Yen for Viet

THE ONE DISH YOU MUST TRY Banh xeo: crisp pancake stuffed with bean sprouts, mung beans, pork and prawns, $12.
THE ONE DISH YOU MUST TRY Banh xeo: crisp pancake stuffed with bean sprouts, mung beans, pork and prawns, $12. Photo: Quentin Jones

296 Illawarra Rd Marrickville, NSW 2204

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Opening hours Sat-Sun 11.30am-2.30pm,Tues-Sun 5.30pm-9.30pm
Features Wheelchair access, Family friendly, Outdoor seating, BYO, Vegetarian friendly
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Le & Yen Nguyen
Seats 45
Payments AMEX, Visa, Mastercard, eftpos
Phone 02 9558 2819

I am desperately seeking pho. This perfect soupy, herby, fragrant, rice-noodly bowl of goodness is like any drug. Once you're into it, you can't stay away for long. You need more, whether it's pho bo (beef) or pho ga (chicken). As long as it's good.

The search takes me to a stretch of Illawarra Road, where three or four Vietnamese noodle houses sit cheek by jowl. I'm drawn to Phd, which, in its previous life as Pho Bac Hai Duong, was said to serve the finest pho in the inner west.

They bring a platter of beautifully fresh herbs, bean sprouts, lemon and chilli. Aaah. But the broth of my pho bo ($9) is too sweet and seasoned and the beef brisket is tough.

Back on the street, I give the old-style Nhat Tan next door a try. The hand-painted menu on the wall and the vacuum flask of tea on the wipe-clean table are good signs. Pho ga ($9) this time and the chicken is freshly cooked and silky, the noodles pliant. But I'm given no herbs to add and the broth is too weak. On the street again, I'm beginning to feel like the Goldilocks of the inner west. Where is my pho that's j-u-s-t r-i-g-h-t?

There's a newish joint a few doors away called Yen for Viet that's my last chance. It looks simple but almost chic, with red walls, padded banquettes, wire-mesh hanging lamps and sweet sketches of Vietnamese bicycles.

Well, hallelujah. The pho ga ($11) is fragrant, light, pure, lovely; generous with herbs, bean sprouts, sauces, chilli and lemon. The pho bo dac biet (beef special), upgraded from normal beef ($11) to wagyu ($17), is just plain bloody fantastic. You can taste the slow-cooked onions and the star anise, the cassia bark and the cardamom lurking deep in the bass notes, with the wagyu adding top notes of freshness and richness. The brisket is tender and the beef balls, tripe and tendon add texture and interest. Crisp, golden cha gio spring rolls ($6) on the side are no thicker than a forefinger and actually taste of their pork filling, although they could have come with more fresh leaves for wrapping.

For those desperately seeking pho, Yen for Viet even has it on the dinner menu. But then, if you come here at night, you really should have the bahn xeo, the big half-moon of crisp, golden pancake ($12). I haven't had a better one in Sydney since the old Bach Hy in Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, closed last century. I love how the little nuggets of prawn and pork are absorbed into the inside of the folded crepe like fossils embedded in rock; how you tear off great hunks and wrap it in lettuce with perilla leaves (tia to), mint, carrot and daikon and dip it in nuoc cham sauce.

You should also have the fresh goi cuon spring rolls ($5), wrapped with supple rice-flour bahn trang and filled generously with sliced pork, sliced prawns and the traditional tail of garlic chive. Again, they taste of something other than just their hoisin and bean dipping sauce (tuong cham).

And if you don't have pho, you'll have room for ca kho ($15), the traditional dark-clay pot of caramelised fish, with three flat, slightly soft tranches of swordfish topped with spring onions and sliced chilli in a sizzling-hot bath of caramel. Take it with rice ($2), which comes in mum's own big, white casserole dish.

Then I find out Yen for Viet is owned by Yen and Anh Nguyen and it was Yen's uncle, Tan Hi Le, who used to co-own the Bach Hy, as well as Saigon Pho in Sussex Street. And the chef is Yen's brother, Le, who had been the chef at their parent's restaurant in Vung Tau, south of Ho Chi Minh City.

It's the perfect marriage of old and new, of Australia and Vietnam. Yen for Viet shows respect for and allegiance to traditional cuisine, without reducing it to the sad and shameful sameness you get from using low-budget produce and ready-made sauces.

Service is sweet and engages well with diners and there's even a short food-friendly wine list of just four bottles (pinot gris, semillon-sauvignon, pinot noir and cabernet), with nothing more than $32 and all available by the glass.

Marrickville needs another Vietnamese restaurant like Parramatta Road needs another car yard. But it does need - we all need - more like this one: a charming, family-run, second-gen modern diner with a traditional kitchen that deals with better ingredients in a more caring way.

Yen for Viet

Address 296 Illawarra Road, Marrickville. Phone 9558 2819,

Open Lunch: Sat-Sun; dinner Tues-Sun

Licensed: Yes and BYO ($2 a person)

Cost: About $45 for two, plus drinks

Rating: 14/20