Yến Ly, the owner of Hoàng Gia Quán Vietnamese restaurant in Adelaide's northwest, is known to take the responsibility of being a family's weekly dining out experience seriously. She memorises the flavour preferences and dietary requirements of her so-called "family customers", and prides herself on replicating the flavours of home cooking, and catering to their taste. She even has a page dedicated to low-carb options for health-conscious guests.
Ly arrived in Australia in 2000, and began working three jobs, including on weekends, at Tây Đô, a bánh mì thịt shop just around the block from her restaurant, where she learned more about hospitality. She took these skills with her to Hoàng Gia Quán, nestled among many popular family-owned restaurants and Asian grocers, which she took over in 2008.
The enthusiasm with which she runs her restaurant gets passed on in conversation, much like the one my parents had with my aunty. We were told to come for the cơm gà tay cầm (claypot rice) that's "the best in Adelaide", according to my aunty.
After noticing we kept ordering the same thing each time we visited, she brought out complimentary dishes for us to try, starting with an unassuming bánh hẹ (vegetarian pancake). A plate comes out with a smooth omelette doused in a special sauce — a mellow, sweet soy concoction of Ly's devising. In between the folds of egg is a crisp, chewy chive-filled dumpling, a simple dish Ly serves at home for her family at breakfast.
"I love cooking, and I want my customers to come back, because then we are friends, not [just] owner and customer [relationship]."
We also tried the chả giò cua — crab spring rolls in rice paper. When fried, the exterior becomes bubbly and crater-filled. The rice texture is springy and is wrapped in fresh lettuce with mint and housemade pickles and nước chấm (dipping sauce).
The chef's special is cơm tấm (broken rice) and đặc biệt. Ly has been honing the pork chop for several years. It's covered in a thin layer of a sweet and slightly tart glaze and grilled over coals (not deep-fried). The cut is thinner than the regular cơm tấm offering, but this is deliberate. There's still a portion of crisp pork belly with crackling and chả trứng thịt (steamed pork loaf) made with mung-bean noodles and textural wood-ear mushroom to get through.
Bì heo (shredded pork skin) rounds out the pork offering, which is topped with a fried egg. To counter the richness are housemade pickles and a light savoury broth.
However, Ly's signature dish is the hủ tiếu Hoàng Gia, a noodle dish that underwent four years of testing in her home kitchen before she offered it to customers. It's the dish I send my interstate friends to try, the dish I order for takeaway when I visit my nana, and the one I split with my mum when I can't decide between the cơm tấm đặc biệt or a noodle soup.
Ly's take on this noodle dish starts with a chicken-based broth and is served with beef meatballs that are thinly sliced. Seasonal herbs and vegetables are to be expected, but the little side dish of a specially made condiment that comes with guidelines is not. Ly urges customers to try the mellow sweet broth first before adding to it. The broth is in perfect balance, rich in savouriness and almost medicinal in a way that only chicken broth can be. The sauce is reserved for dipping the beef, naturally.
Round out the meal with a chè ba màu (a three-colour dessert), where all the components are made in house, including the coconut milk and sugar syrup. You can also opt for one of the sinh tố (smoothie) options made with condensed milk and seasonality in mind. If you're an avocado smoothie fiend like me, Ly will let you know before you sit down whether it's available (to avoid disappointment). If it's in season, she may throw in more fruit for an extra creamy treat.
Ly's presence is felt in the care she takes with her food, her recognition of personal preferences and the conversation she's likely to strike up with guests. It's through these conversations where she gets to know her "family customers", where she can recommend a dish to suit your palate or to check if bowls and plates are being devoured.
She says, "I love cooking, and I want my customers to come back, because then we are friends, not [just] owner and customer [relationship]."