A WORLD away from Footscray, Tam Tran and Peter Le have opened up a Vietnamese noodle shop in the heart of Melbourne’s Little Italy. Meld foodie Diane Leow stirs the pot.
Chandeliers are almost always associated with posh restaurants, along with the clink of crystal glasses, hushed tones, classical music and prices that stun the average diner.
But at Saigon Pho (pronounced “fuh”) on Lygon St, a chandelier doesn’t mean posh. Instead of snooty waiters and incomprehensible menus, you’re welcome to a new Vietnamese dining experience in Melbourne’s acclaimed Little Italy.
Saigon Pho is the only Vietnamese restaurant on Lygon St at the moment. Some say it was a plucky decision by Tam Tran and Peter Le, the souls behind this noodle restaurant, to open it here.
Eight months ago, Le, who hardly reads the paper, flipped open a copy of the Vietnamese Times and came across an ad for a shop near the Melbourne CBD for an unbeatable price.
Thinking it was a printing error, he dragged Tran along to take a look. After discovering the Lygon St location, they decided to take the plunge into opening their second restaurant a world away from Footscray.
“It must have been the fastest ever business transaction,” Tran says.
“A few weeks later, we opened for business.”
The chandelier is a charming distraction. Apparently many pass Saigon Pho thinking it’s a fine dining institution, but step into this little homage to Vietnam and you’ll see the chairs are bright orange and jade green. The hardwood floor is mahogany to match the tabletops. The counter is slightly raised and behind it is a wall painted a bright, happy orange. The theme here is simplicity – from the decor right down to the food.
Everything on the menu is less than $12. Your table is clean and your glass doesn’t smell strange. Instead, you might catch a whiff of broth bubbling away in the kitchen.
On the day I was in, a smiley waitress came to take my order while I was contemplating the differences between this place and other famous Vietnamese eateries in Melbourne.
While most other pho restaurants are happy to take your order, see you slurp down your noodles and hand you the bill, Tran prefers to let her diners take their time.
“With food, we’re about cheap eats, but even though it’s cheap, we want it to be an experience,” she explains.
“We’re modern, second-generation Vietnamese, still serving authentic food, but different from the first generation.”
Le’s parents are the pioneers behind Richmond’s famous Vietnamese restaurant Hung Vuong. After their retirement, a relative took over the business.
Like Le’s parents’ restaurant, Saigon Pho is all about the pho.
At it’s core, pho is rice noodles in a soup. It’s a staple dish in most Vietnamese households and is considered very simple to make.
For me, a bowl of steaming pho brings much comfort on a cold Melbourne day. Tucking into the soup with sliced beef and beef balls, I reflect on the wonders of a Vietnamese kitchen. The rice noodles are silk-smooth, sometimes tumbling back into the fragrant broth, leaving only two strands between my chopsticks.
The broth here has that umami quality, savoury with a slightly sweet aftertaste. My favourite toppings are Vietnamese mint, bean shoots, a few slices of fresh chilli and the juice of a lemon wedge, so it comes as no surprise that there are a myriad of flavours in each mouthful.
My only complaint is that my bowl of noodles is sometimes inconsistent with each visit. On some days, the broth is intense and flavourful, while on others it lacks a little punch.
But Le and Tran reassure me they’re working hard to fix this inconsistency – and I believe them. Le spends more than 12 hours a day in the kitchen in a bid to perfect his soup, and that says a lot.
Saigon Pho might be an anomaly in Little Italy, but it’s a sure standout, with owners who take pride in their heritage and showcase their passion in their food.
Saigon Pho is located on 106 Lygon St, Carlton, and is open daily from 10am to 10pm. Phone: 9654 9653.