Try it at the Vietnamese restaurant in Otahuhu. Photo/Alex Burton
Try it at Vietnamese restaurant
79 Atkinson Avenue, Otāhuhu.
Open 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., seven days a week.
Xuan Ha and Duyen Vo fell in love at a beauty salon in Saigon. Ha was the hairdresser, Vo the nail technician. They
were on the losing side of the Vietnam War.
The couple arrived in Auckland in the mid-1980s, determined to give their children a brighter future. In 1989, with courage and levity, they founded Try it Out, one of the first Vietnamese restaurants in New Zealand. Their vision: to meet the needs of the growing Vietnamese community (many refugees like them have resettled in Ōtāhuhu) and introduce New Zealanders to authentic Vietnamese cuisine. More than three decades later, the tastes of pho and banh mi are common. The competition is now intense. But Try it Out’s utilitarian dining room still comes alive under its faded Ha Long Bay photomurals.
One point of difference: a truly encyclopedic menu. Nearly 200 dishes are offered, spread over 18 pages. While you won’t find a dog, duck fetus, or cobra heart (all things I developed a taste for during my own delicious time in ‘Nam), the restaurant’s dedication to dishes that won’t necessarily please to typical Kiwi palaces is commendable. Take soda sua hot ga ($8). Literally “sparkling water with milk and an egg”. I, and anyone who has tried it, know that the drink is a delicious union of “refreshing” and “cream”. My table mate, however, grimaced stating that it was “too weird”.
All of these Vietnamese food words send me down nostalgic rabbit holes. For example: cua lot rang muoi (salted soft-shell crab, $29.50) conjured up evenings on the palm-lined shores of Mui Ne, a lightly polluted paradise north of Ho Chi Minh City popular with skint Russians. in search of the sun. Eating fresh seafood is all we really do in Mui Ne. At dusk, you do this as the fishermen set out to harvest the friends and relatives of whatever crab, scallop, shrimp, or squid that currently lies between your chopsticks.
On a recent visit to Try it Out, I ordered banh cuon ($16) – an early bird breakfast dish in Vietnam. Banh cuon is a pile of soft, slippery pancakes made from rice flour, each rolled up with ground pork and ear mushrooms. The pancakes are served with cucumber and mint, slices of cha lua (a peppery sausage, similar to spam) and fried shallots. Above all, a small bowl of fish sauce vinaigrette brimming with garlic, chili and pickled carrot shards accompanies.
It is a meal almost exclusively cooked and eaten on the street. In Ho Chi Minh City, where I used to live, Vietnamese grannies would set up their pancake rolling stations at dawn (any shady trail will do). Of course, there will be other grannies selling iced coffee nearby. Tiny plastic tables and stools create pop-up breakfast areas that disappear at 7:30.
In such settings, banh cuon should not cost more than 13,000 Vietnamese dong (about 80c). Coffee is pretty much the same. It’s a hearty meal for less than $2. In New Zealand, of course, yeah.
Today, Try it Out is more family-oriented than ever. Ha and Vo’s daughters, Jenny and Jane, are the bosses. Jane’s children also work there when they are not studying. Just like various uncles and cousins. Jenny’s brother-in-law runs a branch in East Tāmaki. Vo, reluctantly retired from the restaurant, still grows the lemongrass, Thai basil, purple perilla and mint essential to Vietnamese cuisine. Unfortunately, Ha passed away several years ago. In Vietnamese culture, death anniversaries of loved ones are celebrated with a banquet. But Ha didn’t want to overload her already kitchen-obsessed family with even more cooking. A simple bowl of his favorite pho would suffice, he told them before he died.
Jenny, 43, says she remains in awe of her parents. When the two-decade-long Vietnam War ended in 1975, the communist north and the anti-communist south “reunited”. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Its defeated inhabitants, including the Ha family, suffered severe oppression. Between 1975 and 1992, nearly two million Vietnamese fled their homeland by boat. Survivors have sought asylum in foreign countries, including New Zealand. They were known as the “boat people” and one of them was Jenny’s mother. Vo was told she had a one in two chance of not drowning, being killed by pirates or starving to death when she left Vietnam in an overloaded illegal boat. She seized the opportunity, while Jenny’s father and siblings waited until Vo could get them safely to Auckland.
“My parents worked so hard for our lives, for this restaurant,” Jenny says. “It is their legacy and we, the next generations, are determined to carry it on.”