Thursday, September 19, 2019

Banh mi in Hoi An

August 31 - September 8, 2019

We didn't have too many plans for our week in Hoi An: take a cooking class, go birding for a day, swim in the pool and eat as many banh mi as possible. We went wandering on our first day in town and found our way to the central market. We'd had breakfast at the hotel and it wasn't yet lunch time, but there's no harm in a wander through the food court, right? We didn't find an entirely vego stall like the ones we feasted at in Da Lat, but we did find a couple with vego menus, including Mrs Ha. I decided a second breakfast was in order and grabbed a vego banh mi - it cost 20,000VND (about $1.25) and was a pretty basic tofu, veggies and sauce roll. Nothing fancy, but a good way to get a week of sandwiches underway.

We had to visit Banh Mi Phuong, made famous by Anthony Bourdain's endorsement. It's become a go-to place in Hoi An and there are usually queues out the door. We somehow hit a quiet patch, which meant we didn't have long to wait for a pair of tofu and avocado banh mi. This is a good sandwich - rich and creamy with avo and stuffed full of slightly sweet tofu. Add some chilli for optimal results. It's also vegan (although everything's cooked and served using the same implements), and just 20,000VND ($1.25).

One of the other hyped-up banh mi places in town is Madame Khan. They have an off-menu vegan option (tofu), but we ordered the regulation vegetarian roll: tomato, cheese, egg and veggies (20,000VND, $1.25). This was really great as well - probably my favourite bread of the week - worth your while if you want a break from tofu-based sandwiches.

Happy Cow pointed us to the one entirely vegan banh mi in town, a street stall that sells out by about 10am each morning. We went for 2nd breakfast one morning to try it out. This was pretty classic - nothing fancy, but a great combination of tofu, crushed peanuts and veggies on a crunchy roll. It's also the cheapest on our list, at just 12,000VND ($0.75).

Our last day in town was a two banh mi day, starting at Phi Banh Mi with a vegetarian special, that combined spreadable Laughing Cow cheese with crispy tofu, cucumber, fresh herbs and carrot (25000VND, $1.50). I wouldn't have guessed that cheese and tofu would work together, but they were a surprising hit here (you can sub the cheese for avo if you're vegan).

We signed off with a visit to the fanciest vego banh mi in town at Annen, a yoga studio and vego restaurant that we visited repeatedly. The banh mi comes with  crispy lemongrass tofu, mushroom, tomato, cucumber, papaya/carrot salad, greens and a big slab of nori. It's fancy, and you pay a premium for it - 55,000VND (a whopping $3.40) - but it's definitely worth it. I would eat this every day if I could.

It's hard to go too far wrong with banh mi - we had a great time exploring all that Hoi An had to offer. We'll have to make do with Trang and La Panella until we can go back.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Red Bridge Cooking School

September 2, 2019

We saw winter out with a wonderful, relaxing holiday in Hoi An, Vietnam. A week or two before we set off we made sure to book in a couple of outings: one centred around bird watching (with an excellent lunch rolled in) and the other, a cooking class. There are numerous cooking classes around Hoi An, and my online reading suggested that Red Bridge Cooking School would suit us well. 

Their half day tour (US$34 per person) took us and about a dozen fellow students through the central market to learn about ingredients and tools (it wasn't a veg*n class, so that included visiting the meat and [sometimes live] seafood). From the market, we took a boat along the Thu Bon river to the cooking school itself. The school has a lovely herb garden, and covered open areas to cook and eat.

The class is structured as a series of short demonstrations and do-it-yourself. We started with banh xeo, turmeric-tinted rice pancakes that I was already fond of. As we rolled our pancakes in rice paper, we learned that it's stored and softened in banana leaves rather than hydrated in a water bowl.

An even bigger revelation was to come, when we made our own fresh rice paper! It's formed from a simple batter, spread and steamed over boiling water for just one minute, before it's quickly but gently prised off the cotton sheet. We weren't good at the manoeuvre, but nevertheless we were rewarded with the freshest, most special rice paper rolls we've ever eaten. I'm not sure that we'll repeat this at home, but we'll keep this memory for a long time. 

A short lesson in food decoration was fun but produced mixed results: I sliced my cucumber a little too thick for it to bend into the loops we were aiming for. Surprisingly, our tomato-skin roses turned out pretty well!

We also made a neat little tofu-mushroom claypot, and received tuition on papaya salad. While everyone else shared a steamed whole fish, Michael and I were treated to eggplant in a thick peanut sauce.

We had a great experience at Red Bridge Cooking School. They're very well organised, with lots of staff on hand to assist and ready to tidy around us. The tour guides and chefs were charming and upbeat, cracking plenty of jokes along the way. The pace was reasonably fast, and our contributions to the cooking were often more a brief practice of a technique (e.g. cooking ready-made batter and adding pre-chopped veges, julienning vegetables for the salad) rather than seeing a dish through from market to plate. 

While we received many handy tips throughout the class, we weren't individually tutored on the techniques - the couple of times that I stumbled, the nearest assistant tended to just take over and keep things moving rather than coach me through an improved attempt. This is a small quibble, though - overall, the approach enabled us to try and eat many different dishes, and feel equipped to repeat them at home. I reckon the banh xeo is on the top of our to-make list, with the papaya salad a close second.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Sichuan House II

August 21, 2019

We recently met up with a big gang of vegans for a weeknight feast at Sichuan House. There's nothing very fancy about the venue - it's been pumping out amazing spicy food for years and the decor could easily have come straight from the 90s. It's a surprisingly veg-friendly place - we ordered 9 vegan dishes to share and we still had more options on the menu we could have tried. We kicked off with one of my absolute favourite dishes - Sichuan cold noodles ($7), a gloriously spicy treat that zaps your mouth and sets you up for the rest of the meal.

Someone in the group insisted we try the spicy cumin cauliflower ($20.80), and I'm glad they did - we'd never had this before (although we ate very similar dishes in China last year) and it was one of the best dishes of the night. As the name suggests, it's spicy, it's cumin-y and it's cauliflower. The spicy dried tofu ($11.80) is more of an old favourite - chewy tofu strips, slathered in more zingy sichuan pepper sauce.

We added a plate of greens with the Chinese broccoli with garlic ($16.80) and an order of Cindy's dish of choice: fish-fragrant eggplant ($19.80). The lightly battered eggplant has a sweet, vinegar-y sauce, along with a good hit chilli of course. It's always a winner.

The stir-fried five-spice tofu and chives ($19.80) is another old favourite, although it didn't quite live up to our memories this time. The tofu was a bit lacking in flavour alongside all the other dishes - it's usually great though, so we'll probably order it again next time. The absolute show-stopper of the night was the mapo tofu minus the pork ($16.80) - a rich and spicy dish that I will dream about for weeks.

The spicy and sour potato threads ($19.80) and stir-fried tea-tree mushrooms with five-spice tofu ($19.80) were both just okay - the potato lacked a bit of sourness this time around and the tea-tree mushrooms are an acquired taste.

On the whole though, this was an incredibly good meal - it's so great to go somewhere like Sichuan House with a big group so you can really delve into everything they have to offer. Sharing this food around is delightful, messy fun - it's got to be one of the best big-group options in the city.

Read about our first visit here. More recently, Enlightened Decadence enjoyed a selection of their tofu dishes, while there are positive meaty reviews at Foodie About Town and streaky eats.

Sichuan House
22-26 Corrs Lane, Melbourne 
9650 8589
menu samples 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Accessibility: Entry includes about six steps, and we didn't see a more accessible alternative. Tables are densely packed. We ordered at the table and paid at a high counter. Toilets were gendered, flat-floored and narrow.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Rice Paper Scissors

August 18, 2019

We went hard at the Melbourne International Film Festival this year! I was expecting this to mean hasty stops for dumplings, street-side crepes and Lord of the Fries between sessions but we actually had several more leisurely sit-down meals. Our friend Jess organised a booking for Rice Paper Scissors, which we hadn't previously bothered investigating for veg*n options. As Jess well knew, there's actually a clearly marked vegan section to their menu (with gluten-free dishes also marked), and were able to sample almost all of it between the three of us.

The two things I most liked about the menu arrived up front. First, there's a list of six mocktails on the drinks list - I ordered a Yuzu Can't Touch This ($9.50). Second, the roti is vegan-friendly! We ordered two of them with peanut dipping sauce ($7 each) to celebrate.

Half the vegan menu includes the word 'salad', but they proved to be varied and substantive dishes that do the word proud. The tempura eggplant salad ($14, above left) arrived first, with the battered pieces keeping crisp alongside julienned green mango, chilli, coconut and herbs. The Asian greens ($13, above right) looked pretty salad-y too, with wood ear mushrooms, bean shoots and ginger sauce.

The smoked tofu had us doing a double-take - its density and texture was more like a mock-meat (or even possibly a real meat) than regular bean curd! It popped up in generous, marinated chunks in both the crisp, tangy green apple salad ($14, above left) and the sweet, saucy bao (~$7 each, above right). These were probably my two favourite dishes of the day.

The mushroom salad ($14) featured all sorts of barbecued funghi; I overlooked the banana blossom and rambutan here as a consequence.

We had a big wait after our salads were done. We were full, took a while to notice that we were missing a dish, and weren't inclined to remind the staff about it. Actually, they'd deliberately paced the ma hor ($12) for us. It was great to receive fresh fruit at the conclusion of our meal, piling it with a caramelised five-spiced tofu and peanut 'mince' as best we could.

The dessert menu's an interesting one, though sadly not so vegan-friendly. No matter - we were well looked after by a vegan staff member and clearly had no end of sweet, sour and savoury vegan mains to enjoy. The only downfall we experienced at Rice Paper Scissors was its interior design - it's densely packed, its seating doesn't include back support, and it's noisy. We'll choose carefully when and with whom we make reservations there.


Yoshiko has attended a vegan degustation at the Fitzroy restaurant - it looks like these still occur with some regularity.

Rice Paper Scissors
19 Liverpool St, Melbourne CBD
9663 9890
omni menu, vegan & desserts, cocktails & mocktails, wine, beer & other drinks

Accessibility: Not high! It's loud and crowded, with a mixture of high and low tables and stools (I don't think any of the chairs had backs). We ordered at our high bench and paid at an adjoining high bench. We didn't visit the toilets.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Bodega Underground

August 16, 2019

We had a big Melbourne International Film Festival this year, which gave us a chance to catch up on a bit of CBD eating. Towards then end of MIFF, we rocked up for a post-movie dinner late on Friday at vegan-friendly Mexican dive-bar Bodega Underground. It's buzzing on a weekend - you absolutely need to book - with lots of big tables throwing back cocktails and tacos. It feels as least as much a bar as a restaurant, so don't head there expecting a quiet, low-key vibe. We kicked off with drinks - a margarita for me ($20), a tequila, elderflower and aloe cocktail for Jess and a pineapple, mint and lime mocktail for Cindy.

The three of us shared a bunch of dishes, including one serve of each of the three vegan tacos: frijoles (black beans, salsa verde, shaved vegetable chips and pickled jalapenos, $11), ejotes (green beans, apple and mint vegan slaw, salsa roja and guacamole, $12) and batata (sweet potato, pickled beetroot, vegan jalapeno crema, toasted pepitas and coriander, $11).

These were a great selection of fresh and interesting tacos with a good range of different flavours.

Our other pair of dishes were the vegan mole chilaquiles (pulled mushrooms with mole sauce, tortilla chips, jalapeno crema, queso catija, pickled onion and coriander, $16).

This was probably my favourite dish - a big, smoky nacho-style mess with some excellent creamy jalapeno mush and tangy onion bits.

Finally, we had the charred cauliflower (salsa verde, salsa de dos quesos, annata pepitas and radish, $16).

You can't go too far wrong with a charred cauliflower the combo of sauces and extras on top of this one added some bite and creaminess to the tender cauli.

Bodega Underground is a buzzing, boozy option for a late night dinner, with an excellent array of vegan Mexican dishes. Service was friendly and pretty efficient, even with hordes of people there on a Friday night - book in and check it out.


We found positive reviews for Bodega Underground at The New Fave and Aussie Coeliac (although they didn't love the noise), and a more unenthusiastic one at far fetched & fanciful.

Bodega Underground
55 Little Bourke St, Melbourne
(03) 9650 9979
menus: drinks, food
Accessibility: Bodega Underground is down narrow stairs and is cramped and loud. According to their website, children are not welcome(!). We didn't visit the toilets.