Melbourne's best cheap eats 2015

Seafood laksa, the signature dish at Flemington's Laksa King.
Seafood laksa, the signature dish at Flemington's Laksa King. Photo: Bonnie Savage

Finding good food is as good as waking up worried, only to find it's the weekend. Finding good, cheap food is like waking up in [insert favourite holiday destination]. But what does cheap mean? For $10 you can ride on public transport for the day, or buy a couple of coffees or a chewy chuka chinmi​ (threads of seasoned scallop and jellyfish flecked with black fungus), a hyper-green seaweed salad and serve of miso (no MSG, with organic tofu). You get all that and some change from a tenner at Hinoki (Fitzroy, 279 Smith Street) – so what if you're eating from takeaway containers propped on the car bonnet?

The Age Good Food Guide team is currently on the road; we asked reviewers where they eat for just $10.

Fresh oysters are just over a dollar each at the Queen Victoria Market. Buy a lemon, give each a squeeze, and slurp from the shell. In the Deli Hall, the Borek Shop sends out thousands of hot boreks a day (Thousands? "We couldn't even count how many.") for $3 each, while over at Prahran Market's Anatolian Gozleme Kitchen, boreks are $5. Add an apple and a coffee, and it's still under $10.

Vietnamese rolls at N Lee Bakery.
Vietnamese rolls at N Lee Bakery. Photo: Melanie Faith Dove

Not all cheap eating means forgoing four walls and a roof. Reliable local restaurants that are part of the family can feed the family for $10 a head. Try Hawthorn's 16-year-old Sushi House Ben K (344 Burwood Road) for griddle-kissed okonomiyaki​ or teriyaki salmon, and Crepes Village (Burwood East, 172-210 Burwood Highway) for jian bing crepes and congee, as well as cumin-spiced beef bao.  

It's been called the bowl of soul; fragrant pho comes in under $10 at most places. In pho heartland, Victoria Street, Richmond, Super Bowl (at No 252) and Co Do (No 196, and in Sunshine, 209 Hampshire Road) do both pho and bun bo hue – pho's more spicy and shrimp-paste funky cousin. Other no-less-loved noodle soups include Malaysia's dark and porky bak kut teh at SugarBun (Melbourne, 205 Russell Street); ramen, such as Little Ramen Bar's classic tonkotsu ($10.90; Melbourne, 346 Little Bourke Street) and laksa, $10.80 at Laksa King (see listing below).

Dumplings, of course, can make you feel like one yourself, should you shovel in all eight xiao long bao you'll buy for $10 at Shanghai Street (Melbourne, three locations). Hong Kong Dim Sum (Box Hill, 22 Cambridge Street) supplies dumplings to Chinese restaurants and to locals, cooked at its cafe and cold from the shopfront, where you can buy by the bag-load to cook at home. Take a tenner to Bowl Bowl (Collingwood, 88 Smith Street) for a plate of 10 pork-and-chive dumplings.

How much would you expect to pay for two small serves of veg curry, some fluffy, long-grain rice, naan, a pappadum, raita and salad? Ten bucks at hip new Delhi Streets (Melbourne, 22 Katherine Place) where most everything, from paneer wraps to pani puri, is under $10. Dinner specials at Yarra Indian (South Yarra, 180 Toorak Road) include curry, rice, naan and pappadum.

Ten dollars for a sandwich? Try $6.50 for a bacon and maple cream-cheese bagel at 5 & Dime (Melbourne, 16 Katherine Place), or a spag bol jaffle at FT Tuckshop (South Melbourne, 2 Charles Street). Banh mi – a shatteringly crusty roll containing a blast of flavours including coriander, chilli, pickled carrot, pate and pork cold cuts – is still one of the best lunches going; try N. Lee (Melbourne  and Collingwood). Pho Nom (Melbourne, Emporium, lower ground floor) makes free-range fried chicken banh mi and free-range organic egg, pate and steak breakfast banh mi – still under $10.  

As always, great $10-and-under menus are most readily found where student and migrant communities congregate – so, as well as the city, The Age Good Food Guide reviewers recommend heading for suburbs such as Clayton, Box Hill, Dandenong, and just about anywhere within coo-ee of Footscray. It can help to focus on cuisines that know how to cast vegetables in starring roles. That doesn't mean places with pricier rents, ingredients and fitouts have to be off limits to the thrifty, so long as you're prepared to pick your way around menus and open your wallet just a little wider.

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Here's a selection of some of the Guide team's favourite places to eat out without forking out a fortune. They range from humble places where you'll get change from a tenner to more ambitious eateries that will cost more (check their menus online) but offer Guide-worthy food, service and surrounds. 

Melbourne's best cheap eats

Drum roll, please. Here's a sneak peek of the best cheap eats from the upcoming The Age Good Food Guide

MELBOURNE

Hakata Gensuke

It's pacy, precise and personalised tonkatsu ramen at this place, from "new ramen pioneer" Kousuke Yoshimura​ from Fukuoka – the home of tonkotsu. Fill out your order form, choosing from four types of base – such as creamy original or spicy "god fire" – four degrees of noodle texture, two degrees of taste intensity, and eight extra toppings, including seaweed and cha-shu pork belly. Also in Hawthorn.

168 Russell Street, 9663 6342, gensuke.com.au

Joo Mak

Barely signed and hard to find, Joo Mak is a den of good times. "Team Joo Mak" staff rush soju cocktails to gangs of young (mostly) Koreans perched on industrial-reel stools or bunched into booths. Gnocchi-like rice cake with seafood, cheese and more cheese, is gloopy-pub-food good, or have your share of savoury pancakes, soups and spicy pan-fried pork or squid. 

Basement, 407-409 Swanston Street, 9663 7123, joomak.com.au

Mamak

Roti is so rarely handmade in Melbourne; it takes a master to skilfully twist, fold, flip and spin dough into golden, feathery-flaky flatbread. Mamak's made-to-order roti are served with two curries and a dose of sambal (for $5.50), and for that, folks queue. They also come (and queue) for trad Malaysian salads, satay and curries.

366 Lonsdale Street, 9670 3137, mamak.com.au

ShanDong MaMa

Mackerel-and-zucchini dumplings may be easy to find on the Shandong Peninsula, where seafood dishes are a speciality and where Mama has roots, but in Melbourne's CBD they're a rare, delicate and tasty standout. Mama's house-made dumplings draw droves, and include a "vegan" zucchini, tofu, coriander and dried shrimp variety. But this fresh Chinese diner does sparky handmade noodle dishes too.

Shop 7, Mid City Arcade, 200 Bourke Street, 9650 3818

Shimbashi Japanese Soba & Sake

How many ways can you serve soba? At speciality soba house Shimbashi – where each day's noodles are made that morning, including stone-grinding the buckwheat –  soba comes cold, as a salad. It comes warm, with broth and a variety of toppings, such as dumplings and chicken, or mushroom and vegetables. It can also come with a glass or bottle of sake – Shimbashi's other area of specialisation.

17 Liverpool Street, 9654 6727, shimbashisobamelbourne.net

 

NORTH

Bar Idda

You get from the dainty embroidered tablecloths and little black-and-white TV playing old movies that there's affection for the old ways. The Sicilian-inspired home-style menu, which could include pickled sardines with cumin and chilli brine, and pan-fried lemon and ricotta gnocchi, really brings it home.

132 Lygon Street, Brunswick East, 9380 5339, baridda.com.au

Bayte

They call it home-style Lebanese cooking, but it's more polished than the label suggests. Elevated and updated classics include kibbe, perhaps raw yellowfin tuna with mint and burghul, or fried pumpkin with caramelised onion and almonds ($10). Barbecue skewers, such as spiced lamb backstrap or garlic chicken with pomegranate molasses come in at $10 each. . This handsome, split-level place is an oasis on a mostly desolate stretch of Johnston Street.

56 Johnston Street, Collingwood, 9415 8818, bayte.com.au

Horn Please

Indian street food and curries made with top-shelf ingredients, cooked lightly (without ghee)? Yes please. From the pots, there's Victorian blue grenadier in a velvety turmeric and coconut milk curry. Wowing snacks include gol gappa​: puffed wheat pods filled with a trio of contrasting flavours, where cool and creamy meets zingy herbs meets jaggery sweet ooze.

167 St Georges Road, Fitzroy North, 9497 8101, hornplease.com.au

Jimmy Grants

Jimmy brought the humble souvlaki into the fancy-fast-food realm in late 2013. They're made with warm wholemeal pita, and filled with things like slow-cooked lamb shoulder, mustard aioli, chips and parsley ($9.50), or prawns, cucumber, mint and coriander ($9.80). There's a kid-friendly (green-free) chicken-and-chip kalamata kid souva for $5.50, and textured, tasty salads.

113 St David Street, Fitzroy, jimmygrants.com.au

Marquis of Lorne

It's the classic Fitzroy pub that wraps around a corner of the suburb's off-main streets. The building has seen more than a century of change, including new tenants who've kept the casual vibe, and added a likeable menu. Nibble on salted cod fritters or potato cakes with chilli salt. Feast on Hopkins River hanger steak or rockling burgers.

411 George Street, Fitzroy, 9417 5001, marquisoflorne.com.au

 

EAST

Colonel Tan's

Thai food with fireworks flavours is reason for anyone to enter all-night nightclub Revolver. Colonel Tan's, located at the back of the building, is an enduring adventure. In the huge, open dining lounge, expect cheeky dishes like the Colonel's signature five-spice fried chicken with sweet chilli sauce, or fat duck noodles.

229 Chapel Street, Prahran, 9521 5985, revolverupstairs.com.au/colonel-tans

Dainty Sichuan

Sichuan-hot individual hotpots are the speciality at this Dainty – sibling to the famous South Yarra hot-house. Choose your broth, maybe chicken and abalone, then, choose your combination of ingredients, and get cooking at the personal hotplate set into your table. It's fast, busy and loud, and loads of fun.

Level 1, 2a Cambridge Street, Box Hill, 9041 4318

Feast of Merit

The vegetable dishes,such as fried cauliflower and sour cherries, are terrific on their own or partnered with a hulking two-or-more-person slow-cooked organic lamb joint. The comfortable, unfinished finish (raw brick and concrete) is softened with plants and cushions, but it's Feast of Merit's social responsibility (donating all profits to development projects around the world) that adds another dimension.

117 Swan Street, Richmond, 9428 8480, feastofmerit.com

Izakaya Jiro

This smart two-level restaurant-bar, from Shoya alumni, does fine examples of Japanese small plates downstairs, including skewers of tasty grilled chicken balls ($3.20) or squid tentacles ($4), as well as okonomiyaki ($8.80), gyoza ($7), sushi and sashimi. Upstairs is the DIY yakiniku barbecue, with both sets and single serves. There's a great range of sake, too.

830 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn, 9818 7163 izakayajiro.com.au

 

SOUTH

Bistro Goemon

This neat, well-priced modern-Japanese bistro is a slice of hip Tokyo, in busy Elsternwick. Every dish displays careful consideration for colour, texture and form. Owner Wataru Sato​ was a sushi chef at Akachochin​, and Nobu before that; he can make even a spring roll a sensation (made with soft-shell crab).

281 Glen Huntly Road, Elsternwick, 9523 9900, bistrogoemon.com.au

Jardin Tan

Some big names are attached to Jardin Tan; there's Royal Botanic Gardens, located as it is, next to Observatory Gate, and Shannon Bennett, who owns this modern Vietnamese cafe. It's open for breakfast and banh xeo (coconut-milk pancake embedded with pork and shrimp), lunch of pho with Blackmore wagyu beef, and afternoon teas.  

Royal Botanic Gardens, Birdwood Avenue, South Yarra, 9021 2111 jardintan.com.au

Patbingsoo

A happy fusion of refined Korean health-conscious restaurant and dessert bar, Patbingsoo is one smart package. It does classic Korean dishes with Euro touches, like tteokbokki​ (gnocchi-like rice cakes), lightly crisped and topped with fried fishcake threads. They make kombucha (fermented tea), and the must-try namesake snow-like dessert to share between two.

128 York Street, South Melbourne, 8060 5771, patbingsoo.com.au

 

WEST

La Tortilleria

A standout in the melee of Mexican restaurants, this tortilla bakery supplies its made-from-scratch tortillas to many a restaurant around town, and sells them ready-to-eat from its little, unfussy diner. They come baked and topped with ceviche, sandwiching free-range pork, cheese and pineapple, and rolled around chipotle-spiced potato. And they all come for much less than a tenner each.

72 Stubbs Street, Kensington,1300 556 084, latortilleria.com.au

Laksa King

You'll find Laksa King on many people's best laksa lists, and, at the least, the King has lots of variety, with nine types on its long and varied Malaysian-Chinese menu. Other than laksa, top hits include Hainanese chicken, nasi lemak, char kwai teow and sambal calamari.

6-12 Pin Oak Crescent, Flemington, 9372 6383, laksaking.com.au

Sapa Hills

The stylish fitout is not the only thing that sets Sapa Hills apart from many Vietnamese restaurants; its menu focuses on the dishes of the north, around Hanoi. That means you can find "special" bubbly skinned fried spring rolls with added crunch, as well as bun cha Ha Noi: a pork dish with vermicelli. Also in Hawthorn.

112 Hopkins Street, Footscray, 9687 5729, sapahills.com.au

ONE HOUR, $10: GREAT CITY LUNCHES

Don Don (Francis Street, Swanston Street  and Little Lonsdale Street):  Everybody has their favourite dish (bento box, sashi don), which arrives virtually at the same time as your change from $10.

Nusantara (Shop 27, Tivoli Arcade, 235-251 Bourke Street): No-menu, no-frills Indonesian; $10 buys three dishes served on rice.

Sichuan House (22-26 Corrs Lane): See red at Sichuan House, where dishes are red hot. Stay in the black with lunch deals such as kung pao chicken served with rice.

Warra Warra's (Shop 19 & 20, Tivoli Arcade, 235-251 Bourke Street) Make up your dream noodle soup by selecting a soup base, protein and noodle combination, or head to the food bar for bibimbap or kimchi lasagne with green salad.

Correction: The original version of this story listed Shannon Bennett as a part-owner of Jardin Tan. He is the sole owner of this establishment. This change has been made in the above text.