100 Hopkins St, Footscray. Phone: 9689 1887
There are few – if any – restaurants we have visited more than Tan Huu Thanh during our decade in the west.
For a while there it seemed like a weekly, or at least fortnightly, event.
Recently, for various reasons – including the pleasurable yet mandatory restless wandering that goes with doing a food blog – visits have been scarce.
So it is with some glee that we enter for a celebratory dinner – hey, we made it through to hump day, OK? – on this Wednesday.
The kids are a bit older, one not yet born we started hitting this joint is a happy little chappie and the smiles of welcome are like old friends.
This is a non-pho place in the heart of Footscray’s Viet precinct.
There are intriguing nooks and crannies on the menu we have yet to explore, but we do have our favourites, after all.
We love the entree size wonton soup for $5. With a handful of plump dumplings reclining in a clear and peppery chicken broth, it usually comes with a few slices of roast pork as a bonus and is a pretty cool light meal all on its ownsome.
We adore the diced cube steak and rice (com bo luc lac) and its crispy chicken sibling for $9.50 – for us, state of the art for these dishes hereabouts.
But tonight, just for kicks and because it’s been so long since we dropped by, we are lashing out with an order for sizzling steak (bo nuong vi).
Available in $30 and $40 sizes, this is tasty, (mostly) healthy Vietnamese food – and also bags of hands-on fun.
Brought to our table, along with a gas-fired cooker, are plates …
Of cucumber sticks, shredded carrot and pineapple.
Of rice vermicelli.
Of herbs, bean sprouts and lettuce.
Of rice paper.
Then comes a platter – the glorious centrepoint of the whole performance – of finely sliced beef, pretty as a picture, sprinkled with lemongrass and obviously prepared by a deft hand using an extremely sharp knife on, I have been told, meat that is partially frozen.
Finally, there’s a bowl of a dipping concoction made of fish sauce, vinegar, salt, pepper and a little chilli; and another of a butter and oil mixed and laced with some more lemongrass.
Once the cooker is fired up, we slop on some of butter/oil combo and wait for the grill plate to get hot.
Then on the meat goes – and the intense entertainment really starts.
It’s a preposterous fun balancing the nack of getting the meat nicely charred but not overcooked while simultaneously soaking the rice paper in the hot water provided.
When the meat is placed on the now soft rice paper, we add some of the herbs, vegies, vermicelli and attempt to roll – using our inexpert hands – our custom-made masterpieces into neat and tidy taste parcels.
We fail! But we get by – and it all tastes fantastic.
Before we know it, the lot is gone – consumed, down the hatch, devoured with zeal.
At $30, it has to be said this is not a large meal in an eatery and neighbourhood where the same sum will usually buy more food than two people can eat.
But it suffices.
And it may be that it is traditionally meant as entree to be shared among a whole table of folk. I’ll ask about that next time.
And there’s an added, not insignificant and long lingering bonus – as with the non-cutlery eating of Ethiopian food with injera, bo nuong vi leaves the perfume of a great food experience on one’s hands for many hours after the eating is done.
Tan Huu Thanh offers a similar dish – lau bo nhun dam – on the part of its menu devoted to large soups for sharing and steamboats, in which the beef is cooked in vinegar water.
But the one time we tried it, we found the vinegar flavour scarce and water method rendered the rolling of parcels – difficult enough with out clumsy digits – into an unsatisfactory and mushy experience.
As we leave, we resolve to check out some of the more intriguing dishes on the menu on future visits – or, at the very least, order the $40 bo nuong vi on a visit when we’re both ravenous and feeling well-heeled.