Australia is a nation of immigration. Whether because of war, famine, displacement, new career opportunities, brighter horizons or reunion with family, people have been flocking Ozwards for decades to start new lives.
The country’s epicentre of diversity is Melbourne, a hive of art, music and cultural expression that is influenced by migrant communities from all over the world – over a third of its inhabitants were born outside Australia. In no aspect of the city is this more evident than in its cuisine.
Melbourne has become famed for its multicultural food scene, and so with one week in the city (nowhere near enough), we decided to take a break from hostel-cooked pasta and surf some restaurants. After a whirlwind trip through friends’ recommendations and some of our own finds – and a heavy blow to our travel purse – I have put together a quick review of the places we dined.
As usual I’ve included information on costs – at the time of writing, one pound exchanges to roughly 1.73 Australian dollars.
Our hostel in Melbourne was conveniently located in Fitzroy, one of the city’s oldest suburbs and home to some of its best restaurants and drinking holes. On our first full day we wandered up Brunswick Street to find a spot for lunch, and found Madame Saigon, a cosy place specialising in Vietnamese street food.
We both went for the signature pho dish with rare beef and brisket, for a very reasonable $13 each, with a Vietnamese hot and cold coffee for $4.50 each. For extra authenticity, the coffees came in traditional Vietnamese steel coffee cups.
It would be very difficult to find better food for this price anywhere in Melbourne. The pho – essentially a large noodle soup – was served in a generously large bowl, with masses of tender meat pieces. We did not leave hungry.
The bill: $35 for two mains with coffees
The next day we took a free walking tour – always a good way to learn about and familiarise with a city. When it finished we found ourselves close to Chinatown with rumbling stomachs at 1:30pm; the tour guide had recommended the Empress of China, so we headed there.
Set in a pub-like building with modest décor it felt more homely than fancy, which suited us, and having missed the lunchtime rush it was nice and quiet.
As is often the case with Chinese restaurants, the menu presented pages and pages and pages of options, this place accompanying them with pictures of the dishes seemingly taken on an old Nokia phone. A menu highlight was a great selection of dumplings and won ton.
We went for a spicy seafood noodle soup each, with a plate of eight dumplings and deep fried eggplant for sides. When it arrived we realised that just the soups would have sufficed – the portions were enormous. Each dumpling was the size of my fist, and the eggplant overflowed on a large plate.
Food described as ‘spicy’ often disappoints chilli lovers, but here that was not the case. The noodle soups, sprinkled with chunks of hot chilli peppers, had a rasping hot aftertaste.
Unable to finish our food, we asked for boxes to take the leftovers away, and the friendly owners obliged – we had enough left for another meal in the evening.
The bill: $41.10 for mains, sides and green tea for two, with enough left over for another meal
Several years ago while travelling in Poland I met a Melbournian who wrote down a list of bar and food recommendations for when I would eventually visit, among them the DOC Pizza & Mozzarella Bar. Thankfully the place was still there, professing to offer the best authentic Italian food in the city, and just ten minutes’ walk from our hostel.
Pizza has been a go-to option for us to eat out on the cheap while travelling, as a large pizza shared between two is plenty enough food. After perusing the menu in DOC, however, and observing how nice the pizzas being served to other punters looked, we couldn’t pick one, so we decided to splash out on one each. Next-level bourgeois travelling right there.
Lisa went for the simple but always-winning Mexicana, while I chose the pizza Abruzzese, purely because ‘apple mustard’ was listed on the ingredients and it seemed like something I should try (the other toppings being porchetta, mozzarella and radicchio). To counter the stifling midday heat we ordered some sweet iced teas to drink.
There’s not much else to say than these pizzas were great – easily the best ones we’ve had on our world journey. Beautiful crispy thin bases, the Italian way!
The bill: $55.60 for two pizzas and iced teas
Hours later, bellies still full of pizza, we needed something a little lighter for dinner. Quick internet research uncovered Little Hop, a Mexican taco place a short walk into Fitzroy on Brunswick Street. With the evening air still warm we were lucky to arrive just as another group were leaving, and duly pounced on the prime outdoor seats.
Little Hop’s menu offers a variety of Mexican fayre, but we looked no further than the tacos for which it was apparently reputed. Cheap, too, at $5 for beef or chicken, and $6 for fish or slow-cooked pork (veggie options available too). We went for one of each of the four, plus an extra fish taco.
We forgave the slightly scatty service (it was very busy, after all) for the quality of the tacos. Simple, no-nonsense, tasty stuff, and just what we needed, washed down with some house craft beer.
The bill: $47 for five tacos to share and a craft beer each
On our solitary venture out of the city we took a long day trip to the Great Ocean Road, leaving before our hostel breakfast opened and returning to Melbourne CBD at 8:30pm. The BBQ lunch on the day trip was in reality a couple of sausages with some salad, so with the hour late we need something quick and substantial.
A couple of days earlier we had noticed a queue of people outside Stalactites, a Greek fast-food/restaurant fusion. This fit the bill perfectly, and would keep our cuisine variety tour going.
While restaurant eaters only could use the inside seating, a few tables and chairs outside were available to sit with takeaway. A bargain meal deal consisted of lamb giros or chicken giros souvlaki (or mixed), with chips and a drink, and extra toppings available. We both piped for the lamb.
We noticed too late that for one dollar extra we could have had fillet rather than giros, which in hindsight would have been a better option as our meat was a little chewy. No complaints for the price though, and the souvlaki was so big that neither of us could finish it, despite our potent hunger.
If we’d had a looser budget and more time on our hands, we would have liked to try the restaurant – the plates of meats we saw going past looked delicious. But with the situation as it was, the fast-serve souvlaki was delicious and filled a hole.
The bill: $38.50 for two lamb souvlaki meal deals with extra feta
We couldn’t spend a week touring Melbourne’s food scene without a proper greasy burger, and thanks to a recommendation from a friend and former colleague of ours, we found just the place – The B.east, over in Brunswick East. After the obligatory Ramsay Street tour in the morning, we took a slow hour’s stroll up from the CBD.
Doubling up as a music and drinking venue, The B.east wouldn’t be out of place in Shoreditch or Brooklyn, blasting out metal music and oozing that trendy diner vibe.
With some tantalising burger options such as the dimmu (with hickory bacon, jalapeños and filthy chilli paste) or the signature B.east (triple beef, triple bacon and “rivers of chilli cheese sauce”), I made a highly uncharacteristic choice and stayed with the classic burger. I didn’t even pay the extra couple of dollars to double it up – I think Melbourne must have been breaking me!
Lisa went one notch up for the filthy burger, smeared with smoked jalapeño ranch, and we ordered poutine to share (fries, cheese and gravy). And beers, of course.
These were great burgers – pink in the middle, dripping with sauce and an absolute mess to eat. Bingo. The poutine came in a giant bowl, to Lisa’s delight as she had been craving chips and gravy for weeks. We didn’t need to eat again that day.
The bill: $54 for burgers, poutine to share and a beer each
After such an avalanche of amazing food, how could we finish off our Melbourne mealathon in style? The answer was something a bit different.
The previous evening, after our B.east burgers, we had wandered into Fitzroy for some early evening happy-hour beers (which turned into midnight dancing, but that’s a story for another day). Chilling in Provincial on Brunswick Street, we told Mike – a travelling buddy from New York – about our Melbourne cuisine tour, and our dilemma on how to finish it. “There’s an Ethiopian place over there,” he pointed out. Sure enough, there was Saba.
So I looked it up. All the online reviews were glowing. Problem solved.
As the only country in Africa never to have been colonised, Ethiopia has preserved a strong identity and culture, one feature being its highly distinctive cuisine. Earlier in 2017, before we began our trip, I spent two weeks in the country’s capital Addis Ababa on a work trip and ate a lot of the local food. Incredibly, the food in Saba was better than anything I had on that trip.
The restaurant is run by a family from Tigray, northern Ethiopia. “I kept taking people to my mum’s house and everyone kept complimenting how great her cooking was, so I thought let’s give this a go and see what happens,” explains the restaurant’s backstory on the reverse of the menus. The family clearly love what they do, and are convivial in delivering it.
Now for the food. Saba serves the traditional Ethiopian way – with injera bread, a traditional sourdough that is used to mop up curry-style dishes by hand. Spoilt for choice, we went for the meat combination (three dishes – lamb with okra, goat and chicken) and the veg combination, chef’s recommendation (pumpkin, lentils and split peas). It came together in one giant dish, with extra injera bread on the side, and Ethiopian ginger teas to drink. We managed to finish the lot, save for a few drips of sauce on the plate and dripping on our fingers. Superb.
To round it off we ordered traditional tej, Ethiopian honey wine served in miniature glass cauldrons. All told, the perfect finale to our city food tour.
The bill: $66 for large sharing dishes for two, ginger teas and honey wines
Honourable mention: Michelin stars
Earlier on that final day, we did have one other meal out that stands aside from the seven mentioned above. While on the walking tour the week before, we walked past a little restaurant in the CBD with a long queue stretching down the street outside. The tour guide explained: it was Hawker Chan, opened less than a week earlier, which offers the world’s cheapest Michelin star food.
Hawker Chan originated in Singapore as a street-food outfit run by a solo chef, and drew the attention of the culinary world when it gained a Michelin star – the first eatery of its kind to do so. On the back of this success, it has opened new city restaurants, the Melbourne one conveniently just before our visit.
So at lunchtime of our last day we joined the queue at 11:30am. It took less time than expected – we were seated with our food 45 minutes later (at peak times the queues apparently take two hours plus).
I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, as I had never had Michelin star food before. The menu was simple Hong Kong style meat with rice or noodles, ranging from about $6 to $8 a dish. We paid less here than anywhere else in Melbourne.
If I hadn’t been told the food was so acclaimed I wouldn’t have guessed, but yes – it was pretty special. The meats were cooked to absolute perfection. The veggies had just the right seasoning. Even the noodles were amazing.
And where is our first stop after we leave Australia? That’s right – Singapore. Guess where we’ll be going?
The bill: $31.60 for a selection of meats with rice and noodles, seasonable vegetables and Chinese teas