Vietnamese cool with many twists

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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.

 

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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:

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

For breakfast.

The gooey fried egg fits right in and the beef is so good – full of tender and flavour.

 

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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?

Kind of.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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Our obvious choices for dessert – the flan and the creme caramel – are sold out for the day.

Darn!

But coconut ice-cream – ken dua ($5.80) – does us just fine.

It’s a white delight that comes with more of those peanuts.

 

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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?

 

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Mr, where are our dumplings?

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Mr Pan Fry, 268 Racecourse Road, Flemington. Phone: 0455 452 119

Consider The Sauce and pals – quite a number of them – have gathered for a sort-of informal Chinese New Year celebration.

The venue for our eating is a brand new Chinese place called Mr Pan Fry.

As previously noted, we love the intense diversity of Racecourse Road.

But we rarely venture down this end, so I have no recall of what sort of business was formerly in these premises.

Mr Pan Fry is done out crisp but basic furnishings and colours.

The front window space is dedicated to on-view dumpling production, though by the time I think to photograph some of that action, the work has ceased for the night.

There’s a heaping variety of those dumplings listed on the menu, which also extends to a variety of meat and vegetable main dishes and some rudimentary rice and noodle offerings.

We order with abandon, doubling up on some dishes to make sure there’s enough to keep all nine of our mouths happy.

 

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Shanghai fried noodles ($10.80) are a good, basic dish.

 

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The broth-laden “baowie steamed juicy pork buns” ($10.80) are very excellent.

 

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Pot stickers (pan-fried chicken and prawn dumplings, $12.80) are served like a crispy upside-down pie.

They, too, are very good.

 

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Stir-fried tofu with vegetables ($13.80) and …

 

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… fried tofu with pork mince and Sichaun sauce ($13.80) steer us away from dumplings with some aplomb.

The latter’s tofu is a silky smooth treat in a dish that is our most spicy of the night by quite a distance.

 

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Stir-fried salted pepper ribs ($18) are nice but not quite what we – well, what I – have been expecting.

The tangy batter is rather like that most of tonight’s group had across the road at Pacific Seafood BBQ House on a night of rampant crabiness. In that case, the batter coated chicken ribs.

With the pork ribs? Hmmm, interesting … chewy but not quite a bullseye.

In addition to all of the above, at Mr Pan Fry we also enjoy spring onion pancake and another variety of dumpling, the precise nature of which now escapes me as a result of re-ordering due to unavailability of one species in our initial choices.

And we had a delicious, unctuous dish labelled stewed pork belly with chef special sauce ($20.80), which for some reason escapes scrutiny by my camera but which is, perhaps, the hit of the night.

We find the food at Mr Pan Fry to be mostly very good, with the dumplings rating a notch higher.

The menu isn’t as long but the approach is somewhat similar to the adjacent I Love Dumplings.

I suspect, somehow, that Mr Pan Fry has a good chance of becoming a regular haunt as it’s a lovely, cosy place and the service we are provided is warm, smiling and obliging.

We’ve eaten well and having such a big group seems to have helped keep the price per head at most admirable $22.

 

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New jewel for Racecourse Road

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New Somali Kitchen, 284 Racecourse Road, Flemington. Phone: 8589 7631

There are a handful of African establishments on Racecourse Road, one of our favourite food destinations.

But mostly they seem content to keep themselves to themselves and their communities.

New Somali Kitchen – located in what for many years the strip’s charcoal chicken stalwart and, more recently, a short-lived burger joint – presents a more welcoming mien.

It’s done out in white tiles and dark wood and looks a treat.

Oddly enough, on my two visits so far, my fellow customers have been overwhelmingly from the Somali community!

I’ve found the service to be prompt and good.

The menu (see below) is admirably tight and very affordably priced.

 

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A plate of warm salad ($13) I see being scooted off to another table inspires me to order likewise.

Initially, I am taken aback that mine is not drizzled atop with bright, white yogurt dressing and the advertised pine nuts seem in very short supply.

But this is still very nice – the dressing is mixed throughout; there’s a heap of chopped, crunchy, roasted almonds; and the many leaves are fresh as.

The lamb – in the form of a many charred chunks – is a delight.

It’s tender and close to being free of gristle or bone.

 

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But the main game in mains at New Somali Kitchen – and the dish I’m guessing is ordered by at least half the clientele – is the NSK Classic ($10, $13).

This is the cheaper version – and a very good meal it iso.

The cooked-in-stock rice is marvellous and the fiery green chilli sauce is a piquant flavour hit.

The lamb is good – a bit on the gnarly side but nothing that anyone familiar with this kind of food is going to find unusual or unusually challenging.

Sadly, the accompanying lamb broth is unavailable for me this time around.

 

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New Somali Kitchen sports a nifty line-up of very cheap and wonderful sides such as sambusa, meatballs and these gorgeous and tasty bajeya – an African version of the eternal falafel ($4 for three pieces) made with black eye peas.

 

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Unlike many African eateries, New Somali Kitchen boasts a short list of house-made desserts – and they’re all good and well priced.

This cinnamon and cardamom cake ($4) is moister than it appears may be the case and anointed with yogurt.

 

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The “mango & yogurt dessert” and “Somali Affogato” (both $5) are equally enjoyable.

See Nat Stockley’s review here.

 

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Meal of the week No.19: La Delicatezza

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Sort of hidden in plain sight – surrounded as it is by high-profile Malaysian eateries and overtly public cafes – it’s easy to not notice La Delicatezza on Pin Oak Crescent in Flemington.

I was last in here several years ago for a ploughman’s lunch.

Not much has changed, though that item no longer seems available and the place appears to be now run by a whole new crew.

But it is the same in terms of being a tranquil spot to hang for a while, with its cool interior and adjacent courtyard.

Lunch here comes down to a long list of toasties and paninis, a couple of soups, canelloni, lasagne (see below).

I roll the dice and make my choice – the chicken schnitzel panini with coleslaw ($8.90) – wondering as I do if these folks know what they’re doing.

The answer, emphatically, is a rousing: Yes!!!

Let me count the ways …

The bread is gorgeous, fresh and wonderfully warmed through.

The coleslaw is just right in substance and flavour.

I’m assured the chicken is of the crumbed variety.

But so meltingly tender and superbly seasoned is it, that it comes across more as roast chook – and I mean that as a compliment.

This is an incredibly ace sandwich – a masterpiece even.

And as such, and at a price below $10, it excels in ways that many hipster joints of the kind that end up on Top 10 lists and charge way more struggle to match.

Gee, I want to try them all …

 

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Burgers? Best in show

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Zigzag Burgers ‘n’ Salads, Showgrounds Village, 320 Epsom Road, Flemington. Phone: 9372 5948

We’ve never felt any affinity for the showgrounds shopping precinct – the very honourary Lebanese fare of Saj aside.

Even last week, upon spying a new fast-food outlet, my eyes and mind slid by with barely a hint of interest.

Perhaps its was the somewhat conflicted description of “Burgers ‘n’ Salads”.

But then a regular reader and burger fan – Hi Lauren! – broadly hinted she’d love the CTS verdict before taking the plunge herself.

And then, when doing some research, I noted some very positive reviews at Urbanspoon and on the joint’s Facebook page.

Hmmm, this was starting to look more promising by the minute.

So much so that a report from our burger guru of choice, Nat Stockley, that he’d heard mixed comments about the place in no way deterred a happy, hungry CTS Team of four fronting up for Sunday lunch.

Our verdict?

Oh, yes – this is a winner!

Everything we had was good or excellent.

Our multi-facted order arrived within minutes but the food showed no signs of hasty preparation.

And the pricing (see menu below) is excellent.

 

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Bennie went the brisket bacon deluxe ($9.90) and he liked it plenty.

He reported the brisket was less like the BBQ versions we’ve been indulging in mightily in recent months and more like the brisket “you get in pho”.

But it all worked good for him, and that included the dressing/sauce and salad components.

As part of a combo deal, he also got a serve of the “house cut chips”, another order of which we got to share.

They were tasty but not crisp – not that it mattered.

 

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Our table also ordered a serve apiece of the popcorn chicken (above) and the popcorn prawns – both priced at $8.50.

The serves looked small but were big enough to ensure that all four of us got a good taste of both.

They were both excellent – crisp, unoily and tasty, with dipping sauces (chilli garlic mayo and Thai lime chilli) providing nice contrasts.

 

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The recipient of the chicken burger ($9.50) was happy with his lot while also reporting that the thin chicken breast, grilled not crumbed, was a little on the dry side.

No matter – as with all our burgers, the whole in terms of construction, presentation, balance and ingredients made such a criticism very muted indeed.

 

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I reckon I did best of all of us with my beef bacon deluxe ($9.90).

Again, all was in harmony.

This was a damn fine burger for $10 – one could easily pay another $5 and more around town for such a fine sandwich.

 

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And the salad portion of Zigzag?

Well, obviously we were in no mood for any such thing.

But the salad display actually looked very interesting and varied.

This could be a winner for Zigzag, as several customers were going salad instead of burgers when we were in the house, and the food options – especially quick, cheap and healthy ones – are not thick on the ground around here.

We had a super lunch, and on that basis we vote unanimously that Zigzag is a new, small western suburbs business that is doing good.

And for those who care, there’s not an ounce of hipster to be seen – and as little likelihood of queues.

Check out the Zigzag website here, though the menu there is not as detailed as the one below.

 

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Do dogs dig dumplings?

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I Love Dumplings, 311 Racecourse Road, Flemington. Phone: 9372 5218

The restaurant also known as Chinese Spicy and Barbie Kitchen appears to have bowed to the obvious and inevitable by embracing I Love Dumplings as its major name.

It’s also moved a few doors up the road – into what was once a bank building.

 

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On the outside, it’s drab, box-like appearance still reeks of financial sector.

 

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Inside, and after a no-doubt expensive and extensive makeover, it looks like, well, a Chinese restaurant.

With a happy, big mid–week lunch crowd in attendance and a vinegary tang in the air, it sounds and smells like one, too.

Team CTS is today two robust appetites and one not so much.

We order smartly and stick solely to dumplings – or almost – in celebration of the management’s embracing of the dumpling love mantra.

The lunch menu (see below), mind you, has a lot of very well priced and interesting non-dumpling dishes about the $10 mark that will make this a lunch hot spot for sure.

We spend about $10 per head and eat like kings.

 

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Pan-fried chicken corn dumplings ($9.80 for 15) are extreme in terms of plainness but taste beaut, the lovely chicken meat having enough corn kernels to provide flavour and texture lifts.

 

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Steamed pork and spring onion buns ($11.80 for six) are, we are assured, quite different from the regular BBQ pork buns.

We don’t find that to be the case, but they’re a hit anyway – quite delicate, and with enough moistness in the filling to offset the doughy exteriors.

 

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Steamed vegetarian dumplings in Sichuan chili sauce ($9.80 for 15) are our best dish.

The soy-based, thin sauce has enough of a spice kick to make the already fab dumplings really sing.

The parcels are packed with all sorts of goodies that make the absence of any sort of animal protein an irrelevance.

Do dogs dig dumplings?

The guide dog trainers of two lovely labs that have been in the house for lunch-time assure us they would if they could!

 

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Racecourse Road eats goss

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Chinese Spicy And Barbie Kitchen – far, far better known these days as I Love Dumplings – is one of the most popular eateries in the Racecourse Road neighbourhood.

It’s also one of the few that has a reputation and some cachet outside the west.

So it makes sense that the whole operation is on the move.

 

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The business will be moving into the refurbished former bank building a few doors along.

I’m pretty sure it was an ANZ, but there’s a NAB badge right there.

The fit-out looks to be well advanced and I’m told moving day will be in a couple of weeks.

The new venue will have a seating capacity of 120.

The existing ILD place will be stay “in the family”, to become in due course another eatery.

 

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Sitting adjacent to the bank building, the premises that once housed Chilli Padi Mamak Kopittam is now vacant.

But works are underway inside.

In due course, expect a branch of the popular Pacific Seafood BBQ House chain that is a star of Lonsdale Street, South Yarra and Richmond to be opening up.

 

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Meanwhile, Veggie Villa – which took over a shopfront what for many years housed a pretty decent Indian restaurant – seems to have found a handy niche on Racecourse Road, judging by the number of customers I see in there.

They’re not huge, numbers mind you, but seem enough to be going on with.

I’m prepared to give the joint another go.

But my sole visit came about because I really liked the sound of their smoked eggplant curry, which had no smoky flavour at all and in which the eggplant was cooked down to such an extent that it was basically just … gravy!

Reports, anyone?