Where: Sapa Hills, 112 Hopkins Street Footscray
What: The best fried rice I’ve had in Melbourne
Who: Monemoiselle, Mushy, The Doc, Rosé Doré and Mr Whatever Floats Your Bloat
Bloat score: 3 – I could have balanced a glass of wine on my bloated stomach
It’s news to no one who lives West of the city centre that Sapa Hills churns out incredible Vietnamese food, but if you, like me, aren’t as acquainted with Footscray’s finest food establishments, please head there immediately and order the ‘Sapa Hills special fried rice’.
This might sound like an order your classic gweilo might make, and I have to admit I was sceptical, but I’m so glad The Doc insisted we order it because it may be the best fried rice I’ve had in Melbourne. The phrase ‘al dente’ is often used to describe pasta with the perfect level of bite, but it immediately sprang to mind when I tasted this fried rice – each grain was distinct to the next and had absorbed the smokiness of the wok it was cooked in. Like special fried rice of its ilk, it had a number of different meats – squid, prawns and pork among them – but the combination was complementary as opposed to jarring, and the bean shoots (which I only ever tolerate in fried rice and char kuay teow) added some much appreciated crunch. This dish was sublime.
Everyone in our group had their go-to dish in a Vietnamese restaurant, and so we appeased everyone by ordering one plate of each. Mr Whatever Floats Your Bloat can’t go to a Vietnamese restaurant without ordering spring rolls and so we ordered the combination spring rolls (pork, chicken and vegetarian) to share. Sapa Hills’ spring rolls were deep fried to golden perfection and crunchy, with well-proportioned fillings and your stock standard sides in the form of crisp lettuce and mint.
It’s lucky Mr WFYB enjoyed the spring rolls, because enjoy the salt and pepper tofu he did not. I may have falsely assured him that Sapa Hills’ version of salt and pepper tofu would at least match our favourite version at Vinh Vinh on Victoria Street, but didn’t expect one key difference in preparation – Sapa Hills uses egg tofu instead of firm tofu. Mr WFYB cast a sceptical sideways glance at the wobbling tofu as they were set upon the table, and proceeded to burn the roof of his mouth as the soft creamy tofu exploded in his mouth. He was livid. Everyone else regarded his charred mouth as a cautionary tale, and waited a few minutes before trying the tofu, resulting in a considerably better experience. I tried the tofu that had cooled down, but had to agree with Mr WFYB’s assessment – this was nothing on the crisp, perfectly battered salt and pepper firm tofu of Vinh Vinh fame.
Mushy had psyched himself up for a big bowl of bún (rice vermicelli) upon being told we were having Vietnamese for dinner, and despite bún not being the easiest thing to share, we insisted upon it because Mushy really wanted it. He chose the bun with stir-fried prawns. Sadly, this was another disappointment – the prawns tasted as though they were doused in sweet chilli sauce, and further, the prawns hadn’t absorbed the flavours of their marinade. Like Mr WFYB, Mushy was sorely disappointed.
The fried chicken ribs with salted duck egg were my choice, and dare I say it made up for every disappointment on the table. I had it on good authority that these chicken ribs were a must order, and having enjoyed a similar dish in Malaysia, I knew I couldn’t go past it. In this dish, small morsels of chicken are dredged in flour and baking powder, deep-fried and then tossed in a salted egg yolk sauce that is buttery, rich and indulgent. The chicken swims in a pool of rendered fat and leftover sauce, and if this isn’t enough to make you salivate, you’re probably vegetarian. Monemoiselle and I particularly enjoyed this dish.
I’m sure we ordered some Chinese broccoli with garlic – seeing I can eat garlic now – but this unfortunately wasn’t captured.
We were each bursting at the seams by this stage, even Mr WFYB who made up for his salt and pepper tofu by having a chicken rib or ten, so it was with palpable relief that we discovered the kitchen forgot to cook our final dish, a Rosé Doré choice – a pork belly dish that was on the specials menu. I count this as brownie points in Sapa Hills’ favour, so full we were at this stage.
There are many things to love about Sapa Hills. The food is distinctive and if you’re a fan of egg tofu, it’s a restaurant with objectively good salt and pepper tofu. They serve spirits for people like me who can tolerate wine and beer as well as they tolerate cider, which is not at all. We showed up unannounced on a Thursday night and despite them being packed to the rafters, they managed to find a small nook for us and service was friendly throughout.
I tried to kid myself that I was following my intolerances, but all the sauces and inevitable onion in the sauces resulted in me swelling to three bloats. As is becoming tradition with my blog posts, I will end by reeling off dishes that I’m keen to return and try – the coleslaw, which a local tells me is to die for, the steamed barramundi with ginger and shallots, and the bún with the Hanoi-style grilled pork, a speciality of the Hanoi-hailing owners. And last but not least, that amazing special fried rice.
Sapa Hills is open every day from 11am to 10pm.