Following two arduous, pain staking nights of Seder, the Phuc Buddies reunited for an unprecedented third helping of the divinely given festival. The only differences on this night was that dinner would be held at Szechuan House, Kosher le Pesach guidelines would not be adhered to and it would be an experience shared with people we actually loved.
Having not touched a carb in well over 48 hours (going on 48 months for Marge), the three Phuc Wits were toeing the line between hungry and ravenous. Nestled between a Chinese medical clinic and a store that seemed to be selling anything and everything metallic, the two storied Szechuan House stood out like Mount Sinai in the Egyptian desert. As we made our way to the entrance a burning bush caused us to stop in our tracks, much to our disappointment however, it was merely a group of junkies trying to keep warm rather than the sign from God we were hoping for.
The menu literally left us spoilt for choice. Page upon page of dishes that were quite unfamiliar to Victoria Street veterans like ourselves and although in over our heads, we were excited by the prospect of trying something new. Szechuan cuisine is notorious for its spice and fragrance, elicited from the generous use of garlic, chilli and the aptly name Szechuan peppercorn. A three chilli classification system, three for the spiciest and one for the mildest, was used to warn patrons of the eye watering affects of each dish.
It should be noted that each dish we ordered was a mere two on the chilli scale. It was decided that a combination of intestinal blocking matzah and formidable quantities of chilli would have been a recipe for disaster, and cooler heads prevailed.
As a pre curser to the meal, the waitress brought over what could be described as a deconstructed charoset, with spice rather than sweet being the overriding flavour. The walnuts of the charoset were replaced by some form of soft peanut, the apple was substituted with marinated seaweed, and the red wine swapped with spicy tree fungi. The pickled chicken feet, were not only out of left field, but also inedible.
Having spent the last two nights meticulously poring over the Haggadah while opportunistically siphoning a crumb of matzah here, or a pickle there to satisfy our burgeoning hungers, we were pleasantly surprised when within minutes of polishing off the last of the peanuts our main meal had arrived. It was as if the chef’s not only knew we were coming, but knew exactly what we would order. Whether it was divine intervention or possibly the fact that we chose the most popular items on the menu didn’t matter, because it was time to eat!
The broth of the wonton soup was infused with what looked like chilli oil but turned out to be sweeter than anticipated. The chicken filling tasted more of a nutty cinnamon mix found in Turkish desserts and frankly left a lot to be desired. The fact that 3 of the 8 dumplings were left untouched speaks volumes. Especially because after the overdose of matzah balls, the Buddies were craving something that resembled kreplach, the wontons however, did not deliver.
The spicy deep fried chicken was arguably the star dish of the meal receiving wide acclaim from all three of the musketeers. A bed of roasted whole chilli’s was punctuated by deliciously spiced, and cooked to perfection pieces of flawless chicken. With the same addictive tendencies of a KFC favourite pop-corn chicken but with far less batter and negative health ramifications, the giant platter big enough to feed 5 was barely enough to satiate 3!
The pork and vegetable stir fry was also fantastic. Shredded pork combined with delicately cooked carrot, cabbage, broccoli, snow peas and of course liberal amounts of chilli, was heaped onto a plate and delivered to us still steaming from the wok. The consistency was almost like the filling of a spring roll, but fresher, tastier, and downright better. The corn flour thickened sauce ensured that the flavours were even distributed over every ingredient. If you enjoy a bowl of rice to really soak up a dish, this is the one for you.
The stuffed eggplant came to us incased in an aluminum shell that we quickly ripped open. Inside we found a generous portion of eggplant that was stuffed with pork mince, then seemingly pan fried on top to caramelise the meat and also seal in all the flavour. The eggplant was expertly cooked, with that melt in your mouth consistency that every aubergine-cooking chef should aim for. Although not overly spicy, it complemented the other two dishes which, when put together had enough spice to cover for this plant.
Unfortunately for the service points, but serendipitous for ourselves, the green beans were forgotten and although not even close to hungry, a little bit of foliage wouldn’t have gone astray!
The courteous and friendly service of all the waiters was noted and appreciated. Perennially dehydrated, we were extremely impressed with their dedication to ensuring we always had our glasses filled with water, however due to the explosive nature of the food, it’s basically a duty of care.
Overall the meal was highly enjoyable and easily one of the best we’ve eaten on our journey so far. As the manager delivered our bill with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” we were again impressed with the value of the meal.
As we made our Exodus from the restaurant we were all relieved that we would not have to follow in the footsteps of Moses and the Israelites and wander Victoria street for 40 years looking for our car, because it was exactly where we left it, in the parking lot.
Also, for the first time in living memory, Yez was beaten in the traditional post meal Buck Hunter session. Out of the three sites visited, Dizzle managed to conquer two of them while Marge shot magnificently to bring up a stage victory for himself. It has been reported Yez is taking time off to consider his future in the sport.
The Incredible Bury Wonderstone 0.5/5 – If you like movies where a bunch of has-been’s embarrass themselves then this is the movie for you
Extremely hungry and strangely craving lip balm, we decided to get stuck into the menu. While quite comprehensive and boasting a large array of specials, our previous disappointments had led us to take a more conservative approach. To start with we went for the obligatory prawn springers, some fried quail and a serve of salt and pepper pork ribs. Realising that we had just picked the trifecta of fried goodness we choose to move down a healthier route for the mains. Water spinach with garlic and Vietnamese salad with beef rounded out the meal.
*We did also order a serve of prawn stuffed eggplant but having run out of eggplant, this dish would have proved hard to conjure.
The springers arrived first, followed closely by the quail with pork ribs coming in 2 lengths behind. All three, while immediately clogging our arteries, were given a thumbs up, something seldom seen in recent times. The springers were crispy on the outside while moist on the inside and accompanied by some well-pickled carrots. The quail, reminiscent of a Phuc Buddies favourite, was bigger than usual. Almost in astonishment, Dizz asserted “I can’t even eat these bones”. This fact, in no way reflects a good quail but it is worth noting for the sake of Dizz’s eating habits. Next, the pork ribs, which were well spiced and flavourful, though they did have a large surface area of batter that left them a tad oily.
To break up the meal and try to wash away the vast amount of fat we had just consumed, Yask suggested a serve of Vietnamese iced coffees. While this is not a rarity at our meals, these drinks were on the stronger side of the scale and would have been well handicapped at any other restaurant on the street.
With both our moods and caffeine levels equally high, the mains were brought out. The water spinach was fresh and crisp with the garlic strong enough to give flavour but subtle enough not to over power. The Vietnamese salad was next down the straight and did not disappoint. It was well balanced, fresh and even well decorated… It’s the little things.
Maybe it was the amount of fried food, maybe it was the Vietnamese coffee mid meal but on this occasion the Phuc Buddies fell a few lengths short of finishing the meal. Though slightly embarrassed, we left with tomorrow’s lunch… And that is what you call a ‘vinh vinh’.
Movie With Marge wanting a “quiet one’ it was left to Dizz and Yask to fly the movie flag. Zero Dark Thirty was good, if not a bit too predictable but the real winner was having a night off from the kids!
Our first few outings in 2013 have been nothing short of a culinary rollercoaster, we reached dizzying heights with Pacific House only to plummet back down to earth with a ‘meal’ at Loving Hut a week later. However, as we moved away from these more ‘novelty’ restaurants with their crazy ideas of veganism and towards some of the street’s more generic options we expected that our ride would at least reach a momentary plateau. Thanh Phong which on face value is practically undistinguishable from a host of the street’s other restaurants boasts an extensive menu full of all the expected staples but offers little extra in the way of specials or any x-factor to set it apart.
By now, extremely familiar with this sort of menu we quickly skipped past the large egg-noodle soup section, straight through the hot pots and settled our attention on the chef’s specials. Intent on unearthing Thanh Phong’s hidden gems rather than filling up on lemon chicken or beef and black bean. We waited for something new and exciting to catch our eye. Unfortunately though nothing was jumping out, so with the assistance of our waitress we eventually settled on a serve of ‘Vietnamese sausage’ after her initial suggestions of lemon chicken and beef and black bean were quickly rebuffed. Additionally we also settled on a trio of small wonton soups, some prawn springers and a Vietnamese Coleslaw with prawn and pork to get the meal started.
The sausage or ‘Vietnamese salami’ as our waitress called it, arrived in quick time accompanied by some lightly pickled carrots, shredded lettuce and fresh cucumber as well as a peanut dipping sauce. Far from offensive the sausage had a rich, sweet taste that was complemented well by the fresh veggies. However, as the meat cooled and the surrounding supply of vegetables diminished it felt like the sausage was becoming increasingly overpowering and heavy. It was almost with relief that we were able to usher it to the sidelines of the table as the wonton soups and spring rolls arrived in unison. Immediately it was evident that the soup was absolutely abounding with dumplings, instead of the customary four or five wontons, each bowl was boasting close to eight. In addition small pieces of minced pork floating in the light broth ensured that this soup was one to be remembered. Slightly less memorable but no less delicious the spring rolls too were well received and quickly demolished. Finally, the arrival of the prawn and pork coleslaw rounded off the starters nicely. Although the sliced pork didn’t taste great and prawns didn’t really taste at all, the fresh salad with a generous amount of shredded cucumber and a good smattering of tasty fried shallots provided a refreshing remedy to the hot summers night.
With a 9’o’clock session of Django and talk of an extreme popcorn combo in the air it was decided that we’d go light on in the way of mains in order to maximise both our time and our appetites. However, as our serve of chilli chicken and salted prawns arrived any concerns about overeating quickly disappeared. About ten fried prawns which were perhaps slightly over-battered and under-seasoned posed little threat to our appetites. As for the chilli chicken it was a miracle that we were even able to maintain any semblance of an appetite in the wake of its arrival. It was immediately obvious that the chicken wasn’t great quality and was more skin than meat. A brief taste confirmed our concerns that the dish was practically inedible with the chilli sauce doing nothing to mask the taste and feel of the chicken. Despite Marge’s polite claims that ‘the carrots were ok’ (they weren’t) it was abundantly obvious that the meal would conclude on a low point!
Unfortunately it seemed that our roller coaster would remain in decline for at least one more week, luckily we had a blockbuster movie and a massive bucket of popcorn to look forward to. While the movie lived up to expectations, Dizz’s introduction of a sachet of cheese flavouring into the popcorn ensured that, that was also ruined!
Value 2.5/5 ($102)
Django 4/5 - The d might be silent but unfortunately the way Dizz eats popcorn isn’t!
In honour of the New Year and the resumption of our journey, we decided that 2013 should kick off with a bang. This meant temporarily bypassing the next restaurant on our list, (coincidentally this happened to be ‘Vegan Hut’) in favour of a more tried and tested option; Pacific Seafood BBQ House. A long-standing Mecca for fresh seafood and barbequed meat lovers, Pacific House is something of an institution on the street even spawning a second establishment for those on the other side of the river (210 Toorak Rd, South Yarra). As soon as we found a table we were presented with three bowls of ‘house soup’, while Yask rebuked the murky broth, Marge and Dizz took a couple of spoonfuls before resigning it to the edge of the table. While not as unpleasant as it appeared, it offered little in the way of taste and was proving an unnecessary distraction to the task at hand, ordering.
With the promise of freshly made New Year’s resolutions still ringing in our ears we poured over the extensive menu searching for options that would both satisfy our hunger as well as our newfound healthy lifestyles. Ultimately we decided on a whole deep fried flounder, mixed bbq meats, san choi bow, a Szechuan chicken hot pot and some water spinach. We also resolved to try new things, so we’ll call it a break even!
The san choi bow arrived first with Yask somewhat ironically taking the vegetarian route while Marge and Dizz opted for chicken. Despite all initially appearing to be a bit dry and devoid of the customary dollop of plum sauce they proved to be deceptively full of flavour and were quickly devoured. Coming to Pacific House and not sampling their barbecued meats would be like going to KFC and not getting the Colonel’s fried chicken, so we also ordered a mixed plate of duck and pork. Despite its lofty reputation, mixed proved to be the perfect word to describe the dish. Some pieces were crispy skinned and succulent while others were fatty and gristly, the temperature also varied significantly between the two meats. All in all, the good pieces more than cancelled out the poor ones, so it must be said that at the end of the day the dish was still more hit than miss.
If it’s remiss of anyone to come to Pacific House and not get the bbq it’s downright disrespectful to dine there and not get any seafood. With the lobster significantly out of our price range and crab on the wrong side of our reward for effort equation we decided that a whole flounder would serve as the centrepiece for our meal. In regards to taste we weren’t disappointed, the fish came encrusted in the same sort of batter normally associated with salt and pepper squid with plenty of chilli and fried shallots to complement the sweet, sweet flesh. If we were to mount one criticism against the fish it would be that perhaps there was too little flesh to go around. Sure flounders are a thin fish and we can accept that, but this one was borderline bulimic. As if anticipating our main course’s eating disorder we had also ordered a side of water spinach with garlic and a Szechuan chicken hot pot. The chicken which was recommended by our waitress was well spiced and tasty and although it briefly set our taste buds alight it fell a bit short of burning itself into our memories. Finally, the water spinach which was admittedly a second choice to the unavailable snow pea shoots that originally took our fancy eventually proved to be an adequate replacement and provided a fresh foil against the fried fish and the spice of the chicken.
So although our New Year’s resolutions were now in tatters, having been picked apart and destroyed in the same manner as the flounder carcass that remained as an embarrassing reminder of our indiscretions on the table, the year was at least off to a good start!
Value 3/5 ($113)
Movie - Abandoned in favour of the new Buck Hunter outside the Box Office
1st: Yask, 2nd: Marge, 3rd: Dizz.
(Please note that while Marge did come second, he did win his first series. One more than Dizz has won)
With our journey down Victoria Street becoming increasingly burdensome it was recently decided amongst us to take a brief break in order to not only recharge our batteries but to also reflect on where the journey had taken us thus far. Each embraced the break differently; Yask finally took the opportunity to book in a touch of rhinoplasty to get the beak tweak that he’s long been avoiding. While he claims it’s the result of an old footy injury and purely practical, you cant help but notice his more streamlined look… not to mention the new set of double D’s he’s now sporting! Marge’s approach was more-low key, opting to ignore Asian cuisine all together and instead throw himself head first into other aspects of the Orient’s culture, embracing everything from Tai-Chi to Origami. I on the other hand, headed straight to the source and headed to the country where every street is Victoria Street… Vietnam. With an insatiable appetite for Vietnamese food, the prospect of an extended break was too much to stomach, so with the gang’s blessing and with the help of an honorary Phuc buddy, we set out on a pho fact finding mission to establish how the good stuff differs at the origin.
Unsurprisingly, the nation’s capital delivered the top two dishes of the trip. Whether this is due to the cooler climate or the sheer abundance of options, Hanoi proved to be an absolute Mecca for street food. We couldn’t walk more than a few steps without almost tripping over the tiny plastic furniture that litters the side walks and indicates that another tantalising dinner for less than a couple of dollars is on offer. While uncomfortable and borderline impossible to get down to, if like me, you’re of more ‘Western proportions’ these little plastic tables and chairs that would seem more at home in a kid’s playroom generally indicate that that food’s going to be more cheap and delicious than their more comfortable restaurant counterparts.
While I intended to sample and report exclusively on pho I quickly found out that this wasn’t to be as simple as the handful of options available here. With each city offering their own unique variant of the staple noodle soup it would have been remiss of me to lump them all under the broad title of pho. So instead I have outlined my top 5 noodle soups of the trip.
#1 Pork in lot (vine) leaf with sliced apples, vermicelli and strong broth.
Contentiously, my soup of the trip technically might not even be considered a soup! The lack of spoons on offer to eat with and the fact that the broth was almost too heavily concentrated to eat it by itself both suggests that it was more of a large dipping sauce if anything. But either way, there was no doubt that the combination of the bbq’d pork wrapped in vine leaves, little ‘rissoles’ of the same meat along with the noodles and an abundance of fresh herbs delivered the dish of the trip! Each ingredient came on a large tray with additional limes and chillies allowing us to tailor the dish to our own preferences. While over powering by itself, the sweet and sour broth was perfectly offset by the two types of pork and the refreshing mixture of herbs. Each mouthful provided a veritable explosion of flavour that wont be forgotten any time soon!
#2 Chicken balls and mint stalks with rice noodles in chicken broth.
The success of this dinner was more the result of good fortune than good design as its selection was based purely on the fact that it provided respite from an unexpected storm. With no menu to speak of and only one giant cauldron of soup in sight the ordering process was as simple as pointing to the content looking locals around us and nodding in the directions of their meals. Within minutes we were presented with two enormous bowls of clear chicken broth with some unidentifiable greens and small chicken meatballs. The subtle, heart-warming broth ensured that any lingering chill from the rain was soon forgotten. While the little meatballs that would even put Nonna’s polpette to shame provided a pleasant surprise every couple of mouthfuls without distracting from the clean flavour of the soup. However, it was the steamed stalks of Vietnamese mint that stole the show! Resembling a bok choi in consistency but still with a hint of residual mint flavour they were easily the most memorable element of the dish. Their freshness also presented the perfect foil to the plate of savoury donuts that accompanied the soup and melted in your mouth after being dunked into the broth.
#3 Pho Ga (Chicken)
Served in a little restaurant alongside Hoi An’s river this soup was definitely the most reminiscent of the sort of phos we regularly enjoy on Vic Street. The major point of difference was that the quality of chicken was superior to what we get at home with each piece appearing hand picked and devoid of the excess skin or gristle that can sometimes be off putting. The significant difference was the inclusion of large chunks of ginger and generous amounts of fresh chilli both already included in the broth rather than alongside it. The end result was a vibrant albeit sweat inducing soup that became all the more intense as the broth diminished. Fortunately fresh mango juice and a complementary slice of ‘Hoi An Cake’ offset the burn nicely!
#4 Pho Bo (Beef)
Eaten on plastic furniture in a little side street in Hoi An’s Old Quarter this dish is testament to the fact that looks can be deceiving. Admittedly, this one initially intimidated us! It’s bright orange broth had us bracing ourselves for an early morning blast of chilli but in fact the vibrant colour actually betrayed the subtle, well balanced flavours that hid inside. The meat too wasn’t what it first seemed, the huge, gelatinous blob of meat that at first glance appeared almost inedible actually hid delicious, tender morsels of meat that would separate with the slightest inspection of a spoon. A bigger than normal array of condiments that ranged from the normal limes and chilli to pickled shallots and even a rather questionable jar of pâté that ensured everyone was able to tailor the dish according to their own tastes.
#5 Pho Ga (Chicken)
Ho Chi Minh City
While a host of soups could feel unlucky to miss out on a coveted top 5 slot it was hard to go past the first one we enjoyed on the trip. Included in the hotel’s complementary breakfast, the fragrant broth, fresh mint and basil and tasty pieces of shredded chicken provided the perfect introduction to not only our time in Vietnam but to every single day there as well!
“Another week, another meal” Yask grimly proclaimed as we walked through the doors of yet another non-descript Vietnamese restaurant. On tonight’s agenda was a quick feed at ‘Thanh Thanh’ then off to see Argo, the next installment in Ben Affleck’s roller coaster Hollywood career.
After a run of recent deep-fried disappointments we opted to forgo our traditional spring roll starters in favour of the more exotic prawn stuffed crabbed claw. Despite sharing more resemblance with a deep fried baseball than a crab’s claw, the entree was a winner. After dividing the giant nugget of minced prawn and dipping it into the subtle sweet chilli sauce we all agreed that it was a bit like the older, more uncouth but still endearing older brother of Prawn Toast. Three molten hot wonton soups followed shortly after, while it might have been from the combined tongue and roof of the mouth burns that were subsequently endured by the three of us, the soups seemed a bit bland and ultimately uninspiring. Usually a real favourite, the soups are starting to become a bit of a won-hit wonder and may well suffer the same fate as the Spring Rolls with an extended spell on the sidelines. However, our final starter, chilli squid legs soon had us forgetting about everything that had come before it. More lightly fried and significantly more tentacle-ly than the salt and pepper squid that is a staple across the street, these legs came perfectly seasoned and with a generous scattering of chilli and fried shallots. The accompanying lemon juice with white pepper was not as universally enjoyed, but for those who did dip it provided the perfect acidic foil to the squid.
Buoyed by the success of the crab claw and squid legs we decided to continue the marine theme and go with a chilli seafood hotpot and a serve of Szechuan prawns as well as some pepper beef to round off the meal. Sadly the ensuing dishes sunk rather than made the splash we had hoped for. While well balanced and packing the requisite punch the Szechuan sauce wasn’t strong enough to drown out the flavour of the decidedly unfresh prawns. The hot pot too was a source of disappointment; while there was an abundance of seafood the same overly fishy taste dominated the dish. The pepper beef went some way towards salvaging the evening but by the time it had arrived in all its sizzling glory the damage was done.
Unbeknown to us at this stage, the meal we had just consumed effectively reflected the film career of Ben Affleck. The same head-spinning heights that were achieved after he was thrust into significance with Good Will Hunting were shared by us as we devoured the chilli squid legs. But sadly like his career the meal wasn’t all Oscars and crab claws. Just like Gigli, his ill-fated collaboration with Jenny from the Block we too experienced soul-destroying failure via our seafood hotpot and Szechuan prawns. So, as we vacated the restaurant somewhat dejected the only question that remained was whether Argo would be squid legs or hot pot… it was squid legs!
Value 1/5 ($119