I always love the smells and bustle of the Little Saigon market. I think it's much more interesting than it's nearby big sister and it's where I always seem to end up when visiting Footscray. It always feels incredibly vibrant, the smell of the herbs permeates the air and it's narrow walkways makes it feel much more intimate. Sitting in the cafes is probably my favourite place in Melbourne to people watch too - arguably only a window seat at Hell's Kitchen in Centre Place can compare (see Kit Kat's review back in May 2010).
If you want to get the best out of Co Thu Quan it's important to be a bit adventurous. At first blush my favourite out of everything we tried may not sound to everyone's taste, a coconut beef offal stew served with mini baguette on the side (Pha Lau). Absolutely delicious though, with bits of lung and tripe and other unidentified cuts sitting in a gently flavoured broth perfect for dunking the bread in. Flavours are mild and with almost no smell, it's one of the best things I've tried all year.
That is not to say that the rest of the menu lets the team down. If you are looking for something more familiar there are a couple of rice paper roll options, with the Bo Bia including Chinese sausage and basil.
Or there are the spring roll like Bahn Trang Cuon, mini rice paper wrappers filled with fried shallots, beef jerky, sour mango and dried shrimp, topped with a streak of mayonnaise. The skin is thinner and a bit crisper than your typical Chinese restaurant style version, the filling a bit herbier and stronger flavoured.
Another interesting dish which used the rice paper wrappers was the Bahn Trang Tron, a rice paper wrapper salad with green sour mango, beef jerky, dried shrimp, crushed peanuts and Vietnamese mint. Not mentioned on the menu but also included were some pork scratchings and a quails egg (yum). One of those dishes that I'd put in the glad I tried it category without really tickling my tastebuds to the extent I'd order over untried menu items.
Final dish tried was the Bahn Day Cha Com, a sticky rice cake with fried pork patty, kind of like a large gelatinous dumpling with a mini pork schnitzel filling. The flavours are fairly restrained but it's the unusual texture which made this stand out, the soft and slightly chewy rice cake with the slight crispness of the pork patty.
The drinks here are interesting too, with my selection one that you can eat with a spoon equally as well as drink with a straw, the avocado shake. It's green, it's thick like a thick shake, and it comes served in an old jar (so very Melbourne!). Flavour wise it's like a creamy avocado, and the one here is possibly the best I've found in Melbourne.
Food - 8
Service - 7
Ambience - 8
Price - 7.5
Go wild, order things you've never seen before, and you'll have a ball here (or at least I did). Services is a little disorganised but the owner is very friendly, to the extent that during a quiet period we spent nearly ten minutes chatting as I paid the bill. And afterwards, if interested, go and check out the Heavenly Mother Temple next to the river.
Heavenly Mother Temple
Shop 22, Little Saigon Market
63 Nicholson Street
Footscray VIC 3011
Tel: 0412 685 558