One unexpected side effect of my travels in the Far East, was the growth of something of an obsession with a dish I was never fully opposed to, but previously would never have taken the time to seek out, order or indeed write up an entire article about; a humble, clear broth; noodle soup. To be more specific, the divine Vietnamese bowl of aromatic perfection we know as Pho.
During our travels we set ourselves a little challenge; so as not to waste any opportunity for discovery on a tired favourite, which in all fairness would never have lived up to our expectations (ever had a pizza made by some one with absolutely no concept of Italian food, or even cheese for that matter?) we went to the shady places, the local markets, little road side vendors with tiny plastic tables and chairs set up on the footpath, the road, even the gutter, wherever there was an available piece of real estate, 3 meals a day! This little “challenge” ended up becoming somewhat of a quest, with each meal becoming an excuse for another grand adventure into the unknown and the possibility of food poisoning.
We were often eyed with suspicion, and openly ridiculed by the native patrons of such “establishments”, a couple of starry eyed westerners out of their comfort zone, an exotic novelty to others; these were not the kinds of places that most tourists dare to tread. I have waxed lyrical on the unifying power of food in the past I am sure, this was never more evident than on our little food safari’s, whether we were mocked or cautiously engaged by our hosts, once we could manage “hello” and order food in the native tongue we were generally either left right the fuck alone, or adopted into a group of half cut old timers who, from the first beer on, would not lets us pay for anything, and attempt (I said attempt) to out drink me, and feed us whatever terrifying novelty they were eating themselves. A few times I must admit I was more than a little dubious about the morsels placed in front of me, especially when the whole table would stop and quietly stare at you as you took your first bite of fetal quail eggs, and then the interior monologue kicks in;
“What the fuck is this! Do these guys even eat this shit? Now you have to eat it, all these guys are staring at you and you’ve been holding this half developed bird embryo in front of your mouth for way too long now! Peer pressure is a bitch!” The trick I found was to just smash it! And then as the salty old drunkards were cheering, clapping, and laughing at you, you ask for another one! Check mate fuckers!
These wee evening excursions with the hardened alcoholics of the Vietnamese working class most often lead to a groggy, if not slightly (if not extremely) painful excursion to the local market the next morning in search of a healing tonic for body and soul. It was on these blurry, unreasonably sweaty mornings, on plastic kids chairs, mere meters away from a mind boggling array of unidentifiable animal parts, and pungent pastes in various stages of ferment that would have made even those with the most solid constitution gag, that my burning obsession with Pho was born.
Upon our return to the western world, and after a 4 month sabbatical from the heavily processed offerings in such overwhelming abundance, it was sickening to behold the developed worlds eager detachment from “real food”. Flying out from a 35°c Bankok morning and touching down in the deepest, darkest end of a particularly bitter 7°c Melbourne winters eve, our hearts sank as we passed the fourth highway side McDonalds-Hungry Jacks-KFC cluster on the way to our intended destination. Was I ready to return to the land of rape and honey? how would I readjust to this “normality”, and most importantly where the hell was I going to find good Pho in this Caucasian wasteland?
High on the rush of a new adventure, we set out to find our place in a city that is home to as many people that reside in my entire home country. Thank the heavens for Footscray. I knew nothing of Footscray’s shady past as a junky-filled, industrial hell hole, what I saw was that over half of the shop signs were in Vietnamese! To my delight, further investigation revealed not one, but two fresh produce markets, and Banh Mi’s and Pho on every corner.
Fast forward roughly 1 ½ years, and that thing that inevitably happens, happened. You set out with every intention of trying every little dingy noodle shop in Melbourne but instead you find 2 or 3 that are simply so good that you end up just going to those 2 or 3 places for a quality guaranteed fix. So we set ourselves with a new challenge this year, call it a resolution if you must, but truly I see it as a license to explore; we would not eat at the same restaurant twice this year (on the exception of showing visitors our new discoveries). So again we said goodbye to the tried and true and set out in search of new favourites. Which brings us (finally) to the actual focus of this article, Pho Tam.
Nestled in amongst a vibrant orgy of intermingled cultures you can find almost anything you want in this rough diamond in Melbourne’s west. Generations of refugees, each bringing their unique cuisines along for the ride find Footscray home to Chinese, Italian, Indian, Ethiopian as well as one or two of the best burgers you’ll find anywhere in the city. But to me the core cuisine of my new home abroad is Vietnamese. Saying good bye to our regular Pho shop was one of the immediate draw backs of our resolution, and yet I fretted in vain.
I had been eyeing up Pho Tam for a good couple of weeks before we stepped in the door, the menu read with the usual amount of ambiguity that one comes to expect from a good Asian restaurant, and there always seemed to be a pleasing lack of non-Asian patronage (if there are more white people than Asians in an Asian restaurant you know it’s gonna be shit!). Greeted at the door by a refreshingly indifferent young Vietnamese woman we were vaguely waved in the direction of a vacant table and promptly set about dissecting the menu. Looking around I notice that there a lot more white faces here than usual, but decide to push on anyway.
Flagging down our surly server we muddled our way through her broken English and obvious distaste for whiteys to order ourselves some starters, painfully explaining that we would be ordering more once we had sampled the first round, a deep sigh and ever not-so-subtle rolling of the eyes and our waitress was off to get our food underway. I should mention at this point that I don’t actually view crappy service at an Asian eatery as a negative. This may seem odd to most, but the level of underlying hostility is directly proportionate to the authenticity of the food. Due to this, and our experiences abroad, the rude service has become almost part of the experience for us now, and it seems so much more of an achievement when you finally manage to get exactly what you want from these stone cold cunts! It’s kinda like you have to put in that little bit of extra effort to get the good shit!
We bust out our trusty personal devices and no sooner had we starting taking photos of the menu and discussing the experience up until this point that, what I can only assume was the mother of the other table troll takes over serving us with a much more agreeable temperament. A bowl of pork and seafood awesomeness arrives at our table soon after, the rich aromatic musk coming off this plate setting fire to my olfactory senses. The only problem now was that we didn’t order this at all. The only thing worse than receiving the wrong food at your table is when the food you didn’t order looks better than what you actually did order! I briefly consider just tucking into this mistaken plate of deliciousness before my conscience get the better of me and we (regrettably) have it taken away.
Our far more modest starters come out. Spring rolls served with fresh iceberg lettuce and nuoc cham, classic and undeniably the whitest thing you could possibly order at this kind of place. Thit Bo Nuong La Lot on the other hand screamed authenticity, and was even presented with the naff crinkle cut carrots and crushed peanuts. As soon as this morsel hit my palate I’m instantly transported back the dingy beer halls of Vietnam where I first came across this wonder. My partner orders up a ca phe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk) which comes out the right way, with the filter cup sitting on top of a glass which drips black gold into a pool of condensed milk, which is then stirred and poured over another glass of ice. I order a custard apple smoothy (otherwise known as the best fucken thing on earth!) and venture a second round of food.
No more mucking around folks, it Pho time. I get the works, combination beef and chicken with offal from both animals and giant gelatinous cubes of blood jelly! Delicate rice noodles suspended in a perfectly clear broth that explodes with a super satisfying umami overload with subtle hints of star anise and cassia. The usual accompanying plate of herbs is unusually devoid of actual herbs at this point, a situation that is hastily reconciled by the more attentive of our two hosts, and after dumping my customary two and a half teaspoons of chilli oil and half a cup of fish sauce in there I am in Pho heaven.
It’s a big bowl of food for $10, and as I begin to run out of solid components to my meal I can’t help but notice that my prized custard apple smoothy is nowhere to be found. No point being overly polite or shy in a Vietnamese restaurant so I set out to enquire about the fate of my missing smoothy, only to have it miraculously materialise at our table before I can even get our sour young server to acknowledge my existence.
So after a few hiccups and two outstanding bowls of noodles we also notice that Pho Tam has those magical 3 letters you want to see on the window of all of your favourite local cheap eats, B-Y-O. This little nuggetty find on the back streets of our own hood is after all the entire point of our self-imposed eating restrictions. That is to escape the dreaded comfort zone and acquire new favourites along the way. So with the vague, slightly confusing menu, drab décor, dreadful service, amazing, and ridiculously cheap food, and the potential to have a couple of boozey ones on the cheap, Pho Tam has it all. We had a thoroughly enjoyable evening and found a mighty bowl of Pho that equals, or even surpasses our old regular haunt. The worst thing about the whole experience is that we can’t go back there for the next 9 months!