9312 6041

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Chana dal and fenugreek leaves

"What's for dinner?"  "Dal, darl!" - goes the happy refrain in our house.  From the classic red lentils to more obscure pigeon peas and black-eyed beans, spiked with tamarind or infused with cardamom, we love dal in every incarnation.  The pulses used for dal can be divided into roughly 3 groups - split and husked, merely split, or whole.  The flavour and texture of the different dals are totally different, and their processing also affects their nutritional value - the less husking or splitting, the more fibre.

You may not know that red lentils are actually the brown ones with the skins removed, or that urad dal, a husked white lentil used in South Indian seasonings, actually has a black skin when whole.  It's so hard to choose a favourite, but if I had to, it would be chana dal or Bengal gram.  These look like yellow split peas but are totally different - they are actually husked and split kala chana or Indian "black" chickpeas.  They hold their shape when cooked and have a fabulous nutty flavour.

I want to share with you this easy and delicious chana dal recipe.  It includes a very authentic Indian touch, which is the addition of dried fenugreek leaves or kasuri methi.  These are not widely used in the non-Indian community here in Australia, but they are just delicious.  Fenugreek has a very strong, distinctive, "curry" flavour and is often over-used in commercial curry powders.  Its brown, diamond-shaped seeds are used either whole or ground, from Bangladesh to Sri Lanka, while its green leaves are used fresh like spinach or dried as a seasoning.

Chana dal with capsicum
Adapted from Mona Verma, The Ultimate Dal Cookbook, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2004.


1 cup chana dal
1/4 tsp + 1 pinch ground turmeric
1 tsp + 1 pinch salt
2 Tb + 2 Tb oil
2 medium capsicums, chopped into 3 cm x 3 cm pieces
2 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped or 1/2 425g tin chopped tomatoes or 3/4 cup passata
2 tsp finely chopped ginger
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 large green chilli, deseeded and finely chopped (or to taste)
1/2 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 Tb tamarind paste (or to taste) - click the link for how to make it
1/2 tsp sugar
1 tsp dry fenugreek leaves (or to taste)
2 Tb finely chopped coriander (optional)

Wash the dal in several changes of water and soak in water for a minimum of 2 hours.  Drain and rinse well.  Place in a pan with 1/4 tsp turmeric, 1 tsp salt, and 2 cups water.  Bring to the boil and simmer until dal is tender, about 20-30 minutes.  Do not drain.  Remove from heat and set aside.

Heat 2 Tb oil in a pan and add capsicum and a pinch each of salt and turmeric.  Fry for a few minutes then add tomato (if using passata, do not add just yet).  Continue to cook for 3-4 minutes then remove from pan.

Heat another 2 Tb oil in the pan and add garlic, ginger, and green chilli.  Cook whilst stirring for 1-2 minutes.

Add chana dal, garam masala, and cumin, and cook for a few minutes.  Add tamarind, sugar, fenugreek leaves, and capsicum and tomatoes (if using passata, you may add it now).  Cook for about 7-8 minutes.  Taste and check seasoning.  Garnish with coriander leaves, if using.

One of my all-time favourites.  The fenugreek leaves give a certain je ne sais quoi to the finished dish, and the tamarind and sugar make it sweet and tangy, rounding out the warm green chilli undertones.  Incidentally, husked lentils such as these freeze much better than those with skins, as the skins do toughen slightly after freezing and defrosting.  Happy cooking!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Pho Tam 2

When faced with a difficult problem, we tend to branch out, meandering down different avenues of thought, doubling back on ourselves, searching for the answer.  The walking metaphor fits my ongoing, seemingly intractable problem - my ongoing yen for good coffee within walking distance of my house.

I am very, very fussy about coffee.  My parents cottoned on to espresso early, and I remember many Sundays as a child slurping a lemon granita at Pelligrini's, belly full of yum cha.  When we were out with my mum, we would enter what seemed like cafe after cafe, as my mother searched for "proper coffee."  You see, in the 80s, espresso machines were nowhere near as common as they are today.  She would peer around the counter and more often that not, shuffle us three kids out, saying loudly, "No, wrong machine."  I was permanently mortified - why couldn't my mum & dad just drink instant like all the rest of my friends' parents?

My sister and brother must have been indelibly scarred from this experience, as both cannot stand coffee.  I, on the other hand, am probably the fussiest coffee drinker I know.  I find myself doing the same thing as my mother now.  If I can smell burned milk or that dirty, stagnant coffee ground smell, I give it a wide berth.  If the milk is frothed by leaving the jug wedged unattended on the grate, roiling stormily, I will just have an orange juice.

But as I cannot find the answer to my question - somewhere within walking distance that makes a fantastic latte - perhaps it's time to question whether the question itself is wrong.  Read on.

Pho Tam is tucked away on the edge of the Footscray CBD, at the corner of Leeds & Ryan Streets.  Its corner location means two windows face the street, and it's so enjoyable to watch the people going about their business, shopping at the grocer and the live fish shop opposite.

A new friend and I met here for lunch, and chatted until the busy restaurant emptied and only we were left.  We started with rice paper rolls or goi cuon filled with bi, shredded pork skin.

Goi cuon bi, $6

Although the server kindly brought us our own individual bowls of dipping sauce (a seasoned fish sauce sprinkled with peanuts, rather than the thick peanut or hoi sin dipping sauces usually served with rice paper rolls), unfortunately the rolls were not that great.  They had been premade and sat for too long in the fridge, so that they were cold and the skin had hardened.  The bi had very little flavour and was too chewy.

Hu tieu mi ga don, $9

I chose hu tieu mi ga don, or egg noodle soup with fried chicken.  Sadly the chicken was very much reheated and had become somewhat dry and grey.  The soup, however, was very good, with a zesty (MSG-enhanced) broth, al dente egg noodles, and topped with excellent vegies such as garlic chives, lettuce, broccoli, and fried shallots.  It was accompanied by a large crispy cracker.

Won ton (hoanh toanh) soup with prawn & pork, $9

My friend chose the won ton noodle soup with prawn and pork.  It was recommended that she have mixed rice and egg noodles.  A few won tons nestled under slices of pork, a prawn, vegies, a cracker, and a quail's egg.

The meal was all right, but nothing too phenomenal.  Phu Vinh nearby do similar excellent egg and rice noodle soups.  Pho Tam have a secret weapon, though, which I will get to.  I returned recently to see if I was missing something with the food.

Pho bo tai, $8

There's probably a reason they are called Pho Tam rather than Hu Tieu Mi (rice/egg noodle) Tam - the sliced beef pho was phenomenal!  A medium-sized bowl arrived, wafer-thin meat cooking quickly in the hot broth.  It was accompanied by the classic bean sprouts and Thai basil for tossing in, as well as raw onion slices, lemon, and chilli.  One slurp and I was in heaven.  The broth is so flavoursome, with much less MSG than the chicken version I had sampled the previous visit.  The aromatics in the pho broth really stand out, particularly star anise.  The actual meat itself may have had a little less flavour than that at Hung Vuong, for example, but a quick dip in a dish of chilli sauce rectified that.

I am so glad to have found their specialty.  They are very much a Vietnamese restaurant - no huge menu of Chinese-style meats with black bean, satay, Mongolian etc.  The menu is very accessible, though, with lots of pictures and detailed explanations of all the ingredients in a dish.  

But the real thing that keeps me going back is their iced coffee.  Most restaurants pre-brew their coffee and mix it with condensed milk behind the counter before presenting you with a glass.  Pho Tam, on the other hand, give you a glass of ice and another with a small layer of condensed milk.  Perched on top is a tiny coffee filter contraption shaped like a coffee cup itself.  The hot coffee slowly drips through holes in the bottom.  When it is fully drained, you whip up the coffee and condensed milk before pouring it over the ice.  As the ice melts, it waters down the condensed milk and coffee slightly, creating a long, cold drink.  Absolute heaven.

So all this time, great coffee has been right under my nose - just not hot Italian espresso coffee.  Come summer, you will find me in here, coffee at my elbow, accompanying meal or not.  Who knows, perhaps I'll see another mother, kids in tow, peer through the window at the silver filter contraption before exclaiming "right machine!" and settling down for a well-earned glass herself.

Pho Tam on Urbanspoon

Pho Tam
Cnr Leeds and Ryan Sts, Footscray (map)
Phone: 9687 2680
Hours: 8am - 9pm, 7 days

Monday, October 4, 2010


I've been searching for Matt Preston's "divine brand" for some time now, and Plume is the next feather in my cap.  My sister and I, raised on Sunday lunches of BBQ pork buns, siu mai, and endless glasses of lemonade, went there on Father's Day for a virtual cheers to our dad, who was overseas at the time.

Plume is next to Knifepoint Shopping Centre, which is manic on weekends.  My tip is to park on the upper deck of the carpark opposite and just walk down the stairs nearest the restaurant.

Ham sui gok

These ham sui gok were honestly the best both my sister and I have ever eaten.  These are nicknamed "footballs," and some specimens can be equally as leaden.  Not these - with just the slightest bite, the crispy shell gave way to meltingly soft glutinous rice dough, revealing a warm cavern of delicate pork mince.  WOW!

Jiao zi

These panfried dumplings, cousin of Japanese gyoza, were equally excellent.  Sometimes dumplings at yum cha may look different but they all taste of the same filling.  Not here - the cabbage in the filling was very pronounced, and it was finely minced.  Delectable!

Sticky rice

The sticky rice comes in a clear bowl that is upended.  It is studded with jewels like Chinese sausage and mushroom, and the rice has a "bite" rather than being too soft.  This was very nice.
Siu mai

The yum cha classic - a vaguely cylindrical morsel of pork and prawn mixture, tucked into delicate yellow pastry.  These were juicy, porky, really yummy.  One of mine had a whole prawn in it!  Whether this was intentional or not, I don't know.

Har gow

These were filled with big chunks of prawn and shredded ginger.  The skin was thicker than most other har gow I have eaten, but the flavour was excellent.

Shanghai dumplings

Every yum cha place tries to do these xiao long bao, the famous, soup-filled dumplings, and none of them get it right.  Here at Plume, they came in a little cupcake cup, I assume to stop the soup leaking out the bottoms if they stuck to their steamer or each other.  However, it was impossible to get them out of the cups without the pastry breaking, and there was only a dribble of soup in each one.  Leave these up to the experts, please! 

Wu gok

These are the same as ham sui gok, but instead of a glutinous rice dough, it's mashed taro.  You may have seen this vegetable at Little Saigon Market or your local Asian grocer. They look a bit like a deformed coconut, brown, woody, and hairy, and when sliced their flesh is white, shot through with brown squiggles.  This one was for you, Billy!  I am not a fan though, sadly.  Maybe it was bad wu but it was grainy and mushy.  These went to the baby in the highchair (who has thankfully moved on from prawn toast).

Baby octopus and jellyfish

And this one was for you, Dad!  We couldn't go the duck tongues, but these baby octopus were great.  They were chilled and dressed with sesame and a little chilli.  This was good jellyfish, too - kind of half crunchy, half chewy, a little like al dente rice noodles perhaps.  The taste is similarly "nothing" - just a carrier for the dressing.

Pipis, $17

I got overexcited and ordered these pipis.  FAIL.  Many were barely opened and they were dressed in a gloppy sauce which belonged in a bain marie in the food court next door, not coating expensive seafood.

Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce

Looks yummy, right?  WRONG - the stems were so woody, I had to revert to childhood and spit it out in my napkin.  Sorry if TMI!


These tiny fish are lightly battered, fried, and eaten whole.  See the tiny black eye in the fish looking to the right?  The kids loved these - "Mum, did the fish turn into chips?"


A tentacular tangle of deliciousness!  I love the contrast of frizzled suckers and juicy, fat legs.

Char siu bao

Plume had soared, floundered, and now returned to dizzying heights with a fabulous grand finale.  These BBQ pork buns were absolutely amazing.  The dough was so fluffy and tender, concealing juicy, fragrant BBQ pork slices within.  These always come in sets of 2, and as kids, there would always be a fight over who got the last one (I am one of 3 siblings).  Despite my protests that I could not eat any more, a sisterly squabble ensued over these, just like old times.

Plume is notoriously expensive, but is it worth the extra dough?  The dumplings and the bao were really, really good, but when you front up to pay, it stings a bit.  If you eat yum cha regularly like I do, it stings too much to make it my regular haunt.  I would recommend it for a special occasion.  For everyday, I like Gold Leaf Docklands or Sunshine for the balance of price and quality, plus Sunshine has the chandelier X factor.  A bit of glam on a Sunday morning never goes astray!

Plume on Urbanspoon

200 Rosamond Rd, Maribyrnong (map)
Phone: 9318 6833
Prices: $5, $6.50, $8, $9.50
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