Cabramatta might be the current food safari hot spot, but too few people know about its next-door neighbour Canley Vale, and, further up the road, Canley Heights.
It's the promise of beef that has brought us here. Not just any beef. Seven kinds of beef, a Vietnamese banquet-style feast known as Bò Bảy Món that is often served at weddings and other special occasions. Finding it in on the a la carte menu in a Sydney restaurant is not so easy, but a tip-off from Howard leads us to Bach Dang.
Bach Dang is far from the casual mum-and-pop eateries that litter this strip. Since its establishment in 1982, this popular restaurant has evolved into a gleaming and modern powerhouse, a glass-fronted oasis of air-conditioning, smartly dressed waiters and real cloth serviettes -- not tissue boxes -- on every table.
The dining room is filled with large tables of families and friends. You can tell this is a special occasion restaurant, and our night is punctuated with tinny blasts of piped Happy Birthday music as mortified guests squirm behind a cake hissing with sparklers.
One of the signature dishes at Bach Dang is the Chao Gio Do Bien seafood spring roll ($6.50). Every table has a platter of these stumpy golden-fried rolls. They arrive within five minutes of us placing our order, and are so hot from the fryer we need to open them up to release the steam and set them aside to cool.
The squat parcels are jam-packed with bits of prawn and scallop, although I find the actual taste of the seafood a little bland and flavourless. The batter is delicious, however, and a saucer of mayonnaise is the magic ointment for many.
And for anyone who ends up with a burnt tongue, a menu of fruit shakes offers cool salvation, in flavours of lychee, custard apple and passionfruit. Avocado shakes and durian shakes are delicious but rich, and the strawberry shake provides one of the surprise hits of the night.
Custard apple shake, avocado shake, durian shake and lemon squash $4.70
Chạo tôm prawns on sugar cane $16
The seven components of Bò Bảy Món can be ordered separately, but getting the whole lot for $25 per person is too good a deal to deny. We're a table of 9 but order the Bò Bảy Món for six people so we can try other dishes.
Chao tom prawns on sugar cane are a brilliant shade of orange, and we chop the prawn paste into pieces and wrap them in rice paper sheets with vermicelli, lettuce, herbs and salad. Dipping them into the nuoc cham fish sauce dressing is a messy affair, but that's half the fun. So too is chewing on the sugar cane skewers, and sucking out the sweet sugar cane juice just like you used to as a kid.
Bánh xèo Vietnamese pancake $11
Banh xeo pancake is another classic, lacy crepes made with rice flour and tumeric folded around pork, prawns and bean sprouts. You need to get your hands dirty with this one too, enclosing mouthfuls of crepe in a pocket of lettuce and dipping the entire lot into nuoc cham.
Bò Bảy Món seven kinds of beef $25pp (min four people)
Beef dish #1: Marinated beef grilled on skewers
The Bò Bảy Món kicks off with marinated beef grilled on skewers, sweet caramelised chunks of beef and onion that we dismantle and wrap into rice paper sheets with lettuce, mint, vermicelli noodles and salad. I could eat rice paper rolls all day, the freshness of mint and salad working so well with just a pillow of soft noodles and a skerrick of meat.
Beef dish #2: Steamed ground beef served with prawn crackers
For course number two, a large foil parcel is opened to reveal three steamed ground beef balls - not an overly exciting prospect at first, but these end up being one of my favourite dishes of the night. The beef balls are admirably soft and tender, bound together with mung bean noodles and flavoured with lemongrass. These are served with a plate of prawn crackers which provide a crunchy contrast to the meatballs.
Beef dish #3: Sliced beef cooked on hot plate
A portable gas burner is deposited into the centre of our table and a small frypan is placed over the gas flame. It's cook-your-own marinated beef, thin shavings dressed with oil, lemon and pepper that we pluck fresh from the frypan.
Beef dish #4: Bach Dang special camp fire beef
It's at this point that things start to get hectic. Our idea of a leisurely degustation of beef is quashed when the dishes come flying out of the kitchen in rapid progression. At one point we have four different dishes on our table, with staff looking at us helplessly when they arrive with another series of plates and no room on the table.
We battle on in the name of gastronomy, moving bowls here and consolidating leftovers there, and the oil from the hot plate spits on our arms when we reach over for the prawn crackers. The camp fire beef stews quietly in a ring of flames. After ten long minutes it's ready, a sticky mess of lemongrass beef, onions, tomatos and garlic that we wrap in more rice paper sheets with mint, fresh pineapple, lettuce and vermicelli noodles.
Beef dish #5: Braised marinated lemon beef
Braised marinated lemon beef is light and refreshing, a happy muddle of beef, lemon juice, Vietnamese coriander and crushed peanuts tossed through a nuoc cham fish sauce dressing. Slivers of raw onion add tang, and there's a bit of kick from the addition of fresh chillies.
Beef dish #6: Beef fondue
The gas stove is reignited for course number six: the beef fondue. Deep red slices of beef fillet take only a few seconds to cook when dipped in the lemon broth. It offers a humble appreciation of the delicacy of beef.
Beef dish #7: Beef congee rice soup
The final course is beef congee rice soup, not something I'd ordinarily expect as most congees I've eaten have been based on chicken, seafood or pork. And yet it works. The broth has the pleasant taste of beef, filled with soft-cooked rice and beef morsels. It provides a calming conclusion to the meal in a way that is both comforting and digestion-friendly.
Canh chua sour soup with cat fish $40 (part one of two catfish courses)
The final surplus dish we order is the canh chua with catfish. It's a two part affair that starts with a hot and sour soup popular in the south of Vietnam. The tangy tamarind soup is a treasure hunt of bean sprouts, tomato, fresh pineapple and okra. It's a dish that works well with catfish, and the soup awakens the palate with its balance of sweet and sour.
Cá bông lau kho tộ catfish in caramel sauce (part two of two catfish courses)
The finale is one of my favourite dishes: catfish in caramel sauce. Chunks of fish are cooked campfire-style in a clay pot filled with a sweet sauce mixed with fish sauce, garlic and shallots, heated until the glaze becomes sticky and caramelised.
Savour the fish but leave room for the best part: the fatty skin and the salty sweet caramel sauce. Place both on grains of fluffy white rice and you've got my kind of comfort food heaven.
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46 Canley Vale Road, Canley Vale, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9727 9931
Tuesday to Friday lunch 10am-2.30pm
Tuesday to Friday dinner 5pm-10pm
Saturday to Sunday and public holidays 10am-10pm
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2/08/2012 02:11:00 a.m.