Life Eat & Drink What the pho? Vietnamese street food gets posh
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What the pho? Vietnamese street food gets posh

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For the past 25 years, Duy Huynh’s parents have run a Vietnamese bakery in St. Albans. Before that, his grandmother filled crisp bánh mì with pate, pork and chilli on the streets of her village in the Mekong Delta. But despite its storied history, you might think Vietnamese cuisine was a recent invention – particularly given the fever with which it’s currently being consumed in the Melbourne CBD.

The shiny fit out at Pho Nom at Emporium.
The shiny fit out at Pho Nom at Emporium.

The city is awash with new venues from cutely-named outfits as diverse as Pho Nom, Vietnoms, Paperboy Kitchen, Twees Hut and FOB Rolls. Even Duy’s got his own one: Russell Street’s popular Ba’Get.

Because of the influence of France in Vietnam, the cuisine is already fusion in its nature

Duy believes that while gourmands have been onto bánh mì for years, the general public’s just cottoning onto their genius. His Russell Street outlet (and upcoming Elizabeth Street store) aims to be a ‘more approachable’ take on a dish that was arguably perfected by his parents. And he’s not fixing what ain’t broke.

The vital chilli hit of Sriracha sauce.
The vital chilli hit of Sriracha sauce.

“The recipes are very authentic, and we’re keeping them that way,” he insists. “People know when something’s not authentic. We’ve made a real point not to westernise anything, and keep to the core recipes that were developed in colonial Vietnam.”

Duy, admittedly, falls into the hardline of bánh mì traditionalists. “One of my pet peeves is when something’s called bánh mì and it’s got soft-shelled crab and avocado in it,” he says. “I think that, if it’s going to be called something then it should be true to form.”

Others, however, are looser in their interpretation. Adam Milgrom, another Vietnamese-cuisine lover, is more interested in tooling around than in observing the laws of tradition. “A lot of the places that do bánh mì and bun are very stuck in tradition, and can’t use the flavours that we use,” he explained. “We started playing around with it, taking influences from all around South-East Asia – a little bit of Thai stuff, a little bit of Korean.”

Pork belly ricepaper rolls at FOB.
Pork belly ricepaper rolls at FOB.

At Paperboy Kitchen, his street-food joint on Little Lonsdale Street, Milgrom’s doling out rolls and bowls filled with Lamb and Hoi-Sin, or Spiced BBQ Pork with chilli using kimchi and kewpie mayo. To his mind, innovating Vietnamese food is a perfectly legitimate enterprise. “Because of the influence of France in Vietnam, the cuisine is already fusion in its nature,” he argues.

Jerry Mai from PhoNom's.
Jerry Mai from Pho Nom.

Somewhere between the two is chef Jerry Mai, who grew up eating Vietnamese food in Springvale, on Victoria Street, and in her parents’ kitchen. “ I’ve grown up with it my whole life,” she says. “Because they’re flavours that I know, it became the direction that I went to work in.”

The chef, whose august resume includes stints at Dandelion, Gingerboy, Longrain, Seamstress and London’s Nahm, is more interested in the quality of produce than in reinventing the (pork) wheel. At her new venture in the Emporium shopping mall, Pho Nom, she’s aiming for ‘slow fast-food’. “Doing fast food doesn’t mean you have to use poor quality produce,” she says. “I was out to prove that you don’t need to buy poor quality meat, marinate it in bicarb to make it look bigger, and break it down to make it softer.”

Instead of cheap cuts cured in MSG, Mai uses Warialda and Hopkins River Beef, Wagyu tails and chickens from Millawa for her phở, bánh mì and rice-paper rolls. And, it might be sacrilege to say it, but she reckons that makes it even better than eating pho on a pink plastic stool on a street corner in Hanoi. “People will argue until they’re blue in the face, but our beef is so much better in Australia,” she says. “If you start with a good product, you end up with a better product.”

Paperboy Kitchen.
Paperboy Kitchen.

She believes that Melburnians have become so au fait with Vietnamese cuisine thanks to a growth in travel to the region – and through the help of celeb chefs like Luke Nguyen. “Over the last five to seven years, a lot more people have been travelling to Vietnam,” she says. “People are coming to realise it’s not just dodgy stir fries from Victoria Street.Everything’s so fresh, there’s heaps of herbs, heaps of salad, no stodgy corn-starch. I think people are beginning to really appreciate that.”

And though the new wave of Vietnamese has its many, many admirers, its harshest critics remain those to whom it’s most familiar. “Sometimes I get Vietnamese people in and they say, “Your pho’s really good; it’s nearly as good as my mum’s!”” laughs Mai. “To me that’s so good, because for a Vietnamese person, no-one’s food’s better than your own mum’s cooking.”