Friend or Pho, 3 Ballarat Street, Yarraville. Phone: 9042 4431
A Vietnamese eatery for Yarraville?
A dose cynicism is warranted, I reckon.
For starters, Yarraville is a very mixed bag when it comes to Asian food – some good, some lacklustre, some already forgotten.
And then there’s the syndrome of funky Asian food moving into pretty places in trendy suburbs.
Isn’t it often the case that doing so results in higher prices, smaller portions and a diminuation of the heart – spicy soul, edgy flavours, call it what you will – that makes such food so very attractive?
What chance a really fabulous bowl of pho in downtown Yarraville?
And away from Footscray, Sunshine or St Albans – where numbers and competition ensure a very high standard?
In the case of Friend or Pho, the punny name is even based on mispronunciation.
A good sign is the gorgeous, larger-than-life, hand-written menu we have spied on the joint’s Facebook page – it’s all in Vietnamese.
But even then – banh mi is listed at $9.
That’s twice the going rate in Footscray.
Happily, things take a delightful turn towards dispelling our skepticism as soon as we enter and broach the price of that banh mi.
The answers we get run variously along the lines of …
“It’s just really good!”
“We make our own pickles and it’s got our own pork crackling!”
Even better, we soon learn that the sisters behind Friend or Pho – Anna (out front) and Chelsea (in the kitchen) – are lifelong, born-and-bred Yarravillians.
Indeed, about 15 years ago their parents ran a bakery on Anderson Street (corner of Buninyong Street, where the fancy cake makers now live).
Friend or Pho IS done out in very cool cafe style.
There’s seating inside, in the hallway and outside on the verandah.
The menu (see below in both English AND Vietnamese) runs through a tight line-up of mostly familiar dishes.
So how do we go on our first visit?
Oh my – it’s difficult to contain my enthusiasm.
This is simply great Vietnamese food – as good as any going around in the western suburbs and way better than most.
The wait times are appropriate for such great food and prices – banh mi aside – are in the regular ball park.
Beef pho ($12) is wonderful – and about medium size when compared to Footscray places that do the small-medium-large routine.
The broth is terrific and a bit salty (just as I like it).
And there’s a lot of beef in that bowl – sliced but cooked through and brisket.
All the accessories are fresh and top rate.
Bennie’s com tam ($13) is similarly excellent.
All the porky bits display in-house care and handiwork.
The meat loaf is peppery perfection and the pork chop is the most tender and beautifully cooked we have had with this dish.
He cleans his plate of the lot – including those gorgeous sweet pickle strands.
So fine is our Saturday lunch that we have no hesitation about returning on the Sunday to continue the joyful process of working our way through the Friend or Pho menu.
Bennie’s go ran of six fried chicken ribs costs ostensibly $9 but can be padded out with rice for $4 to make a more complete meal.
As with everything else we try at Friend or Pho, the ribs are state of the art – crisp, hot and delicious.
For $13, a few slices of cucumber or segments of tomato would bring this dish more into line with its fellow menu items in terms of portion size and value.
Just for the sake of variety and journalism, I choose the vegetarian pho ($12).
This is unlike any dish you’ll get at Footscray’s sole dedicated Vietnamese vegetarian eatery or at the Vietnamese temple in Brabrook – there’s little by way starch here and no mock meat.
Instead, the heft and texture is delivered by tofu and a super range of mushrooms – delightfully meaty in their own way.
The broth is so flavoursome that I feel obliged to make sure it’s not made with chicken bones or some such.
It’s made with the usual vegetables and shitake mushrooms.
Again – simply wonderful!
I reckon this will become known as one of Melbourne’s great vegetarian dishes.
Another prediction – friend or Pho is destined to be hit.
If it’s not already.
Friend or Pho is open for dinner every night of the week except Wednesday and Thursday. It is open for lunch on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
And breakfasts are coming.
The very idea of being able to imbibe a bowl of steaming hot world-class pho on a Monday night without getting in the car fills me with glee.
Check out the Friend or Pho Facebook page here.