Hem 27, shop 27, 320-380 Epsom Road, Flemington. Phone: 9376 2961
Hem is Vietnamese for alley.
The new Vietnamese restaurant at the showground shopping centre is in shop 27.
Hence Hem 27.
But that simple explanation tells only part of the story.
There has been a lot of thought and time put into the renovation of this space to provide a zippy, cheap eatery with some of the ambience of a Saigon alleyway.
It certainly looks very different from the business it replaces!
But that, too, tells only part of the story.
Like just about all the westies we know, we eat a lot of Vietnamese food.
So when a new place opens – Hem 27 has been doing business for about a month – the scanning of the menu for new, different and interesting dishes is of the reflex variety.
At Hem 27, we strike it deliciously rich.
Sure, the longish menu (see below) has such stalwart Viatnamese regulars as pho and rice paper roles.
But there so much more!
The chef’s special list has two different soup noodles with crab.
And there’s another crab soup-noodle elsewhere on the menu – in the section that has Hanoi trio combo soup.
Consider The Sauce has visited three times – twice solo and once with a couple of buddies – and we’ve loved the food and everything about the place.
Here’s what we’ve tried:
Chicken spare ribs (suon ga chien, six for $6.80) are every bit as good as we expect.
Excellent, in fact – crisp, superbly fried with no residue oil and tasty.
And surely the chicken wings are every bit as good.
We expect our trio of fish cakes (cha ca thac lac chien, $7.80) to be superior to the usual, rubbery versions served up in routine Thai places.
And they are.
But there’s not much in it.
Yes, they’re rubbery but also quite tasty, with the grey colouring stimulating comparisons with pork.
Nui xo bao bit ten trung ($15.80) is a version of diced beef – but with pan-fried macaroni instead of tomato rice.
The pasta is a rolled-gold kick – perhaps cooked with the same tomatoey sauce as the rice in the more familar version, it comes with a hefty quotient of wok hei.
Oh, splendid yumminess – I could eat this pasta all by itself.
The gooey fried egg fits right in and the beef is so good – full of tender and flavour.
Bun ra gi ca ($11.80) is coconut curry chicken noodle soup.
It’s a bit more spicy and richer in colour and flavour than most Vietnamese chicken curries I’ve tried.
The chicken bits are OK but play second fiddle to the wonderful chunks of sweet potato, so well cooked they are on the verge of becoming part of the sauce.
A Vietnamese version of laksa?
Chosen from a list of four salads, goi xa xiu chay ($14.80) is topped with fried, almost-crisp tofu strips and vegetarian “barbecued pork”.
I’ve never been one for mock meat but as one of my companions points out, this works with its barbecue-style sauce and when gobbled with the salad components.
And they are excellent, fresh and zingy – with lots of roasted peanuts.
Ca kho to ($18) is Vietnamese caramelised braised fish in a clay pot – and it’s a killer.
When this dish arrives at our table, I find the rising aromas a little confronting.
But the eating and tasting dispels all doubt – this is a lusty, rich stunner.
The fish – basa (a sort-of Vietnamese catfish also know as swai) – is extremely well cooked and falling apart at the first touch of eating implements.
But it’s all good and the dish’s consumption elicits much ooh-ing and aah-ing.
Our obvious choices for dessert – the flan and the creme caramel – are sold out for the day.
But coconut ice-cream – ken dua ($5.80) – does us just fine.
It’s a white delight that comes with more of those peanuts.
Sweet steamed rice cake – banh bo hap nuoc cot duot ($5.80)- is rice cake dipped using toothpicks in coconut cream.
I find it to be intriguing but fail to be won over.
The rice cake patties have a similar, spongy texture to hoppers or injera and are plain in terms of taste.
Dipping them in the beaut cream and then swallowing feels a bit like downing an oyster!
As all of the above makes clear, not everything tried by CTS at Hem 27 was found to be totally persuasive.
But we dig the whole place and what it’s about without inhibition.
The service has been fine – thanks, Mindy!
And there’s a whole lot more on that menu to try.
Sticking my neck out: This place is destined to be a smash hit.
And maybe even to attain the same sort of cult-like status as, say 8bit?