Sunday, April 7, 2013

Sunshine Pho Fever

The hottest ticket for me at this year's food festival wasn't Enrique Olvera's masterclass.  What had me glued to my computer, credit card in hand, waiting for the seconds to tick down wasn't the world's longest lunch.  The degustation I was craving was a three-course dinner with just one dish - Melbourne's favourite soupphở.

The event was Sunshine Phở Fever and I was burning up with anticipation.  What an awesome way to have a whistlestop tour of Sunshine's Vietnamese restaurants, meet the traders and compare bowls of phở almost side by side?  (...and hopefully nick Queen's Rose The Sun's phở urn.  I would like to lie under that, mouth agape, like Homer under a keg of Duff beer.)


Proceedings kicked off at the Granary.  Do you know why Sunshine is called Sunshine?  It was originally known as Braybrook Junction.  When the Sunshine Harvester Works agricultural machinery factory moved here, its workers were encouraged to settle in the vicinity.  They apparently petitioned to have the suburb renamed Sunshine in honour of this first employer.  Sunshine Harvester Works was at one point the largest manufacturer in Australia and these imposing iron gates in Devonshire Road are part of all that remains of this industrial behemoth.


A dispute between the owner of Sunshine Harvester Works and his employees led to the Harvester Judgment of 1907, a landmark legal case which enshrined in law for the first time that an employer must pay his workers a "fair and reasonable" wage.  I learnt last night that at the Granary you used to be able to have a coffee at the actual "round table" some of these deliberations took place upon.


We were split into two groups, and my group's first stop was Phở Hien Saigon.  This light-filled, popular restaurant serves southern Vietnamese-style phở from an intergenerational family recipe.


Owner Cung explained that they start cooking each batch at 9am the day before serving.  It bubbles until 9pm when it's turned off and sits overnight.  In the morning the broth is skimmed and served hot throughout the day.  When it runs out, it runs out - nothing is saved or reheated for the following day.  Noodles at Phở Hien Saigon arrive fresh daily too.  Check out what regular customer Mario has to say (and try not to scream when he applies the hoisin!)

"Say goodbye to Maccas boys!"  Love it!


The popularity of Cung's phở is such that he's expanding next door.  Phở Hien Saigon are also known for their banh xeo, available on Sundays only.  It's Cung's dad's recipe which he in turn learnt from his grandma.


This bowl of mixed beef and chicken phở was just heavenly - so crisp and clear in flavour, with quality beef.  Southern-style phở is less "spiced" than northern-style, relying more on fresh herbs to augment the rich beef broth.  Make sure you throw in some house-made pickled onions, available on each table.


Next stop, Sao Cafe for "phở stew".  Loving the red carpet!  Each restaurant on our tour had one rolled out...

P1080411 smart branding including bowls and placemats - excellent organisation and presentation.  Sao Cafe's signature dish is bo kho, a thick beef, potato and carrot stew most commonly enjoyed in northern Vietnam, close to the Chinese border.  It's usually served with bread for breakfast or with phở-style wide rice noodles at lunch and dinner.


Quoting from Gastronomy Blog:  "If Vietnamese noodle soups were a high school popularity contest, Phở would be crowned Homecoming King...  Bo Kho, on the other hand, would probably be chilling on the grassy knoll with the stoners; high and oblivious to the hype."  You need to try bo kho, and you need to try it from Sau Cafe.  This was sensational, with a thick, tomato-based sauce, tender carrot and potato and big chunks of beef, slow cooked until you could cut them with a teaspoon.  The basil on top provided a counterpoint to the rich, condensed flavours.


Last stop, Phu Vinh.  Phu Vinh's first store was in Footscray before they opened a second in Sunshine. 


Their signature dish is hu tieu mi, or rice/egg noodle soups, but upon opening their second store they decided to begin offering phở.


The lovely Stephanie explained that Phu Vinh's phở has a 24-hour cooking time and uses beef marrow and bones only (no chicken carcasses, which are apparently used as filler in some phở stockpots).  Theirs is a 45-year-old family recipe from the south of Vietnam.


I found Phu Vinh's phở good but on the sweet side for my taste.  Stephanie did explain that the longer cooking time is said to bring out more sweetness from the bones.  PS:  When I picked on Mario about the hoisin sauce earlier, you are technically not meant to add it to the soup, but rather put a little in a small dish and dip your meat in it sparingly (ditto the chilli oil or sate sauce in silver pots on each table).  But rules, schmules - do what tastes best.


Are you into Vietnamese three-colour drinks?  I admit I have never been - I find them too cloying.  Stephanie explained that they are a comparatively modern invention.  The original Vietnamese dish only had two colours - green jelly and red kidney beans - and was served with coconut milk in a typical rice bowl as a meal for labourers.  It was later fancied up with more colours and served in a glass.  I loved this original version, known as dau do banh lot, with slippery jelly "worms", sweet beans and the smooth crunch of ice in refreshing coconut milk.  I'm not sure if Phu Vinh do this all the time, but I'd love it if they would!


Hats off to the Sunshine Business Association for creating such a fantastic event.  The other group got to try three different restaurants, namely Queen's Rose The Sun, Thuan An and Nhi Huong (2 Sisters). You can read Andrew of FoodsCrazy's wrap-up of all three via the links above, and see Jen's wrap of the same sequence I visited here.  I didn't mind being split into two groups, but my suggestion would be that diners should get a "cheat sheet" or booklet on the restaurants they didn't get to try that night (perhaps featuring the images and blurbs from the placemats).  That way we can keep the phở fever burning for the next few Saturday nights to come!


  1. Yes - it was a really great experience. Enjoying the complimentary bowls at home too!

    1. Wasn't it great? Sorry I didn't get to meet you on my originally-booked night Phoebs - big, BIG belated thanks to Kristine for the spare ticket on Friday so I could actually attend!

  2. I was there that night and disappointed I did not book. I love Pho Hien but you have inspired me to try Sao I think.

    1. Give it a shot! They don't have pho proper but that bo kho - OMG.

  3. Hey :)

    You should visit Snow Tree again. I just went yesterday. They now have an extensive list for lunch. All around 7-15 if I remember correctly.

    1. Hi anon, thanks for the hot tip! I'll do my best to check them out soon. Bibimbap, yum!

  4. Melbourne's favourite soup? Chicken and corn. Or Rosella tomato.

    1. Disagree!! Maybe once but not anymore. Rosella is closing down to boot:

  5. Pho degustation, love it! How rad are the owners giving a rundown of how they make their broth etc..

  6. Great to read about the other stops, on the tour and yes it would be a good idea to let people know about the other venues involved!


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