Give me $15 to spend on a meal and I'll enjoy myself as much as I would at any fine dining restaurant on last week's World's 50 Best Restaurant list. Nothing matches the satisfaction that comes from discovering a hidden gem or trying something new. But not everyone has the time or inclination to undertake the search. Thankfully, it's part of my job description. It's why I've reduced the budget of this year's cheap eats round up from $20 to $15 and replaced the classic list with tips on where to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner for $45 or less in Melbourne's 10 most densely populated suburbs, as measured by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
There was some creative licence: West Melbourne merged with neighbouring North Melbourne, while St Kilda East and St Kilda became one, leaving room for the eleventh suburb, Flemington, whose cultural make-up is reflected in its food. Burger joints and dumpling haunts have been excluded, as have brunch cafes, with the exception of a couple of uniquely themed venues. Although places like Miznon and Soi 38 remain close to my heart, I've included lesser-known restaurants and others that have gone under-appreciated. I hope you find something near to you, new to you and most importantly, of negligible impact on your bank account.
Bak kut teh pork soup at Aunty Franklee. Photo: Simon Schluter
Start your day the Colombian way at Cento Mani with a hot chocolate ($4) and a white corn arepa crammed with mozzarella that stretches an arm's length when you break it apart ($10).
Shop 2, 140 Flinders Street, Melbourne, 03 8529 7610, centomani.com.au
Aunty Franklee's city store offers express bak kut teh ($10), an earthy pork soup made with tea that's popular in Malaysia and Singapore, between noon and 3.30pm. Choose from pork slices or ribs in a 23-herb broth with bouncy meatballs, tofu, mushrooms and multigrain rice.
205-207 Russell Street, Melbourne, 03 9650 4336, auntyfranklee.com
One of Melbourne's best pan mee (a Hakka noodle dish from Malaysia) can be found wedged beside a UniLodge at Jojo Little Kitchen. Order lat jiu pan mee ($13.50) and thoroughly mix the pork mince, smoky chilli flakes, fried shallots, dried anchovies and soft-poached egg until your noodles are coated.
Shop 7, 120 A'Beckett Street, Melbourne
Food total: $37.50
The choripan at Asado to Go. Photo: Sofia Levin
Asado to Go pushes bacon and egg rolls with a coffee for a tenner in the morning, but the choripan ($14) is available all day. A fat Rodriguez Bros chorizo sausage is wedged into a crusty roll, which soaks up house chimichurri and salsa criolla.
6 Riverside Quay, Southbank, 03 9088 8600, asado.melbourne
Between 11.30am and 2.45pm, Ayam Chef pumps with local workers, who flock to its Asian lunch specials, all $13.50 and under. Try the fried turmeric chicken, which comes with coconut rice, pickled salad and a scrambled egg smothered in sambal ($12.50).
67-69 Coventry Street, Southbank, 03 9681 4480, ayamchef.com.au
On the border of the CBD and Southbank, Fatto's bar offers five small pizzas for $10 to $12. Less Italian is the formaggi burger ($10) with an angus beef patty, swiss and cheddar cheese slices, onion, mustard and pickles. Add a Peroni can for $5 and enjoy the Yarra view.
100 St Kilda Road, Southbank, 03 8698 8800, fatto.com.au
Food total: $36.50
King & Godfree might be shiny and new, but Italian brekkie here is a bargain. There's a range of piadini ($12 to $14) that are great on the go, but our pick is the potato and wild mushroom frittata ($15), accompanied by sliced Q Le Baker baguette to mop up the oil.
293-297 Lygon Street, Carlton, 03 9347 1619, kingandgodfree.com
Join Indonesian expats at Norsiah's Kitchen, a no-frills favourite since 2006, where nasi lemak with beef rendang (pictured), chicken curry or fried chicken is $10. Don't overlook roti murtabak ($10), though – the flaky roti parata is layered with egg, sliced onion and shredded chicken, and served with curry dipping sauce.
604 Swanston Street, Carlton, 03 9347 7079
Small and steamy Chinger Biang Biang Noodle fills up quickly, so arrive early for a bowl of handmade noodles from China's Shaanxi Province. Save the soups for another time and try the hot oil seared biang biang noodles ($12.80), which look like udon but are more resilient. Don't be shy when mixing the topping of dried chilli, spring onion, ground pork and minced garlic until incorporated.
74 Victoria Street, Carlton, 03 9242 0478
Food total: $37.80
Breakfast bruschetta at Maker & Monger. Photo: Eddie Jim
At Maker & Monger's new 40-seat shop, the breakfast bruschetta ($15) features three slices of Q Le Baker baguette spread with labna made from Butterfly Factory's Gippsland yoghurt. The opening seasonal trio features Aleppo pepper with Greg Malouf's dukkah, beetroot-infused labna with crushed pistachio and orange zest, and Japanese apple with fennel pollen and honey.
Shop 98, Prahran Market, 163 Commercial Road, South Yarra, 0413 900 490, makerandmonger.com.au
Lanzhou Beef Noodle Bar has five shops in Melbourne, and this is the newest. It's tempting to order broth in winter, but it would be a pity to overlook the cold dry noodles ($12.80), with thin, handmade noodles in a tangle of carrot, cucumber, bean sprouts and sliced beef, all moistened by a shallow pool of sesame sauce.
Shop 2, 199 Toorak Road, South Yarra, 03 9041 5172, beefnoodle.com.au
Local favourite Fratellino remains one of the best-value pizza restaurants around. Most of its long list of mid-sized, thin-crusted wood-fired beauties come in around the $15 mark, whether salsicce e fungi, the Aussie with bacon and egg, marinara or calzone. Plus they'll let you BYO wine.
415 Malvern Road, South Yarra, 03 9826 3624, fratellino.com.au
Food total: $42.80
The Madras Brothers aka Rishi and brother Magesh Venkatachalam. Photo: Simon Schluter
The cheapest eat on this year's list is an oldie but a goldie. Although Casa Iberica is known for Hispanic groceries and deli items, it also serves hot, oversized empanadas for $3.50 a pop and is open from 7.30am every day except Sunday. Choose from baked or fried with fillings such as chorizo or ground beef, egg, olive and onion.
25 Johnston Street, Fitzroy, 03 9419 4420, casaibericadeli.com.au
Northcote's Tahina Bar opened a second outlet on Brunswick Street last year, bringing its falafel to Fitzroy. Instead of pita pockets, try the vegan hotdog ($12.50), where a spiced and cured carrot replaces the sausage in a smoked black bun with pickled cabbage, sweet tomato sauce and tahina amba (mango pickle) mustard with a generous sprinkling of sweet potato chips.
362 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, 03 9417 4510, tahinabar.com
The 15 dishes on the "street snack" section of Madras Brothers' menu fit our budget, but Gangotree's Famous Pav Bhaji ($15), named for the renowned Chennai snack shop, is the ultimate solo comfort dish. Scoop bhaji, a spicy mashed vegetable curry, onto two buttered and toasted white buns (pav) or eat like a sandwich.
129 Smith Street, Fitzroy, 03 9416 2767, madrasbrothers.com.au
Food total: $31
Osaka-style okonomiyaki at Papirica. Photo: Simon Schluter
If you can wait until 10am for breakfast, Papirica is worth it. This sweet Japanese cafe specialises in okonomiyaki, a thick pancake from Osaka. The "Mt Negi" ($14) comes with spring onion, strands of pickle and seaweed, mayo and the house okonomiyaki sauce. Make the most of the provided spatula and shichimi togarashi spice blend.
22 Smith Street, Collingwood, 03 9416 1829
Part of the Schoolhouse Studios warehouse space, Mankoushe started as a pop-up of its Brunswick East cousin and never left. The haloumi pie ($9) sells out quickly, but we love the lunch plate ($15) – five seasonal Middle Eastern dishes that rotate daily and might include burghul-stuffed capsicum, falafel, imam bayildi eggplant, dolmas or braised leeks. Weekdays only.
81 Rupert Street, Collingwood, mankoushe.com.au/collingwood
Open noon until 8pm, Good Gnocchi is a tiny shop serving gnocchi in a choice of five sauces (bolognese, tomato, walnut pesto, butter sage and four cheese) for $15. Dine in at the communal table on the way home from work, or BYO container. A takeaway pack costs $20 and serves two.
124 Langridge Street, Collingwood, 03 9415 1713
Food total: $44
Oppen's pork pâté open sandwich (pictured with a roesti on the side). Photo: Justin McManus
Oppen focuses on Scandinavian open sandwiches, but what it lacks in lids it makes up for with considered toppings. The latest addition to the menu is our favourite: a hunk of soft grilled pork liver terrine with charred edges, a 63C poached egg, fennel jam, hazelnut and brittle bacon on house rye ($15).
Shop 20, 2 Maddock Street, Windsor, 03 9077 0430, oppen.com.au
Borscht usually conjures images of a pink Ukrainian beetroot soup, which you can find at Borsch, Vodka and Tears ($13). But winter calls for heartier white borscht ($14), its soured-rye cousin. This one comes with three kinds of smoked pork and mashed potato for dunking. Both are also available at dinner, but they're more expensive.
173 Chapel Street, Windsor, 03 9530 2694
Head straight to the fridge at Tsukiji, where raw fish, scallops and an array of clams and fish roe are packaged and priced. Take your haul to the counter, and add miso soup ($2) and rice ($3), which they'll prepare for you in the kitchen. Udon ($10) and cooked mackerel ($6) are the a la carte picks.
237 High Street, Prahran, 03 9510 2318
Food total: about $45
Hold out until Bullseye Banh Mi opens at 11am for the area's best Vietnamese sandwich for brunch. It would be a missed opportunity to order anything other than the braised pork banh mi. The $9 price tag might make aficionados gawk, but it's bigger than average and comes overloaded with curls of crackling.
194 Barkly Street, St Kilda, 0434 613 384
Don't discount OzzyThai because it's in an awkward spot beside a brothel. Open for three years and underrated for just as long, lunch specials start at $5 and run from 11am to 4pm. Pick of the dishes is tom yum namkon – tom yum soup, fragrant with lemongrass and ginger and available with soft pork bone or chicken feet ($14.90).
34 St Kilda Road, 03 9529 7289, ozzythai.com.au
Tacos are $14 for three (pictured) at Juana Taco, a moody Mexican bar with art on the walls. You can pick and mix, but the carnitas with juicy shredded pork and roasted pineapple salsa are best. New to the menu is tamales verdes ($13): shredded chicken in hefty corn masa dough, steamed in corn husks and served with salsa verde.
21 Carlisle Street, St Kilda, 03 9534 4200, juanataco.com.au
Food total: $36.90
The 'Tommy' (cheese, tomato and pesto toastie) at Toasta. Photo: Wayne Taylor
Make a beeline for the "Brekky" toastie at Toasta, a food-truck-turned cafe. It's crammed with a three-cheese blend, fried egg, streaky bacon, tomato relish and rocket ($15). Alternatively, pimp the "Jane" ($10) cheese toastie with garlic butter and onion ($2) and ask for it to be cooked in duck fat ($1).
181 Adderley Street, West Melbourne, 03 9995 0308, toasta.com.au
Hansang offers incredibly good value Korean lunch sets from $13 to $15. The most popular is the spicy pork bulgogi. Alone it's $10.50, but up that to $13.50 and it comes with miso soup, rice and five banchan side dishes – perhaps omelette, blanched potato salad, kimchi, bean sprouts and triangular sheets of marinated fish cake.
347-349 King Street, West Melbourne, 03 9995 0867
Maria's Trattoria has been in the cheap eats game for 33 years. Service and decor are old school, and you'll still find Maria in the kitchen. The soup of the day and soft tortellini in brodo are $10.90, but to fill up, order a colossal "entree-sized" house-made pasta. Fettuccine paesana with chunks of sausage, melted bocconcini and napoli sauce is only $15.
122-124 Peel Street, North Melbourne, 03 9329 9016
Food total: $41.50
The NSK Classic (lamb with rice) at New Somali Kitchen. Photo: Wayne Taylor
For a real deal Somali breakfast, head to Sahra's Kitchen, where you can start your day on $10 with a generous plate of foul – smashed beans with onions, capsicum and olive oil – and either thick, soured injera bread or the thinner, sweeter and more pancake-like malwah, and sweet, ginger-spiced tea. The same deal is available for an omelette, or fried offal.
303 Racecourse Road, Flemington, 03 9044 7337
Laksa King Kitchen is more modern than the original branch, founded in 1998. And laksa is still – well – king. But the menu at this outlet offers angus beef laksa (from $12) made with the same, silky coconut broth, springy egg noodles, rice vermicelli, soft eggplant, tofu and more. It's also available gluten-free.
324 Racecourse Road, Flemington, 03 9376 2288, laksakingkitchen.com.au
At New Somali Kitchen, a meal is preceded by a ceramic cup of hot lamb broth and served with a banana. Meats are spiced with cumin, cloves, cardamom and cinnamon and the signature dish, NSK Classic (from $13), features tender lamb chunks served on fragrant rice with vegetables, salad and "basbaas", a green chilli and coriander sauce good enough to cause dependency.
284 Racecourse Road, Flemington, 03 8589 7631, newsomalikitchen.com.au
Food total: $35