Mopho Canteen

Mopho Canteen's casual fitout.
Mopho Canteen's casual fitout. Photo: Wayne Taylor

197 Carlisle St Balaclava, VIC 3183

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Opening hours Mon-Thu noon­-9.30pm; Fri noon-10.30pm; Sat 11am-10.30pm; Sun 11am-9.30pm
Features Licensed, Vegetarian friendly, Cheap Eats, Wheelchair access, Outdoor seating, Gluten-free options, Bar
Prices Cheap (mains under $20)
Chef Adam Davis
Payments eftpos, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9531 7145

What makes a young, Tassie-born chef who has spent more than a decade cooking Italian, French and high-end contemporary food open a Vietnamese canteen? "I was eating a lot of pho; I found myself thinking about pho a lot, and I got sick of driving to Richmond," says Balaclava local Adam Davis (ex-Mr Wolf, Melbourne Wine Room) who opened Mopho Canteen last month with his partner Samarla Carey who manages Stokehouse City.

Mopho Canteen is one of the new-breed fast-food joints that's a shuffle of traditional dishes, ingredients with integrity, and all the formality of a garage. The 40-seat concrete-floor bunker is longer than it is wide, and furnished with sturdy trestle tables and metal Tolix stools – some green, some black.

A few vintage advertising stickers uncovered when the plaster came off have been preserved on the lacquered mustard-coloured  walls pocked with patches of exposed brick. It reminded me of an old holiday house – a bit crumbling, with Tarax stickers on the bunk beds.

Seared tuna served with fresh herbs, green papaya and rice-paper crisps.
Seared tuna served with fresh herbs, green papaya and rice-paper crisps. Photo: Wayne Taylor

Service can be a bit unsure and awkward, but it ought to firm up as the place settles in.

There are three types of pho (one size, all $12): the classic beef, a chicken (beef base with deboned chicken thigh) and a vegetable and mushroom version – and the vegetarians go wild, finally able to find out what all the fuss is about pho. This veg version is fragrant and deeply flavoured, laden with thin rice-noodle ribbons and topped with mixed mushrooms. The beef pho is meaty sweet – the broth "simmered for around 14 hours".

For pho-natics who discern between northern and southern styles, Davis says, "Mine's the central style: richer, meatier, sweeter." The deep, dark broth is beautifully fragrant and a little too sweet for my tastes, but the answer is in the chilli oil.

Bowled over: Beef pho is simmered for 14 hours.
Bowled over: Beef pho is simmered for 14 hours. Photo: Wayne Taylor

This house-made treasure of chunky peanuts and chilli flakes opens up another world of flavour. Dredge the "free-range and organic" beef pieces through it, or spoon a little into the bowl even if you're not usually into chilli.

Other than pho, there are just two other main dishes, plus five starters, but Davis does a lot with a little. Skewers of soy-honey glazed and char-grilled chicken hearts and spring onions make great drinking food (some diners may need the Dutch courage to eat tiny hearts) – Mopho's liquor licence should be granted this week.

Seared, just sealed, raw tuna slices sit beneath an explosion of crunchy peanuts and fried shallots, fresh herbs (at least three types), matchsticks of green papaya, and salty, translucent rice-paper crisps. It's a winner, but always go the pho.

Do … Take home a $10 jar of chilli oil.
Don't ... Know how to get in? Look for the button to the side of the glass doors.
Vibe ... Pho shop in a friend's garage.

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