“What a curious neighborhood.”
I took in all the sensory details I could, from the inviting storefronts of Chinese restaurants to the colorful facades of auto body shops. It’s true what they say: there’s no commercial district in Quezon City that embodies the festive spirit of Asian culture more than Banawe does.
A few blocks away, we reached NS Amoranto Corner, which was where Tra Vinh was located. Just across an obscure takoyaki bar, and a few steps down from Tien Ma’s, Tra Vinh seemed like the odd, but nevertheless interesting cousin of its Japanese and Chinese neighbors.
One of the things I love about Tra Vinh is its strange history. The restaurant’s original branch was established more than 20 years ago by Mr. Van Chien Ho, a Vietnamese immigrant who moved to Western Australia. Because of Tra Vinh’s use of the best and freshest produce, it captured the Australian market and opened numerous stores across the land down under.
Sometime around 2015, Tra Vinh opened in the Philippines. While the Philippines is closer to Vietnam compared to Australia, which may make importing some Vietnamese ingredients easier (make no mistake, though, the restaurant tries to use as many local ingredients as possible), it isn’t fair to conclude it’ll do better here as compared to Australia. After all, Tra Vinh has tougher competition close to home. While it’s a special snowflake out there, it’s a more common contender over here.
So how does it set itself apart from its Vietnamese competitors? And why has it become almost every publication’s “must-try” place for Vietnamese cuisine?
The revelation came as early as the first appetizer: the Fresh Spring Roll (Goi Cuon). While this was awkwardly served last during my first visit, it was appropriately laid down first on our table during my second visit–and rightly so, since this refreshing appetizer sets the tone for the rest of the meal.
Let me tell you why: every component worked. The translucent, springy rice wrapper held together well, despite the fact that it was filled with a lot of vegetables, rice vermicelli, herbs, and three pieces of shrimp.
But the stars are really the herbs: I assume they used cilantro, lemongrass, and mint to bring out the punchy and at times pungent flavor. It was a surprise that the quality of herbs they used here rivaled, and even bested, the herbs used in Earth Kitchen’s fresh spring rolls (a proudly farm-to-table restaurant).
Tone this down with the thick (not watery!) and sweet peanut sauce, and it’s game over (pro tip: it’s more advisable to spoon the sauce over your spring roll rather than to dunk the former in the latter; that way, you’ll avoid spilling your spring roll’s guts all over the sauce).
In contrast to our predictable spring roll order, we had the Prawn Sugarcane Wraps. This was the more foreign, yet still somewhat familiar appetizer. To eat this, you need to pour the special house dressing (which vaguely resembles a vinegar-fish sauce mix) over the vermicelli and vegetables and mix them together.
Once mixed, you tuck them inside a crunchy lettuce wrap along with the seasoned prawn (which kind of reminded us of kikiam) and a small portion of seasonal fruit (for us, it came in the form of apple slices).
The secret here is to be patient and combine your ingredients strategically: you get your sour element from the vegetables and vermicelli doused in sauce, your sweet element from the fruit, and your salty element from the prawn. If you fuck up this crucial step, it’s going to taste unbalanced. For instance, I lost patience and simply ate the seasoned prawns without going through the usual ritual, and all I tasted was some sort of vague, seafood-y saltiness. Be patient. Do things right. (Fun fact: they offer this without the melange of vegetables and fruits, but based on my experience of just eating the seasoned prawns, I wouldn’t recommend that.)
Then came the noodles.
We started with the Tra Vinh Special Noodle Soup (Hu Tieu Tra Vinh Dac Biet), which uses the house’s original seafood and chicken broth. I asked the server and she revealed that this particular soup uses the same broth as the restaurant’s Chicken Noodle Soup and No-Meat Noodle Soup, so if you want to try as many types of broth as you can, just go with one and choose whichever topping you feel is best. For the Special Noodle Soup, the toppings consist of pork loin, fresh prawn, squid, fish ball, pork liver slice, quail egg, and a cute, crunchy prawn cracker.
The toppings were great–hefty and generous, for sure. As for the broth, it was clean, light, and… somewhat bordering on boring. I know that this Hu Tieu’s broth isn’t supposed to be as robust as the broth of other Vietnamese soups, but I didn’t feel that this was an umami-filled broth that takes its flavors from the innocent, unicorn-filled dreams of small children. It was basic. And sometimes, that’s fine – but I wanted more.
In contrast, the Spicy Combination Beef Noodle Soup (Bun Bo Hue) packed a punch. Featuring Tra Vinh’s special three-meat broth with 14 traditional herbs and spices, it offered a good balance of spicy, sour, salty, and sweet flavors – a crucial trait of Vietnamese cooking, which is inspired by the philosophies of Buddhism (each flavor represents one of the five elements, and they must all achieve balance). Served on the side is a small saucer containing red chili, which can be added to the Bun Bo Hue if you want to make it extra fiery. Don’t underestimate Tra Vinh’s chilies, which can instantly turn the soup into napalm.
Perhaps a little more slices of raw onions here and there would make a more interesting flavor profile, but there’s really nothing to complain about. Is it the best Bun Bo Hue in town? Not entirely, but it’s not bad at all.
Despite the large number of toppings (prawn, squid, fish ball), what stood out were the slices raw New Zealand rib eye, which were then cooked in the hot broth.
And then there were the more interesting braised meat noodle soups: the Braised Duck Noodle Soup (Mi Vit Tiem) and the Braised Beef Noodle Soup (Hu Tieu Mi Hoac Bun Bo Kho). The former contains broth that’s prepared with traditional herbs and spices, topped with a quarter piece of duck, shiitake mushrooms, local vegetables, and finally garnished with garden-fresh herbs. On the other hand, the Hu Tieu Mi Hoac Bun Bo Kho contained a slow-cooked marinated beef shin cooked in special herbs and spices.
Both braised noodle soups had character. The Mi Vit Tiem, which is a soup that highlights Chinese influence in Vietnamese cooking, showcased the heavy, deep flavors of five-spice and cinnamon. Add chilies to make this even more exciting, but it’s totally fine without. I particularly enjoyed how the shiitake absorbed the liquid and lets a bit of it out on each bite. Meanwhile, the Hu Tieu Mi Hoac Bun Bo Kho was positively sweet, presumably because of the large slices of carrots almost dissolving in the soup.
Overall, we enjoyed our experience at Tra Vinh. The prices were reasonable, the food was enlightening, and there are always things in its expansive menu that will give you something new to experience. You can truly feel the amount of care given in sourcing the ingredients used, which is rare for a restaurant that doesn’t brand itself as some organic, farm-to-table, slow food revolution sort of place. It’s just simple Vietnamese food done right.
Come for the spring rolls, stay for the noodles, and wash it all down with some iced Vietnamese coffee after–I heard they serve a killer cup.
Tra Vinh is located at Unit 3 N.S. Amoranto Corner Cordillera Avenue, Maharlika, Quezon City