My father introduced me to banh mi many years ago, and from my first bite I was hooked on a dish I truly believe is the King of Sandwiches. My first banh mi was from the Ton Sian Grocery store located on Palmerston St in the city. Being a manager with regular meetings in the city, it became a bit of a running joke that my father simply could not come back from a meeting without popping in. This unassuming suburban outpost that began the Tran's Emporium empire may not seem like the most likely place to get an incredible sandwich, but they are so good it became clear just why my father just had to pop in here.
It wasn't surprising then to find the Tran family expand into the restaurant market with Mama Tran, though their store's location in the CBD meant Alissa and I would always just pop into Palmerston St rather than face the horrible stop-start drive through city roadworks just to eat there. However, when Alissa discovered Mama Tran served Bun Cha - our favourite Vietnamese dish - we had to know if it was better than Little Lang Nuong in Girrawheen. Or even better - if could live up to the gold standard of true Hanoi bun cha set by Bun Cha Dac Kim.
Mama Tran's Milligan St store features a very bright and welcoming modern Asian Fusion design aesthetic. In the corner are some high stools and a bench...
... while large share tables dominate the main space. Notice also that they have a small grocery section here too - old habits die hard I guess!
The lighting concept includes these hats repurposed as lampshades...
... and there is a lovely display of family photos on the left wall, including this shot of the Palmerston St store.
We placed our order, and while waiting had a drink of some ginger beer - of which they had three options!
For a starter, Alissa and I ordered wingettes of Fried Chicken. These were well cooked if basic, with the outer batter layer nice and crispy and the chicken meat within very juicy. Unfortunately, I felt that the wings could have been seasoned, as the final result was a little bland compared to some of the best fried chicken I have eaten.
The first thing I noticed when the Bun Cha arrived was that it came in one bowl. In Hanoi, Bun Cha comes in various components for you to construct yourself however I can understand them wanting to simplify this process for westerners who may be puzzled by this style of eating. The second thing was unfortunately a negative - these were not the spring rolls I was looking for. Instead of nem cua be, the spring rolls included were just the usual springs rolls common to Asian restaurants of all descriptions. These weren't bad per se, being nice and crispy and quite tasty - if I was just walking past and wanted a quick snack these would be fine. But nem cua be is so much better than common spring rolls and such an essential part of Bun Cha for me that its a real shame to see it omitted in their version (and most versions I've found in Perth). The grilled pork too was a little disappointing, as though it had the flavour of being cooked over coals it just did not compare the unctuous slices served at to Little Lang Nuong. Thankfully, tasting the noodles with the dipping sauce tossed through was a strong positive for this bowl of Bun Cha. The sweetness I remembered of Bun Cha Dac Kim was there, and as such was better balanced than the slightly too salty version I had the first time I dined at Little Lang Nuong (though every other time I've been in to Little Lang Nuong, the balance has been spot on). The dish worked overall as a balanced whole, and was satisfying enough even with its shortcomings.
Having decided to focus on the Bun Cha, Alissa and I vowed we'd return to Mama Tran sometime in the next few weeks after to try the Banh Mi again before posting our thoughts. With the inconvenient opening hours and with so many other places to check out, weeks turned in months, and the seasons went from the last week of Summer, through Autumn until just before the end of Winter when we finally popped in for a takeaway order - and even then we picked up our Banh Mi from the Ton Sian Grocery store on Palmerston St rather than drive into the CBD. Interestingly, Ton Sian Grocery seemed to have a Bun Cha variant on offer in takeaway containers that I hadn't noticed before - we shall have to try next time. I can say however that I thoroughly vouch for the flaky Curry Puffs that they have on offer at this store - another favourite snack of my father's that he always seemed to have tucked away in his top drawer!
The bread was a good baguette with a soft interior and the right level of crustiness on the outside. Looking at the fillings, the Tran's Banh Mi differs a little in filling quantities to our favourite Banh Mi at Nhu Mai. Where Nhu Mai has a more varied selection of cold cuts, Tran's seemed to only have roast pork and a luncheon meat or terrine slice. The Tran's version had quite a bit more coriander, the carrots seemed lightly pickled (or we just very sweet carrots) and the spear of cucumber was cut quite thin as I prefer it . Forgetting about the cucumber which I usually omit, I feel that the balance of flavours at Nhu Mai is better, however this was still a very tasty Banh Mi - Alissa and I were far from disappointed, and did little to dissuade me from my assertion that this is truly the King of Sandwiches.
The Verdict: Very Good
While neither their Bun Cha or their Banh Mi are the best Alissa and I have had in Perth, its not like what they are serving is bad either; Mama Tran's food is good, honest and satisfying Vietnamese food that is very tasty in its own right. Their opening hours may not be ideal for people living and working outside of the CBD, but with both a Milligan St and a Carillon City outlet of Mama Tran, as well as the Ton Sian store having many of the same food items on offer, I can't help but be a little envious. I'd still recommend making the trip out to Girrawheen to try even better versions of these two dishes, but for a quick and cheap work lunch, a sit down with a bowl of Bun Cha or a takeaway order of Banh Mi at Mama Tran would definitely hit the spot.