The Melbourne restaurant with the $11 soup that saved my sanity

When my partner and I were expecting our first child, our more indulgent habits were subjected to a thorough audit. We were, after all, preparing to bring a new human into the world and we wanted to lead by example as healthy, prudent, generous, intelligent, loving and devoted parents.

We could eat at Pho Hung Preston for about $11 a head. It was amazing.Credit:Ken Irwin

Unfortunately, our initial process of review did not identify some of those traits. And so began the nine-month purge of the residue of our reckless young lives, and the acquisition of improved habits more befitting a couple whose primary task was to nurture a young life.

I discarded a half-empty packet of cigarettes with a flourish as a symbol of my commitment to self-improvement. Days later I skulked to the milk bar to replace them (though I put an end to that on-again, off-again relationship soon after).

I began reading self-help books for soon-to-be dads, despite having eschewed the life-advice genre until that point. I dragged myself up and down hills and even engaged a personal trainer at my local gym. Never mind that three sessions of a teenager saying “come on, champ” while I fought the battle ropes was as much as I could bear.

By far the toughest change, for both of us, was stifling our compulsion to eat out. We wanted to improve our finances and that meant putting limits on the excesses to which we had become accustomed. That was when our until then unimpeded tour of Melbourne’s suburban cafes and restaurants ended.

It was tougher to kick than the cigarettes. Brunches at Barry, where we would meet friends for a bite and coffee, were abandoned. Catch ups with visiting friends from interstate at the legendary Hutong Dumpling Bar (when I remembered to book several days in advance) were replaced by a quick takeaway coffee and a stroll.

Those extremely rare, special occasion dinners at the inimitable Stefano’s restaurant in the subterranean cellars of Mildura’s Grand Hotel were certainly off the menu.

Try as we might, we lacked the willpower to stop ourselves completely. We do live in Melbourne, after all. Would you move to Apollo Bay and avoid swimming? We did a lot of home cooking on a budget (take a look here for some inspiration), but we couldn’t always muster the time and energy.

Thankfully, there was one place we could eat for about $11 a head. And it was amazing. It is with some reluctance that I reveal the name of this restaurant, as it is always extremely busy. I’ll tell you, trusted reader, but please keep it to yourself: Pho Hung, Preston. It has a sister restaurant in Springvale, too, though I’ve never eaten there.

I can almost smell that enormous bowl of salty soup now. Satisfying. Delicious. Cheap. Once a week, we would get our fix. It was all we needed and it didn’t break the bank.

We eat there still, whenever we get the chance. Prices have gone up in recent years, but it is still very affordable. Our children have also acquired a penchant for Vietnamese food, possibly as a result of exposure in the womb.

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that this restaurant kept us sane during those fun but anxious times. I would not have known about Pho Hung – or any of the places mentioned above – if it wasn’t for The Age Good Food Guide. Long before I worked at The Age, it was the only source I trusted to guide my culinary choices. (I could fill another newsletter with my TripAdvisor mishaps.)

Part of the reason I feel comfortable about including this somewhat self-indulgent rant on my favourite restaurant in this note is that you, our valued subscribers, have told us very clearly that you are as food and drink obsessed as I am.

About 10 days ago, Good Food and The Age finally joined forces online, with the complete integration of the much-loved food and drink platform into The Age website. Since then, you have been gobbling up what we have to offer.

Good Food’s offering has always been first-class, but now it has stepped it up even more, with food gurus such as Nagi Maehashi of RecipeTin Eats fame, Curtis Stone, Adam Liaw and Emelia Jackson. I encourage you explore our new food and drink offering here.

Public interest journalism is and always will be our main course at The Age. But we’re glad to see you’re enjoying this side dish. I certainly am. And if you’re hungry for more, you can sign up to receive our new subscriber-only Good Food newsletter, What’s for Dinner, to get a seasonal, achievable and delicious recipe by one of our food gurus delivered to your inbox every weekday afternoon.

Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.

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