It’s 10.30am on a Tuesday when we walk into Hoang Gia Quan on Hanson Road in Woodville Gardens. There are plenty of free tables as we take a seat, but they fill quickly. A group of women nab the table next to us, chatting over ca phe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee). We can hear owner Yen Ly from across the room, talking animatedly with a young couple deciding what to order.
Ly is from Ho Chi Minh City in the south of Vietnam. She migrated to Australia in 2000 and took over the ropes at Hoang Gia Quan nine years ago. Since then, the food here has been made her way – from the clarity of the soup broths to the delicate, pleated wontons made in-house daily. Fresh ingredients are a priority and you’ll find minimal thirst-inducing MSG. But once it reaches the table, it’s up to you. Like your pho spicy? Add some potent fresh chillis, or a splash of hot sauce. Dial up the sweetness with a splatter of hoisin, or temper the lot with a squeeze of fresh lemon. Top it up with bean shoots and Vietnamese basil.
The first dish to hit our table is Hoang Gia’s famous banh chien (vegetarian pancake). The savoury dish is packed with thick slices of radish and Asian greens, cooked in egg and soaked in Ly’s secret sauce. We can taste a hint of soy and a depth of flavour – but only two others know the recipe. The Hoang Gia crab spring rolls arrive next. We’re told to wrap them in lettuce with a sprig of mint, and dunk them in spicy sweet-chilli dipping sauce.
Ly urges us to eat first and talk later. Her English “isn’t great”, she says, but she loves to talk and doesn’t want the food to go cold.
We tuck into the meal before us, piling up plates of crispy egg noodles with pork, chicken and seafood; and a “broken rice” hot pot topped with mushrooms in a blend of ginger, oyster sauce and Ly’s special house sauce. The trick with the latter is to mix everything together so the rice soaks up every last drop of flavour.
When it comes to soup, pho is not the signature dish. That gong goes to the hu tieu bo vien (special noodle soup). It’s bright yellow and unclouded; similar to Japanese udon soup, the broth must be clear and flavourful, not murky or fatty. It’s the base for a sea of rice noodles, beef balls, brisket and fresh herbs, and the same broth used in the wonton soup.
Between bites and slurps our translator says Ly “cooks for the food, not the bill.” She doesn't care about decorating her restaurant or the money it brings in, so long as her customers are happy. She’s always on the lookout for new recipes to tweak and make her own, and nips back to Vietnam regularly to check out what the locals are doing. Her goal is to find the perfect balance of “flavour and feeling” in every dish.
Hoang Gia Quan
1/16 Hanson Road, Woodville Gardens
(08) 8345 5358
Tues to Sun 10am–9pm