Pho Toan Thang, Flemington

Monday, September 29, 2014

People naturally gravitate towards queues. Perhaps it's curiosity. Or perhaps it's the intrinsic human need to be where the crowds are, to feel included and in the know. Either way, a queue outside a restaurant indicates more often than not that it is one that you should visit. If you have the time and stomach capacity to wait, that is.

At Pho Toan Thang in the inner west Asian hub of Flemington, you will find a queue snaking outside the restaurant, tucked inside an arcade, every day. Some times, if you arrive early enough, you may be rewarded with a short queue, perhaps only two or three groups long. Or if you're really lucky there may be no queue at all. This Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant is well known among the local community for its cheap, consistently delicious food and fast turnover. So don't let the line deter you, it simply indicates a level of popularity and cult-like following signals a good feed. It's not the kind of place you would take someone for a good chat or catch-up, but rather the eatery you would turn to for a quick, low-cost but extremely filling, satisfying meal.

Don't be deterred either by the though of sharing a table, this is one of the many reasons why turnover is so fast. Another reason is that meals are brought out at a lightning pace, good for any grumbling tummy. Serving sizes are relatively large, but normal for an Asian restaurant, as most dishes on the menu aren't really designed to share. 

Conquer the lines during rush hour and you'll enter the restaurant to medium sized space filled with four and six seater tables, every space filled with people slurping over steaming bowls of silken noodles or chomping away on deep-friend pork shops. Some have with them icy cold slushy-like drinks of bright colours, others sipping on the essential complimentary tea. The menu is plastered on the walls in Chinese and English, a drooling mix of noodle soups, rice dishes, and 'Vietnamese cuisine' dishes. This is an eatery where service is fast but may seem rushed at times; this is simply a characteristic of the restaurant's personality.

Rare beef rice noodle soup ($9)

Many come here for the pho, a huge bowl of silky thin rice noodles and thin mounds of rare beef swimming in a perfectly balanced, intensely flavoured beef soup. This is one of the best phos we've tasted in Sydney, and a favourite whenever we visit. Top it with provided bean sprouts, Vietnamese mint and a squeeze of lemon. 

 Pork Chop with Dried Vermicelli ($9.50)

Another favourite of ours is the Vermicelli salad, listed 'dried vermicelli' on the menu, that is topped with a golden pork chop or, on another visit, a combination of spring rolls and grilled pork. The pork chop is crunchy with all its deep-fried goodness, cut into manageable-sized pieces and sprinkled with a mound of spring onion and chopped peanuts for a layer of texture and crunch. Underneath the nest of vermicelli lies a salad of lettuce, julienned carrot and cucumber and bean sprouts. The pork and spring roll version comes with grilled lemongrass pork, and whole spring rolls that lend a hot (in temperature), peppery and crunchy texture to the vermicelli. Pour over the nuoc cham dressing that arrives on the side, a refreshing balance of salty, sweet and a hint of chilli, mix up the whole salad, and enjoy a healthy, satisfying meal. This is one of my favourite Vietnamese dishes for its combination of fresh and fried.

Toss it up!

Satay Chicken Rice Noodle Soup ($9)

Dad always tends towards the Satay Noodle Soup, a noodle soup that he rates as one of his favourites of all the satay noodle soups ever. This always seems to come in a bowl that is a little too small for its contents, containing a thick, spicy red satay soup, slippery rice noodles, capsicum and long pieces of chicken breast and soak up the slightly tomato-flavoured broth. 

Crispy Chicken with Tomato Sauce Rice ($10.50, above is with boiled rice)

Another classic is the fried chicken on rice, typically served with tomato rice but on this occasion boiled rice.There is always an excess serving of rice, value for money as the chicken is quite large too. It's salty, crunchy, golden and perfection in chicken form, topped with shallots and with a slice of tomato, cucumber and a lettuce cup on the side. This also comes with nuoc cham for dipping. 

Wonton Noodle Soup ($9.50)

Wonton Noodle soup is a stalwart of Chinese cuisine, something I always love to order for its clean, tasty broth and bundles of yellow prawn and meat joy. At Pho Toan Thang you can order this in soup or dry-style, we've tried and loved both on different occasions. There is a choice of noodles with the soup version, I like to opt for egg noodles for their bite and flavour. The soup is delightfully seasoned and flavoured, not too salty but not too bland, and there are around six to eight wontons bobbing about amongst the huge mound of noodles, lettuce, sliced fish cake, fresh and fried shallot and rubbles of chicken mince. The mince is a thoughtful addition that I surprisingly love, for the texture and slight flavour it adds to each mouthful. What I've learnt from Mum is to make a concoction of soy sauce and the minced chilli paste they have as condiments, and dip the wontons into this. Heaven. 

Wonton Noodle Soup dried style ($9.50)

The dry version, Wonton kon lo mein (attempted Cantonese-English transcription), comes in a deep bowl with a small bowl of the broth on the side. The sweet sauce it is mixed in is flavoursome and licks the surface of every slippery noodle, although comes as a much smaller serving compared to the soup form. 

Beef Brisket Noodle Soup ($9.50)

Beef Brisket noodle soup is another one of my all time favourite noodle soups, the Cantonese style with tendon and spices and all. This version is spicy, without the tendon and with a much beefier-flavoured soup. The chunks of beef are slightly fatty and tender. 

Seafood egg noodle, dried style ($13.50)

Seafood stir noodles (dry style) are like a seafood version of the dry wonton mein, not unlike the stir noodles you can find at most yum cha restaurants. Egg noodles are tossed in a tasty sauce that includes dark and light soy and oil, laced with bean sprouts and sliced shallot and fried prawns, squid and scallops. Delicious. 

Every dish that we've tried on the menu at this restaurant is absolutely delicious. This, with the combination of fast service, huge servings and cheap prices, is what makes Pho Toan Thang so popular for authentic Vietnamese and Chinese food, in a suburb in the inner west where there is no shortage of like restaurants. We've been coming to this place for as long as I remember and it's mostly been the same people running it all these years, surely they must hold the secret to success. 

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