Seven years after opening, the queues at this Melbourne institution show no signs of dying down – and once you taste one of its famed curries or stir fries, you’ll understand why. The prawn is a showcase of textural contrasts: delicate strands of egg noodle mottled with lots of prawn are enlivened with springy wood-ear mushrooms, creamy scrambled egg, mild garlic chive, aromatic coriander and crunchy garlic bombs. Luckily, the “hell-fire” chilli oil comes on the side so you can decide whether your meal has welcome heat or blows your socks off.
Opposite the Queen Victoria Market and up a flight of stairs is Melbourne’s best-kept secret for Laotian cuisine. With plenty of soupy and dry noodle versions, make sure you don’t leave without trying the mee krob. Translating as ‘crisp noodles’, the dish sees a mound of brittle egg noodles crowned with Chinese broccoli and melt-in-the-mouth slivers of filleted beef. The contrast between the crunchy and soft elements and the salty-sweet gravy giving off earthy notes thanks to the mushroom-infused soy makes this dish not only unique but damn delicious.
Mamak, a branch of the popular Sydney eatery, won’t win any beauty contests but its menu of Malaysian curries, rotis and stir fries sure pulls in epic crowds. The mee goreng – a dish ubiquitous in many parts of South East Asia – is a must. Hokkien noodles scorched from the wok come studded with bite-sized prawns, fish cakes, cubes of puffy tofu, scrambled egg, greens and bean sprouts, all swathed in a sauce of soy, garlic and housemade sambal. It’s got a subtle shrimp flavour and slight sweetness, and comes with discs of fresh tomato and cucumber to mollify the fiery chilli kick.
In the backstreets of Prahran, David’s serves Chinese classics in minimalist surroundings. The lengthy menu champions dumplings, seafood, meat and veg dishes, but the stir-fries too deserve a look-in. Shanghai-style egg noodles – elastic, caramel-coloured and glossy from a sweet-savoury soy sauce – are tossed with plenty of nutritious boy choy, slivers of meaty shiitake and grilled pork bits. It comes with a side of black rice vinegar for those partial to a bit of sourness with their noodles.
It doesn't matter if you've been in Melbourne for five minutes or five decades, everyone knows the Hutong Dumpling House. It's the dumpling place. Few see beyond the cheap-and-cheerful juicy dumplings, but I double dare you to dive into their mains – still cheap, double the cheerful. Best in class has to be the diced chicken fillet with dry chilli, peanuts, and Szechuan vinegar sauce. Sure, a few weird flavour combinations at play – nutty chicken? Chilli? Tangy vinegar sauce? – but trust us when we say it is absolutely moreish. The servings are generous, so share it with a friend – we both know you want to leave room for dumplings.
Chapel Street’s Hawker Hall pays homage to Asian hawker markets with its neon signage and boisterous vibes, but we mostly rate it for its tasty pan-Asian fare and extensive beer list. Get nostalgic for the Chinese takeaway of your childhood with the beef and black bean stir fry. Ribbons of sirloin beef are folded through gelatinous rice noodle tubes and Asian greens in a fragrant sauce made dark and thick from soy, garlic and black beans. The dish has an intense meaty and nutty flavour thanks to the sesame, and goes so well with the La Siréne Harvest Ale that’s on tap.
The neon lighting and inner-city location belie the slow-food glory of Magic Mountain Saloon. This, my friends, is not just a cocktail bar. Kick back and graze (granted, Mojito in hand) for a few hours on their Asian-fusion menu, making sure to try the soft shell crab, celery and sweet peppers. It's much more hearty than it sounds, with big chunks of crab meat tossed into a sticky mix, the green peppers and celery adding a gentle sweetness to the salty crab. It’s small but jazzy, a perfect interlude to the rich curries of the larger plates.
Brunswick Street, Fitzroy is a pretty trendy strip, and Rice Paper Scissors has fallen into step with a very cool, very laid-back Malaysian-inspired dining experience. You want to pick'n'mix the menu (for two people – three smalls, two bigs, one dessert) in order to get a little bit of everything delicious. But what you simply cannot miss is their sticky pork belly stir fry with bok choy and bean sprouts ($21). You’ll be hard pressed to stop yourself from picking over and over again at the dish to score a sliver of the crispy pork belly, with the market-fresh greens providing some freshness among the oyster sauce and salty fried shallots.
Short lunch break in the city? Malaysian diner Aunty Franklee is the Russell Street standout for something quick and tasty made fresh. They lean heavily on their DIY Bak Kut Tey offering (think: fancy broth with customised ingredients), but for a zoomy lunch you want to try the smoky char kuey teow ($14.50). Fat noodles are piled high, silky and laden with chunks of fatty pork crackling, prawns, fish cake, egg, Chinese sausage, and chives. It might sound like the meat lover’s pizza of the stir fry world, but I assure you that the tangy sambal sauce totally saves it from being too much. Add a squeeze of lemon, and demolish. Just note that you’ll struggle getting back to work after.
Chapel Street seems to have a new Asian-fusion venue each week, but Tokyo Tina is the MVP. It’s cute, it’s kooky, and the food nails the brief every time. Their Korean beef barbecue Set is a deconstructed stir fry that comes with the condiment selection of your dreams: red bulgogi, pickled mustard rooy, white kimchi, red kimchi, and sesame oil. Build it up along with their chilli green beans ($8) and sticky rice ($4) – and trust me when I say you’re going to want to ask for extra kimchi. It’s next-level delicious.