Dainty Sichuan Noodle Express

Small and to the point: The interior of Dainty Sichuan Noodles.
Small and to the point: The interior of Dainty Sichuan Noodles. Photo: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Lower Level, Emporium, 287 Lonsdale Street Melbourne, Victoria 3000

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Opening hours Daily 10am-7pm (Thursday and Friday until 9pm)
Features Licensed, Cheap Eats
Prices Cheap (mains under $20)
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9020 4332

I'm not big on shopping centres. I've hyperventilated at Southland, I've chucked a wobbly at Chadstone, and the first time I came to Emporium I got so lost in a forest of puffy jackets that I phoned a friend to help me find fresh air. But I now have a better rescue remedy: it's a $3.80 snack-sized bowl of green-bean jelly noodles at Dainty Sichuan Noodle Express.

The noodles are slippery, spongy and cold, dressed with chilli, Szechuan pepper and black vinegar. They'll fill a hole but they won't weigh you down. They'll give you energy for shopping or the not-so-simple search for daylight.

This is the fourth Dainty Sichuan (the others are in South Yarra, Bourke Street and Box Hill), and it's small and to the point: a two-page pictorial menu offers noodles, rice dishes and a handful of snacks. The protocol is simple. Line up. Order. Sit. Wait (not long). Slurp. Feel great about life. Wipe your sweating brow with tiny paper napkins. Get back to shopping.

Spicy stewed beef noodle soup.
Spicy stewed beef noodle soup. Photo: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

The spicy beef noodles are the go-to dish, made with slow-braised stewing meat, firm but stretchy wheat noodles, and a broth that has a kick but isn't going to make you hallucinate. Szechuan food is known for its spice but the lamb ribs with rice are mild and mesmeric, with tender meat and crunchy bok choi making for subtle contrast.

The skewers are easy to share, dunked in an inviting cold broth zinging with Szechuan pepper. Call me chicken for choosing the skewered vegetables instead of the various giblet and tripe combinations but I just like quail eggs, tofu, black fungus and cauliflower, OK?

There's lots of good food at Emporium (Pho Nom, Earl Canteen and Jimmy Grants are among the speedy options) but I have a homing-pigeon attraction to Dainty. In fact, if they had a pigeon noodle soup, I'd probably never leave.

Rating: Three and a half stars (out of five)