WHEN DID WE ALL BECOME SO particular? For some time, we've hungered for truly authentic food, but that preference is now honed to specific regions. Where once we were satisfied with ''Italian'' as a qualifier, we now want to know from where in Italy: Bologna or Abruzzo? We want to know that it's in the Oaxaca style of Mexican or that it's an Argentinian barbecue.
A growing number of places are serving one dish to meet our taste for specialisation: places such as Wonderbao's steamed Chinese buns, Phat Brats' hot dogs and Huxtaburger. We want simple dishes done brilliantly and with premium, organic, biodynamic ingredients. And while we want our food to be honest, we also want it to be fun. ''Junk'' food and street food rule, and if it's both of those things, has its origins in the US and is served from a mobile truck, all the better.
Our under-$30 eateries are reimagining their regional expertise. They're adding a creative spin to authentic overseas influences and producing awesome fusions. Horn Please is based on the dhaba - a street-side, truck-stop restaurant in India. In essence it's Indian street food, but here vindaloo is made with free-range pork from Gippsland, and butter chicken is made with Bannockburn free-range chook.
Overall we've become less squeamish with our food, too. More of us have gnawed at a chicken's foot, tried pig's ear and gleefully ordered blood pudding with our brekkie eggs. And we've liked them. A lot.
Melbourne eateries that deliver a good meal for under $30 are sparking with resourcefulness and creativity. Here are 10 cheap eats that put the bite on 2013's trends.
1. Roti canai
It takes at least six months' training and a lot of dough to master making roti, but it typically takes 10 minutes tops before this feather-light, folded flatbread lands at your table. At Mamak (city), the roti chefs (usually two flinging and two grilling at a time) have the added pressure of an audience - their stainless-steel benches against the front window and the queue waiting for some roti canai. It's Malaysia's national dish, eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and often bought from a street cart. At Mamak, roti canai come with two dipping curries: a tangy tomato-fish curry and a lentil dhal, with sambal (spicy shrimp paste) on the side.
2. Something on the side
The quality and creativity going into some side dishes has made stars of sides. At breakfast: half an avocado with linseed-flecked wafer, half a lemon and a bunch of flat-leaf might accompany eggs. Or smoked tomato, fresh heirloom tomato, organic quark and basil. Excepting the portion sizes, everything on Small Victories' (Carlton North) carefully curated, seasonally adjusted sides list is so much more than just a side dish. For lunch and dinner, Rockwell & Sons' (Collingwood) sides from the south, such as Hushpuppies (deep-fried cornmeal dumplings), hickory-smoked onion rings, and mac and cheese, are at the centre of many a meal.
3. 'Proper' pizza
Pizza was hot a decade ago, right? Still hot? Damn straight. Only now we're distinguishing between the vast majority of thin-crust Neapolitan-style pizzas (wood-fired, made with ''OO'' flour and minimal yeast, fermented for 24-36 hours) and Sicilian-style, with thicker bases. Whatever the style, you can expect quality toppings, such as Berkshire pork sausage pieces, melted dabs of fior di latte, porcini mushrooms, parmesan and parsley (Non Solo Pasta, Docklands). Or asiago with enoki and oyster mushrooms; breakfast pizzas with egg and spinach; and Belgian chocolate calzoncino for dessert (Kaprica, Carlton). And classic combos, such as capricciosa using smoked ham, artichokes and Ligurian olives (The Way to San Jose, McKinnon).
4. Superfood salads
Some ingredients are bestowed superfood status for their high nutrition-per-kilojoule content. They often also come with a long history loaded with medicinal and healing worship. They're usually in a whole, unprocessed, raw state and positively beaming vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Some clever cafes are combining a number of superfoods and creating power-packed superfood dishes. Silo (city) does egg yolk with raw seeds and leeks, and a salad called 4 Grains, brimming with farro, quinoa, green lentils, foraged dune spinach, avocado and beetroot. Monk Bodhi Dharma (Balaclava) has a Bhutan salad that mixes goji berries, chia, hemp and sesame seeds, cashews, apple, beetroot, cucumber and quinoa with mixed lettuce. Kapowee!
5. Burgers of distinction
Brioche buns, wagyu patties, beetroot relish, slices of gruyere, smoked bacon, caramelised onion - these are the makings of today's ''classic'' burger, the top-quality ingredients responsible for bringing respectability, panache even, to the dish. But beyond classy classics, there are neat variations if you read between the buns. Bar Paradiso (Fitzroy) offers fried chickpea fritters and pressed pork cheek. In Fitzroy North, the Tramway Hotel's burger bar has a portobello mushroom and thyme patty burger with ''facon'', and a trevally, dill and caper patty burger with lime yoghurt and gherkin. At Jus Burgers (South Yarra), the roo and green-chilli jam burger is bonza, ahem, delightful.
6. Tacos, sopes and pupusas
You might have heard of these tasty little things called tacos. The South American street-food explosion started with Mexican, then reverberated out to other specialities. Radio Mexico (St Kilda) turns out jaunty soft-shell tortilla tacos and tostaditas (crisp, two-bite tortillas) in festive margarita-fuelled fashion. Mexican taqueria Los Hermanos (Brunswick) specialises in tacos and sopes (chunky corn discs), maybe topped with chipotle chicken. Los Latinos (Ascot Vale and Maidstone), a puperseria and Latin American cafe, offers a range of dishes, including thick house-made tacos and pupusas - El Salvadorean ''pancakes'' made with maize flour and stuffed with cheese.
7. Fried chicken
Melbourne's fried chicken is the ringleader of the ''junk food'' trend. Our fried-chicken frenzy partly comes under the star-spangled banner of our love for American food. The B.East (Brunswick) and Builders Arms (Fitzroy) bar menu are just a few places to find buttermilk-brined chicken. But you'll also find a fix at Japanese joints such as Ajitoya (Seddon), whose karaage (fried chicken) has a potato starch coating for crunch and a soy, ginger and garlic moistness in the meat. And Gami (city) is the go-to for KFC - Korean fried chicken, which comes with a choice of sauce, with cabbage and, often, a jug of house beer.
8. Eastern-flavoured sweets
Flavours from the East are adding a fresh dimension to traditionally European desserts. Purple Peanuts (city) is building an impressive range of Japanese-French sweets and chocolates. It uses premium green tea in its green-tea brownies and green-tea creme caramel, and real yuzu (citrus) in its yuzu cheesecake and yuzu chocolate. LuxBite (South Yarra) makes macarons flavoured with pandan, green-tea pistachio, bamboo oolong tea, and lemon, ginger and pineapple. Nama Nama (city) changes its desserts with the seasons, but could include a Japanese tiramisu with umeshu-soaked sponge and mascarpone dusted with hougi-cha (green-tea powder), or a sundae with macha cream, rice puffs and strawberry Pocky sticks.
9. Hot, hot - as in spicy
No longer satisfied with a little token warmth from our chilli, we want the real deal, such as the singeing Sichuan heat of Shanghai Street's (city) spicy fishball clay-pot soup - it stays hot even after it's gone cold. Thai cafe Middle Fish (Carlton North) has a super-spicy pork-rib curry, a traditional southern Thai dish that's not mellowed with coconut milk but charged with chilli, lemongrass, garlic, pepper and turmeric. Indian restaurant Aashirwad (Beaumaris) puts a ''very hot'' qualifier against its fiery vindaloo, available in pork, prawn, fish, veg and beef.
There's magic to meat that's been licked by fire and shrouded in smoke, or coal-cooked to seal in juices. Lebanese cafe Bayte (Collingwood) offers its pomegranate-glazed chicken skewers served with barbecue potato. Japanese sumiyaki bar Maedaya (Richmond) charcoal-grills (no flame) skewers of eel, chicken and shiitake, with sake-matching an option. Senor BBQ (Balaclava) serves cuts typically found on the street carts in Argentina, such as beef brisket, or a mixed grill of chorizo, chicken wings and beef ribs with a side of chimichurri.
The Age Good Food Under $30 will be sold for $5 with The Saturday Age this weekend. It's also available in bookshops and The Age online shop (www.theageshop.com.au) for $10.