Try it Out Vietnamese Restaurant
79 Atkinson Avenue, Ōtāhuhu.
Open 10am-9.30pm, seven days a week.
Xuan Ha and Duyen Vo fell in love at a Saigon beauty salon. 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-80s, determined to give their kids a brighter future. In 1989, through sheer grit and scrimping, they founded Try it Out, one of New Zealand's first Vietnamese restaurants. Their vision: cater to the growing Vietnamese community (many refugees like themselves re-settled in Ōtāhuhu) and introduce New Zealanders to authentic Vietnamese cuisine. More than three decades later, the likes of pho and banh mi are mainstream. Competition is now intense. But Try it Out's utilitarian dining hall still bustles beneath its faded photomurals of Ha Long Bay.
One point of difference: a truly encyclopedic menu. Almost 200 dishes are on offer, scattered across 18 pages. While you won't find dog, duck fetus, or cobra heart (all things I developed a taste for during my own delicious stint in 'Nam), the eatery's dedication to dishes that won't necessarily appeal to typical Kiwi palates is commendable. Take soda sua hot ga ($8). Literally "soda water with milk and an egg". I, and anyone who's tried it, know the beverage to be a delightful union of "refreshing" and "custardy". My dining buddy, however, grimaced as he declared it "too bizarre".
All those 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-fringed shores of Mui Ne, an only slightly polluted paradise north of Ho Chi Minh City, popular with skint Russians seeking sun. Eating fresh seafood is all one really does in Mui Ne. At dusk, you do it as fishermen set off to harvest the friends and relatives of whichever crab, scallop, prawn, or squid is currently between your chopsticks.
On a recent visit to Try it Out, I ordered banh cuon ($16) - a breakfast dish for early risers in Vietnam. Banh cuon is a heap of soft, slippery pancakes made of rice flour, each rolled up with minced pork and wood-ear mushrooms. The pancakes are served with cucumber and mint, sliced cha lua (Vietnam's peppery, spam-like almost-sausage), and fried shallots. Crucially, a small bowl of fish sauce vinaigrette brimming with fragments of garlic, chilli and pickled carrot accompanies.
This is a meal almost exclusively cooked and eaten on the streets. In Ho Chi Minh City, where I lived, Vietnamese grannies set up their pancake rolling stations at dawn (any shaded patch of footpath will do). For sure there'll be other grannies hawking iced coffee nearby. Tiny plastic tables and stools create ephemeral breakfasting zones that vanish by 7.30am.
In such settings, banh cuon shouldn't cost more than 13,000 Vietnam dong (about 80c). Coffee's about the same. That's a hearty meal for less than $2. In New Zealand, of course, yeah right.
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Today, Try it Out is as family-centric as ever. Ha and Vo's daughters, Jenny and Jane, are the bosses. Jane's kids work there too when not studying. As do 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 critical to Vietnamese cooking. Sadly, Ha died several years ago. In Vietnamese culture, anniversaries of loved ones' deaths are celebrated with a banquet. But Ha didn't want to burden his already kitchen-bound family with yet more cooking. A simple bowl of his favourite pho would suffice, he told them before he died.
Jenny, 43, says she remains in awe of her parents. When Vietnam's two decades-long war ended in in 1975, the communist north and anti-communist south "reunified". Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Its vanquished inhabitants, including the Ha family, experienced severe oppression. Between 1975 and 1992, almost two million Vietnamese fled their homeland by boat. Survivors sought asylum in foreign countries, including New Zealand. They were known as "boat people" and one was Jenny's mum. Vo was told she had a 50/50 chance of not drowning, being killed by pirates, or starving to death when she left Vietnam by overloaded illegal boat. She took the chance, while Jenny's dad and siblings waited behind until Vo could get them safely to Auckland.
"My parents worked so hard for our lives, for this restaurant," says Jenny. "It's their legacy and we, the next generations, are determined to continue it."