Lin Tan and I journey into Melbourne’s own piece of Saigon in the search for the perfect rice paper rolls, in pushy, exotically fragrant, fishwife-shouty Victoria Street, Richmond.
Joyce: Before commencing the rice paper roll marathon, I asked my Vietnamese friends for recommendations amongst a choice of over 20 Vietnamese/quasi-Vietnamese restaurants. Surprisingly, they told me that rice paper rolls are more commonly eaten at home than in restaurants. Though rolls might be ordered as part of a meal, they’d never specifically go to a restaurant that does ‘amazing rice paper rolls’.
What I also discovered was that when it comes to rice paper rolls, the Vietnamese tend to enjoy them as part of a ‘banquet’ where the rolls are served with a variety of other classic dishes, including grilled prawn on sugar cane, beef in betel leaves, spring rolls and maybe a whole grilled flounder.
Lin: Prior to this chance (planned) meeting, I had only eaten rice paper rolls once, offered to me by a complete stranger. The experience was eye-opening – literally – I stared intently, making sure he ate them first, lest it was poisoned. This time around, we conquered 3 restaurants, 12 rolls and even a side order of prawn and sugarcane.
Thanh Thanh, 246 Victoria Street
Joyce: Thanh Thanh is a favourite of my Vietnamese friend’s fussy grandmother and we decided that those decades of Vietnamese-eating experience couldn’t be wrong. Our prawn and pork rolls ($7 for 4 rolls) were delivered promptly and were obviously freshly made as the rice paper wasn’t too gummy to the touch. Flavour wise I found it a bit bland – I couldn’t taste the pork at all and the proportion of sharp herbs could have been increased. The traditional dipping sauce made with black bean, hoisin, sugar, water, vinegar and cornflour was a good counterpart for the blandness without being too overpowering. Overall, not a bad roll.
Lin: Bland indeed. The most memorable thing about this place was the sauce, such that without it, the roll would’ve be entirely forgettable. The sauce had a perfect mix of sweetness and nuttiness, and I found myself finishing off the rolls just to keep eating it. The rolls here had fresh ingredients; the shredded lettuce leaves were crisp, the few herbs, fragrant, and the noodles, a perfect al dente. An entirely pleasant textural rather than flavourful experience, Thanh Thanh’s rolls are best described as good prawn rolls – a celebration of mediocrity tied in with a ‘where’s porky?’ game.
Vi Lem Cafe, 345 Victoria Street
Joyce: Victoria Street has two sides – the bustling southern side where you can’t walk two metres without being bowled over by a trolley-wielding Asian grandmother, and the northern side a.k.a. no man’s land. Which is why I’ve never noticed the pleasant patio of Vi Lem Cafe until now. The restaurant’s light-filled space and relaxed vibe speaks of seamy Saigon.
For a change, we decided to try the grilled pork rice paper rolls ($8.50 for 4 rolls). Each roll was generously proportioned and the strong savoury flavours of the juicy grilled pork and peanuts balanced appetisingly with the sweet-sourness of the nuoc cham (dipping sauce made of fish sauce, lemon, sugar, chilli and pickled carrot). It was so delicious that I managed to scoff down two rolls before Lin had finished one.
Lin: That is true.
Joyce: Even the free fragrant tea seemed to be of a higher quality. We discovered that Vi Lem’s ‘house blend’ tea is actually a combination of Vietnamese tea (which I think is actually Chinese tea) and Lipton tea! You have to admire the effort.
Lin: I am still thinking (fantasising) about the grilled pork rice paper rolls at Vi Lem Café. I believe the pork had been marinated with some herbs and sweet sauce prior to being cooked perfectly on the grill. Accented with hints of slightly crisp, charred textures, the warm, succulent pork was perfectly matched alongside the refreshing greens and soft noodles. Unlike Thanh Thanh, the sauce here wasn’t the alpha male but was instead, the perfect partner to the roll – they walked down the aisle and into my mouth, for a match made in marital heaven.
Quan 88, 88 Victoria Street
Joyce: Before embarking on this venture, I read up on Michael Shmith’s recent sojourn up and down every Vietnamese restaurant in Victoria Street. On the basis of “superior difference in terms of quality” and “rice paper rolls, fresh and packed with fine, fresh ingredients”, we landed at Quan 88.
We should have known that we were doomed when the dining room didn’t have one Asian face in it. Our low expectations were met when our order of prawn and pork rolls ($7 for 4 rolls) came out in lightning speed, and we bit into cold, clammy pre-made rolls. To add insult to injury, the gluey blandness of each mouthful was accompanied by an insipid brown dipping sauce which tasted of pretty much nothing. Maybe it was an off day, but there is no way I could justifiably say that the rice paper rolls were of a superior quality and packed with fine, fresh ingredients.
Lin: I concur – disappointing end to our rice paper roll adventure. The rolls were really cold, i.e. kept in the fridge since yesterday and only taken out today, cold. In addition, not much care seemed to be taken when the rolls were prepared. Some rolls were served with a generous amount of herbs, some none at all, and others with pork only stuffed into one end of the roll – it was like a treasure hunt for lost ingredients, or a lucky dip. Speaking of dips, the sauce was watery and yes, tasted of nothing.
As a side note, Joyce was shocked that I hadn’t tried prawns with sugarcane before. As such, we ordered some that were served with iceberg lettuce, which you then use to wrap the prawns in. Was this the saving grace? – No, it was not. The prawn had an unpleasant mushy texture, and its smell (the mystery of the day) was a cross between that pungent pork odour and stale fishiness.
Joyce’s pick: Vi Lem for flavour, care and ambience. Worth the extra $1.50.
Lin’s pick: The delectable grilled pork rice rolls from Vi Lem Café.
This article originally appeared in Trespass Magazine.
You can also read about our search of the perfect gelato and the perfect mince pie. For other recommendations for Victoria Street eats, click here.