Restaurant News

There are phở dumplings and tamarind onion rings; just don’t call Ông a “modern Vietnamese” restaurant

In Adelaide’s CBD, second-generation restaurateurs Quang and Thy Nguyen have shaped a menu of their own making, coloured in with their childhood food memories.

By Diem Tran
Thy and Quang Nguyen, co-owners of Adelaide's Ông Vietnamese Eatery, with their daughter Blair. Photo: Supplied
It's a quandary faced by many second-generation migrant restaurateurs: to continue the legacy of their family's business, or to carve out something of their own making. For Adelaide husband-and-wife team Quang and Thy Nguyen, it wasn't a decision they took lightly. Building Ông Vietnamese Kitchen meant leaving behind Thy's mother's legacy and starting afresh.
Ông is located on Rundle Street in the Adelaide CBD. But before that it was Chopstix, a multi-Asian cuisine restaurant established in 2004 by Thy's family. "My mum was thrown into the deep end. She went from knowing nothing about hospitality to being the sole chef at Chopstix," says Thy. "Unfortunately, a lot of people tried to take advantage of us. The hospitality business is so cut-throat as it is, but for a woman back then it felt almost impossible." By the time she was 16, Thy was effectively her mother's second-in-charge. "She taught me everything she had to learn herself."
With a few years left on the lease, and the ever-present threat of COVID-19 on the restaurant business, Quang and Thy had to make some hard decisions. "The reality was, [Chopstix] wasn't going to survive. It was old-school '90s Viet, Chinese, the everything Asian restaurant," Thy says. A new restaurant, concept and menu was an opportunity to bring Vietnamese flavours to Adelaide's bar and dining scene.

For guidance they looked to Noi, their sister restaurant in Fullarton, south-east of the CBD. There, the menu combines Vietnamese flavours with the made-to-share, small-to-large-plates format of so many modern-day restaurants. And the bánh tráng nướng (Vietnamese-style pizzas) and yellow chicken curries have proven popular, even with their toughest critics: the parents and grandparents of their Vietnamese Australian diners. "We were prepared for backlash but [the community has] actually been really nice about it," says Quang.
Buoyed by the success of Noi, Quang cherry-picked its greatest hits for the Ông menu: crispy pork belly and char-grilled squid, for example, their portions downsized to suit the high turnover of city dining. There's a greater sense of play and experimentation, with Quang riffing on his childhood food memories.
The stuffed fried chicken wings, for example, are an homage to Quang's late mother. She would spend the day preparing them for weekend parties; leftovers were an indulgent after-school snack for Quang. At Ông, the crisp chicken skin conceals a stuffing of pork mince, cloud ear fungus and glass noodles (this combination is traditionally stuffed in bittermelon, the much-maligned vegetable for many Vietnamese children); the lot is served with a sweet and sticky fish sauce for dipping.
The twice-cooked salt and pepper lamb short ribs, meanwhile, combine a secret family marinade, Australia's obsession with salt and pepper squid, and that prized barbecue smokiness that's lusted over by both Vietnamese and Australian cultures. Lamb isn't typically found in Vietnamese cuisine; at Ông, it's served with lime aioli and fresh coriander to cut through the richness.
Phở dumplings – beef dumplings in a phở broth with basil oil and herbs. Photo: Supplied
Lightly battered onion rings come dusted in a mouth-puckering tamarind-flavoured seasoning. The sweet-sour dusting is inspired by visits to Asian groceries where many Vietnamese soup bases, like the tamarind-based canh chua, are sold as stock cubes.
And Vietnam's beloved soups come remixed in dumpling form. Canh chua appears again as prawn wontons floating in a tamarind-flavoured soup; finely chopped rice paddy herb, an essential garnish to the soup, is sprinkled over the top. Beef tortellini-style dumplings accompany a phở broth and come topped with thinly sliced spring onion and chilli.
Quang Nguyen in the Ông kitchen. Photo: Supplied
Bún riêu – a tomato and crab-based noodle soup – is given an Ông twist. The traditional vermicelli noodles are swapped out for bánh canh, a starchy, chewy tapioca-based noodle with a shape similar to Japan's udon. The noodles bathe in a mouth-coating sauce that's turbo-charged with butter, tomato and South Australian blue swimmer crab.
Although the Ông menu carries the flavours of Vietnam for the 21st century, Quang says there's a stickiness to the "modern Vietnamese" label. "I've never wanted to be stereotyped, or for [restaurants Noi and Ông] to be pigeonholed. It starts to warp people's perception and expectation of what it should be or could be. We've honed in on what feels genuine to us."
It may have taken a couple of months for Ông to find its calling, but it distinguishes itself in a city where Vietnamese food has long been defined by the family restaurant scene out west. Ông is an exciting addition to Adelaide's Vietnamese dining offering, led by a new generation of Vietnamese Australian restaurateurs.
Ông Vietnamese Kitchen
287 Rundle Street, Adelaide, SA
Open Mon–Sun from 5pm
ongvietnamesekitchen.com.au