Sunshine may not be high on your list of foodie destinations — but it should be. Contrary to popular belief, it takes just a 17-minute train ride from Southern Cross on the Sunbury line (aka four songs on your playlist and enough time to think of a cleverly phrased Facebook status update) to get to the heart of the western 'burbs, and to taste the true flavours of Northern Vietnam.
Xuan Banh Cuon, similar to other Vietnamese restaurants all around the city, is unassuming; clean, airy and light, the space is filled with long, familiar formica tables, ambient kitchen noise and whatever's playing on Vietnamese TV.
What sets this restaurant apart, though, is the food. Xuan T. Dinh runs the restaurant with her daughter, Jen, and other family members. Together they prepare and serve the specialties from their home village, which is near the coastal city of Hai Phong in Northern Vietnam.
No. 1 on the menu is their signature dish of pork and prawn. Banh cuon can literally be translated as 'rolled cakes'. Xuan makes the thin sheets of steamed fermented rice batter herself and then fills them with wood ear mushroom, sliced pork belly, shredded carrot and prawns. The rolls are topped with fried shallots and pork floss, and come accompanied by substantial slices of pork loaf. The nuoc cham dipping sauce is sweeter than usual. It is made from chicken and pork stock, fish sauce and caramel. As if all of this wasn’t already value for money (at just $10 for 7-8 rolls), there is also a big plate of fresh coriander, lettuce leaves, bean sprouts, and mint to go with it.
The other dish to try is the banh de cua, a slightly tangy soup with wide red noodles and crab paste. The tang comes from the tomato added to the broth, making it an interesting variant to your regular pho. Xuan Banh Cuon is one of the only restaurants in Melbourne to use the northern red noodles in their soup, and Xuan gets them couriered straight from her hometown. This $11 bowl of goodness is packed with surprises: little fish cakes, fried tofu, vine wrapped beef sausages, prawn paste and green vegetables. Kumquats are brought to the table with minced chilli and lemon wedges to add to the soup to your taste.
10am until 2pm is busy on weekdays, and on weekends, the queue is out the door. Customers come from as far away as Springvale and Dandenong for the sticky steamed rice cakes and vibrant red noodles. This may be a trek for some, but Xuan Banh Cuon is worth the trip on the train for a flavour-packed experience.