Most days, Cindy Tran wakes up and goes straight to Footscray Market to get what she needs for her Brunswick restaurant, Shop Bao Ngoc. "I believe there's a charm in handpicking the fresh produce you'll cook with. And I'm very picky," she says.
Growing up in a Vietnamese family, her mum would make her sit and watch her cook so she could learn, but Tran didn't get interested until she got older. "When I moved out of home, I lost contact with my mum for a bit and I had to cook Vietnamese food because of the nostalgia I felt. I got obsessed with it," she says. Tran started setting up tables in her bedroom and throwing multi-course dinners for friends.
The end goal was to open Shop Bao Ngoc, which she did a year ago while working a part-time job and finishing her gold and silversmiths degree (she had to close down the shop for a few hours to go to her graduation).
"I have the Vietnamese taste and the Western taste, I have those two different cultures so I tried to merge them and create something that represents me."
"As a second generation Vietnamese growing up in Australia, I always felt I had a different taste than lots of aunties and uncles who immigrated from Vietnam. I have the Vietnamese taste and the Western taste, I have those two different cultures so I tried to merge them and create something that represents me," she explains.
Take her pho, for example. The broth simmers for 14 hours and is spiced with cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, mandarin peel, liquorice bark, ginger, onion, fennel and star anise. But instead of making the base with beef bones, like it's done traditionally, she uses kombu, shiitake and other vegetables. "When I cook, I like everyone to eat the same thing. I don't like vegan, coeliac and gluten-free people to have to eat their own thing. I like the idea of a communal taste," she says. Sliced scotch fillet, char-grilled chicken or tofu and veggies can then be added to the soup.
Tran's take on salt and pepper calamari sees king oyster and enoki mushrooms deep-fried and served with vegan Sriracha mayo.
The bánh mì can also be made vegan, but our pick is the original, made with roast pork, crackling, pork floss and homemade duck liver pâté.
These three items, as well as bún chả (vermicelli salad), gỏi cuốn (rice paper rolls), gỏi (salad) and chả giò (spring rolls), are available for lunch and dinner. If you come in the evening, things get even more interesting.
Tran takes a couple of hours she has off during the afternoon to experiment with new dishes. One night she might make a spicy bún bò Huế (her favourite dish as a child), another night, bún dậu mắm tôm.
The latter is all about the shrimp paste, seasoned with garlic, chilli, sugar, lime and pork lard. You use it to dip fried tofu, pork belly, vermicelli, greens, herbs and rice cakes. "I like Vietnamese dishes that are more pungent instead of bland," says Tran.
Another popular special is the bánh tráng nướng, which translates to grilled rice paper. Sometimes dubbed Vietnamese pizza or taco, it's a relatively new approach to the street food favourite. Tran covers a rice paper with a beaten egg, ground pork, pork floss, spring onion and chilli mayo. She grills it until it's crispy and serves it folded.
"In Australia, when you see Vietnamese street food, people only think of bánh mì, rice paper rolls and spring rolls, but in Vietnam, there's a whole world of street foods," she says. "It starts out with one street vendor who has an idea, and it becomes popular, but it's constantly changing. What you have this year won't be there in two years. Our food and culture don’t have to stay stagnant."
On social media, Tran takes the time to explain the dishes she makes and where they come from: "We don't claim ownership of them, we try to present that history and let our customers know and understand them more."
387 Victoria Street, Brunswick
Tue – Fri 11:30 am – 3:30 pm and 5:30 – 8:30 pm | Sat 12 – 8 pm
Cutting the fish into cubes means crunch on all sides, for a salad packed with texture and flavour.
This classic Vietnamese soup gets its flavour from boiling whole crabs with pork and fresh tomato in coconut water.