Part of my time growing up in Melbourne, I was living in Springvale South. The bordering suburb, Springvale, is known to many for its Vietnamese restaurants and fresh food markets. Before I could drive, my parents would take me out many a Friday night after school to feast on some of the most delicious Vietnamese food Melbourne holds host to. Staple Vietnamese favourites were regularly ordered, along with steaming pots of chrysanthemum tea. It’s these memories that pepper my childhood food travels.
My food travels have taken a broader view and I’m travelling the vegan road to uncover the gluten free options. These types of food choices aren’t so well-known in Vietnamese cuisine (generally, relying heavily on meat-based ingredients and sometimes glutinous noodles or sauces) but it’s in Melbourne where Vietnamese food is pushing the boundaries of tradition for Vietnamese cuisine.
It’s only been two months, yet Olivia Spring Café is shaking up tradition with an all-vegan Vietnamese café in Moonee Ponds. To my knowledge, this is the second all-vegan Vietnamese locale in Melbourne, (the second being Fina’s 2) which suggests that there is a growing need for vegan Vietnamese food.
As you walk through the doors at Olivia Spring Café, the space is fresh, new and gorgeous, exuding the essence of a French-style coffee shop. Tables and chairs line the floor, looked over by colourfully painted murals along the walls. The space is flooded in natural light, as the espresso machine grinds and hums to the beat of this brand new establishment. A mezzanine level is one step up from the main floor, if you want to stretch out on the couch or take a Vietnamese meal traditionally – aside a large coffee table while sitting on cosy cushions on the floor. Today’s lunch is taken at a table with chairs and before there’s the opportunity to sit, our hospitable host is asking me what I’d like drink.
“Yes, please! A café latte with soy milk?”
He smiles, nods and hurries away to man the machine and churn out my order. Once I start perusing the menu, I can see the extent of the options for drinks – teas, coffees, even Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê đá)! (An option to try for next time).
One lunchtime option I decide on quickly, after weighing up the many mouth-watering options, is Cơm tấm, or Broken Rice. This was one of my favourites back in the day and the only way to describe it is that it’s like a platter for one. There’s a perfectly rounded mound of broken rice to anchor the plate, which is then surrounded by a bit of everything. Broken rice stems from the grains that become cracked during the processing part of rice, and it seems to feature predominantly in Vietnamese cuisine.
There’s fresh tomato slices and cucumber resting on a bed of lettuce, and Vietnamese style pickled carrot and cauliflower. For a spicy twist, there’s a portion of kimchi – Korean pickled cabbage. To crown the dish in its tasty glory are wedges of tofu cake speckled by black sesame seeds and, the tastiest protein on the plate, lemongrass tofu – strips of tofu rolled and marinated in lemongrass before being seared until lightly crispy. To finish off the dish, a vessel of vinegar with shredded pickled carrot and slices of fresh chilli is placed at the centre of the plate so I can drip spoonfuls over the dish with as little or as much as I like. It adds a zing to the dish, but with all the flavours steaming in front of me already it’s best to drip the vinegar sparingly to create a well-balanced flavoursome lunch. If you want that extra zing, I suggest grabbing your chopsticks and collect the soaking carrot to crunch on; my favourite moment when feasting on Cơm tấm.
The fastness of Cơm tấm is deceiving, and lunch turns into a substantial meal to sustain me for the rest of the day. Just as I thought I couldn’t eat any more, I am beckoned by some raw cakes in the cake cabinet; supplied to Olivia Spring Café by local cake-maker RawJoy.
It’s tricky to choose which one when options like decadent Chocolate Peanut Butter with a slightly salty biscuit base and Lime Cheesecake flavours are available. So, the only option is to choose one of each! Not only do you have the freedom to choose both here, it’s the freedom to experience two polarising flavours together without the flavours colliding and conflicting with each other during the same serving.
I think this is the essence of Vietnamese cuisine and why it’s so popular in Melbourne – drawing together such unique flavours that do work so well together, and work just as well in a vegan setting. The combination of flavours found in Cơm tấm at Olivia Spring Café is thrilling, while still staying true to traditional methods. It can be done, and is done so beautifully and scrumptiously.
Travel to Olivia Spring Café and try their vegan Vietnamese menu for yourself. 637 Mt Alexander Road Moonee Ponds Victoria Australia 3039. Phone 03 9077 5560. Hours: 7.00am to 5.00pm Monday to Saturday (closed Sundays)