As I turn the corner into Gartside Street, Wanniassa, I am met by a mini traffic jam. Going at 7:00 pm, there is a stream of cars looking for parking just as I am. The whole area is bustling.
There are people coming in and out of the many restaurants dotted along the street and a huge queue of frozen custard lovers has formed outside popular teenage haunt, Goodberry’s. It is a level of activity and buzz in Canberra that I have not seen in months and it is a lovely sight to see. It feels that at least in the suburb of Wanniassa, the fog of COVID-19 is lifting.
I spot my dinner destination, Propaganda Bistro, one of the new restaurants on the block which is reminiscent of a North American strip mall. The stores are all lined up in a row around a parking lot, with a mix of fast-food chains and suburban gems among them.
From the sign out the front to the décor and music played inside the restaurant, owners Trang Tran and Glen Lewis have pulled off a charming retro feel to share their love of Vietnamese food with Southsiders.
“Everyone loves the 1960s and 1970s! Think of free love, experimentation and good music! We want people to walk into history and the 1970s version of a Vietnamese bistro designed for western tourists. There is poster art on the walls with the 1960s and 1970s music playing in the background,” said Glen.
After a chance meeting over a bowl of beef noodle soup, the newly married couple quickly bonded over a love of food, travel and culture. Propaganda Bistro combines both their backgrounds and cements the new life that they are building together.
“This shop was my wedding gift to bring joy and happiness to our marriage and we want it to grow with us as we start our family,” said Glen.
Having grown up in the Tuggeranong area, he saw huge potential to bring authentic Vietnamese food to the neighbourhood, while Trang was eager to share the vibrancy and flavour of her home country’s cuisine.
“After travelling together, Glen and I started to think about what we would do with our time and we both agreed to share our love of Vietnamese food, especially Vietnamese homemade food from my family recipes,” Trang explained.
“Our menu is short but there’s the best Vietnamese classics and some other specials that are hard to find and super delicious.”
For my first dinner at the restaurant, I am guided by Trang’s suggestions. She is enthusiastic and vivacious as she explains the dishes. On her recommendation, I swap my usual order of a glass of wine to accompany the meal for a home-made Sam Bi Dao. This is an ice-cold glass of winter melon herbal tea, it is fragrant with a hint of sweetness and makes a lovely accompaniment to the meal ahead.
To start, I have Crunchy Spring Rolls. Using traditional Vietnamese rice paper instead of the usual commercial wheat spring roll paper not only makes the rolls gluten-free but extra crispy when fried. The filling inside is plentiful with a combination of chicken, carrot, corn and mushroom topped with a sweet chilli lime sauce.
For the main course, it is very tempting to order a comforting bowl of Pho Bo. The aromatic beef noodle soup is one of my favourites go-to dishes. Trang has been receiving rave reviews on her take of the dark rich fragrant broth, but I decide to try it another time (on a colder evening) and I opt for Banh Xeo – Vietnamese pancakes with minced pork, mung beans, bean sprouts, carrot served alongside herbs and a fresh salad, with a sweet and sour fish sauce for dipping.
Trang delivers the dish with instructions on how best to consume it. It is bright and vibrant and a feast for both the eyes and mouth. Best eaten with your hands, I take a piece of the stuffed pancake and wrap it inside the lettuce which I filled with herbs and dip into the sauce. It is an addictive combination of textures that at the same time delivers freshness and bursts of flavour with the sauce bringing it all together.
To finish, instead of dessert, I opt for another traditional drink, the Vietnamese Iced Coffee with condensed milk which delivers a strong, sweet hit of caffeine. With good music, drinks and food, it topped off a pretty great night in the suburbs.
Propaganda Bistro is located at 4/33 Gartside Street, Wanniassa and is open for dinner from 5:00 pm Monday to Saturday, and lunch from 11:30 am Thursday to Saturday.