From babyhood til my early 20’s I ate my fill of fillet steak. I sucked the caramelised fat off the juicy lamb chop bones. Melted cheese on toast was my favourite snack, even better sprinkled with diced bacon. I would have lived on chocolate ice cream if my parents had let me.
Vegetables were a means to an end. I selected a narrow few staples and refused all others. If there was a 2:1 ratio of baked potatoes to boiled vegetables I could almost swallow them down. Fish was crumbed and fried in lard with a side of home made chips on the side.
My later omnivorous years saw me sample snails and frogs legs, develop a fondness for quail and consume the breasts of battery chooks at an alarming rate. The year before I turned my back on meat my favourite thing was homemade hamburgers, the best quality mince, lots of onion, garlic and crispy bacon, topped with a thick slice of cheddar grilled on the bun.
Do I miss it? Not really. I enjoy the lack of “tummy bugs” and never ending colds. Though I eat a much wider variety of foods now, I can feel a little short changed at restaurants. Too often my selection is between one fish dish and a vegetarian option, the later eliminated due to being riddled with dairy products. I hungrily peruse a big fat menu and feel bereft of choice.
Asian eateries tend to offer a vast array of mysterious dishes. While fish and vegetables are common ingredients, so too are meats like pork and chicken mixed in with the so called “vegetarian” delights. While avoiding dairy can be relatively easy, the addition of MSG becomes a harder bullet to dodge. It’s all swings and roundabouts.
I have fond memories of visiting Victoria Street (Richmond) in my earlier years in this city. Eating cheap Vietnamese food with friends, leaving cramped, noisy restaurants on hot summers nights, the air humid and peppered with foreign voices. But the safe options I chose so often tasted predominantly salty and unexciting, I’d crave the company and the atmosphere but not the food.
A few weeks ago, armed with a great review from The Age I decided to give Vietnamese food another go. After the vegetarian soup that made my heart sing I knew I wanted to try more dishes from this busy, new kid on the “Little Saigon” block. As we paid a pittance for the feast we’d eaten the manager (like most restaurants on the strip this is a family business, his mother is the cook) talked about the authenticity of the food and offered to let us put ourselves in his hands next time.
I felt so safe there, they don’t add MSG (there’s the risk of pre-made sauces being adulterated but this is food cooked by a woman whose family can’t tolerate the stuff either) and that “vegetarian” means no chicken stock or just a little bit of pork. I couldn’t wait to go back and share the experience with friends.
This weekend I booked a table, knowing the place would be full at lunchtime and half a dozen of us placed our hands in the lovely manager’s hands to be served a seafood and vegetarian experience. My request were that there be only one meat dish (I toss the odd bone to the carnivores) and I had to have the little “rice pancakes” again that I fell in love with on my first visit.
I can’t do justice to describing the meal we ate, other than saying there was some significant envy going on amongst the few Western diners sitting at nearby tables. The “pancakes” (a crispy seafood filled shell served with sweet chilli sauce and coconut cream) were as good as the previous visit, there was also a larger version of the shell filled with bean shoots and prawns, some (non-traditional but yummy) steamed prawn dumplings, an Asian coleslaw with an unknown green vegetable fit for a king that I could have munched on all day, eggplant stuffed with seafood, a rich soy based fish dish counterbalanced by a slowly steamed fish and vegetable soup made at the table. Finishing with a bowl of cleansing soup was a perfect way to restore us after a delicious few hours of eating. The Significant Eater commented the peppered beef dish was the least interesting, so I didn’t feel like I’d missed out on anything.
We ate like Kings and Queens for under $28/head (we bought our own champagne, with minimum corkage charged). Though the place was busy, the meal was well paced so we could leisurely savour each course, spending almost 3 hours to enjoy the food and the company. It's hard to find better value than that.
So now the reveal! What is the name of this place? If you promise to be adventurous and let this gorgeous man order for you then I’ll tell you. There is so much more to Vietnamese food than rice paper rolls.
Thanh Nga Nine
160 Victoria St, Richmond, Melbourne
(Image courtesy of Lucy@Nourish Me)
Fighting over the last of the rice pancakes!