94 Victoria St Richmond, VIC 3121
|Opening hours||Fri and Sun 11.30am-3pm, daily 5pm-late|
|Features||Licensed, Accepts bookings, Vegetarian friendly, BYO, Gluten-free options|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9427 7891|
Melbourne owes much to Sandy Tran, original owner of Minh Minh, and an honorary aunty to thousands of Victoria Street eaters, many of whom ate their first pho in her presence. When she opened in 1995 (across the road from the current location), many customers picked nervously through her menu and plumped for familiar Chinese-Australian dishes like lemon chicken and sweet-and-sour pork.
Slowly, Sandy trained them, steering her new friends to the Lao and Vietnamese dishes she had learnt from her mother and grandmother: grilled beef in betel leaves, spicy larb salads, noodles swimming in long-brewed broths, pungent fish curries. "Lucky that I am good at chit-chat," Sandy tells me.
Diners were also schooled – sternly but smilingly – about niceties. Thai basil, not Vietnamese mint, is added to pho. Spring rolls should be wrapped in lettuce. Don't put bean shoots with egg noodles.
Over time, Melbourne got better at eating Vietnamese and for Sandy, Minh Minh life was warm and fun. "For me it was like friends coming to the house and every day I had a party."
The party lasted more than 20 years until Sandy tired of the restaurant grind and handballed the business to her "nephew" Thien "Kenny" Le.
Now Minh Minh has entered a new era: Kenny has rebranded the restaurant Minh Minh Saigon Soul (he and his wife also own Ascot Vale's Saigon Soul) and refreshed the interior. Conical straw hats are strung from the ceiling, echoed by a rice paddy mural on the back wall. A display of traditional instruments suggests Sandy's party may restart any moment.
It's a pleasure to see these optimistic flourishes on a Victoria Street that is looking a little tired overall, with some longstanding restaurants closing or drifting.
Minh Minh's menu has been jazzed up too. All the Vietnamese classics are on hand but there are reworked dishes too. Shaker shaker squid is an update on salt-and-pepper flavours, jostled in the wok with garlic, salt and pepper, and served with a fresh slaw. The batter is light, the edges crisp and the squid tender.
East meets west is grilled chicken that's marinated in honey, fish sauce and soy, then garnished with a riot of herbs. Presentation – on a board, piled high – is contemporary but the real win is the chicken, juicy and sweet with dark golden spiced skin.
The "Insane fish" was named thus by a regular at the Ascot Vale restaurant who asked Kenny to come up with something different to her regular steamed fish favourite. He invented this battered and fried barramundi, smothered in a fragrant lemongrass sauce.
There's lots for vegans and vegetarians including a plant-based pad Viet, with rice noodles, stir-fried and fresh veg, crushed peanuts and homemade satay sauce. It's simple fare but everything is vibrant and cooked to order.
What about Sandy? She's still a regular presence in the restaurant and stays in touch with many of her old customers. She loves the new energy in the restaurant, though she's sometimes bemused by modern dining culture and hasn't lost her propensity for cheerful scolding.
"The young people take photos of their food and then keep chatting," she says. "Eat, I say to them. Eat!"
Rating: Three and a half stars (out of five)