65 Alfrieda St, St Albans. Phone: 9364 5880
By the time I make it to the bustling Viet precinct of Alfrieda St, a sublime appetite is upon me.
First stop is Cairnlea, where I am keen to pursue some unfinished business at Kabayan Filipino Restaurant.
To my dismay, I discover it’s no longer there, being replaced by an Indian joint I deem to pricey for a quickie Sunday lunch.
Just around the corner and a few doors away, though, a shop in the process of being overhauled has a big sign bearing the Kabayan name, so maybe it’s merely moving house.
I figure some tangy, tasty Vietnamese tucker will do just fine, but on the way to Chu Nam Quan I stop by at not one but two Filipino groceries also bearing the Kabayan name, hoping to ascertain the restaurant’s fate.
At the first, I consider the staff are a tad too busy to trifle with me.
A few doors away is Vardar, at which Ms Baklover of Footscray Food Blog had a fine old time a month or so ago. The sign on the door says, yes, they’re open for Sunday lunch, so up the stairs I go.
No they’re not.
(Aside to my buddy Roger: See, mate, I’d love to list the operating hours of the places we review, but even when there ARE stated hours, there’s no guaranteed they’ll be adhered to. Use the phone …)
At the second Kabayan grocery, right in the St Albans hub itself, I meet a bloke who turns out to be Mr Kabayan himself. He assures me his restaurant will be up and running at its new Cairnlea premises in a few weeks. We’ll certainly keep y’all posted on that.
So Chu Nam Quan it is.
Bennie and I, in our progressive exploration of Alfrieda St, marked this busy place down as one of supreme interest in our previous week’s jaunt to sup at Just Good Food. As well, a comment contributor at Footscray Food Blog had raved about it.
It is one of the rare places the trades in pho and a whole other range of soups, noodles and Chinese dishes.
I am aware that in ordering the tom yam soup in a Viet place I am taking a punt. But the truth is I’ve had me some fine tom yam soups in non-Thai places. And I really dig the idea of getting a taste of that irresistible flavour for a starter price.
My tom yam is emphatically not Thai – or not purely Thai.
Yes, it has that flavour, but it is viscous like Chinese soup – think chicken and sweet corn or, more appropriately, hot and sour.
Packed with lovely small prawns and chopped bits of calamari, tofu, carrot, broccoli, snow peas and red capsicum, it’s delicious – and at $4 quite a handy light meal all on its own.
This appears to be a fine thing, as I am initially disheartened by what appears to be a rather miserly chook portion that arrives with my order of rice with charcoal chicken (com ga nuong, $9).
But in this case at least, appearances deceive.
The chicken is more than substantial enough – and is right up there in the flavour stakes, too.
And like any punter who has eaten out Viet-style in the west with any regularity, I have had this dish many, many times.
The pickled bits of cabbage and carrot are joined – fabulously – by celery.
The dipping sauce is much spicier than I am used to, packed with long, fine strands of more carrot swimming around like the tresses of a punk hippie.
As both parts of my meal arrive more or less at the same time, the bowl of chicken broth that comes with the rice is barely warm by the time I get to it, but is too sweet for my tastes in any case.
Chu Nam Quan is a busy place – I reckon in the time I was there they turned over every table at least once.
Some of the meals I see being ordered and devoured around me look amazingly scrumptious, so we’ll be back.
For a moment, I wish there was some foolproof way of divining exactly the right dishes to order when trying a restaurant out for the first time.
But hit and miss is all part of the fun, eh?