A neon “it was all a dream” sign is all that remains of all-night pho joint Twenty Pho Seven. The Russell Street diner that blended R’n’B tunes with the sound of diners slurping noodles transformed into Straight Outta Saigon in March, leaving the 24/7 concept behind, among other things.
“We’re getting away from that fast-food kind of vibe,” co-owner Thai Ho says.
Ho and long-time friends and business partners George Do and Midawell Phal hope to mirror the buzzing dine-in atmosphere of their other restaurant, Vietnamese fusion joint Hochi Mama. And it’s a full house when I visit; waitresses move swiftly between the bar and tables under the neon glow.
Straight Outta Saigon’s food is Vietnamese too, more traditional than its sister restaurant but with the occasional modern twist. Classic street-food dishes and pho from southern Vietnam are the focus. “South of Vietnam [food] is not as spicy … and the difference between a pho from the south is we add things like star anise to our broth,” Ho says. Plates are made for sharing. There’s a special of two small, two large and one side dish for $55, which is enough to feed two people.
Smaller options might include crisp vegetarian spring rolls with pickled carrot and daikon; fluffy soft-shell crab bao with cucumber, coriander, and kimchi mayo; and banh mi sliders. Larger is the whole fried flounder with sweet-chilli sauce or Hochi Mama’s signature fried chicken winglets.
Thit kho is caramelised pork belly cooked for six hours, served with boiled soy-marinated eggs, cucumber and salty-sweet nuoc mam sauce. Ho says the dish is a household staple in Vietnam and also traditionally served during Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. If you’re looking for a taste of the diner’s past the hearty bowls of vegan, chicken or beef pho are unchanged. You can also order pho broth with the addition of bone marrow.
Tropical cocktails are inspired by the coastal Vietnamese cities of Nha Trang and Da Nang. Espresso Martinis are made extra creamy with the addition of condensed milk, and a gin cocktail made with Butterfly Pea tea (made from ternatea flowers) turns purple with a squeeze of lime.
A hand-painted mural of Miss Vietnam in a traditional coolie hat set against Ha Long Bay is by designer Andre Barouh. It mirrors a more vibrant one at Hochi Mama, but “[there] she’s all tatted up and fun and stuff,” says Ho.
On the adjacent wall more neon lettering hangs above leather booth seating. Potted ferns hang from the low ceiling and you’ll spot rows of empty bottles of Saigon Beer on entry.
“For every second beer that you buy, we give you a masking tape and a texta to write your name on it,” says Ho. “To have you remembered as part of the beginning.”
Straight Outta Saigon
138 Russell Street, Melbourne
(03) 9654 2024
Daily 11.30am–3pm, 5.30pm–11.30pm