It may not have the flashy neon of Chinatown or boast establishments with starched linen and fine china, but what's happening in Box Hill is drool worthy. Reminiscent of colourful Hong Kong, Carrington Road and the adjoining streets are bustling with excellent budget-friendly restaurants, Canto-style cha chaan tengs (cafes) and specialist shops.
While the foods of Japan, Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam are well represented, it's the regional Chinese food-styles that are particularly exciting. I mean, how many of us have heard of Shaanxi cooking or Shandong food? In fact, this patch of Melbourne is so amazing that you should make it a whole day out and return inspired. It could very well be the new Chinatown! Here's what's happening in multicultural Box Hill.
One of the best things to do is to go on a brekkie crawl in Box Hill Central, where just about all things Asian are on offer. Begin at Pancake Village for jianbing, a delicious Beijing crepe that's not seen elsewhere in Melbourne. It's traditionally filled with egg, hoisin sauce, spring onion and a savoury crunchy biscuit, though other options are available. Across the court you'll find Mr Kitchen, a stall featuring congee with pork and preserved egg or roast duck with ginger. Finish your crawl with warm Hong Kong style custard tarts at Grain Asia Dessert Bar.
Pancake Village, Shop 45A Box Hill Central South, 9890 4899
Mr Kitchen, Shop 58 Box Hill Central South, 0451442 903
Grain Asia Dessert Bar, Shop 56 Box Hill Central South, 9899 6118
For an authentic Cantonese experience, Roast Duck Inn with its glistening roast duck and slabs of crunchy roast pork is the go-er. A no-nonsense, friendly, buzzy space, their signature roast duck with rice and bok choy hits the spot every time. A few doors away is a Hong Kong style diner – cha chaan teng – that's more nostalgia than gourmet. Hong Kong Best Food dishes up cheap tasty lunch deals for $10 including wok-fragrant beef with rice noodles. It typifies no frills service – you eat and leave. New kid Umaido is delivering freshly made Sanuki udon with perfect onsen egg and your choice of toppings from the self-service bar.
Malaysian food lovers should aim for Madam Kwong's. One of Melbourne's best-kept secrets, you come for exceptional nasi lemak wrapped in banana leaves, great Penang assam laksa and Nonya kuih cakes that will make a Nonya matriarch weep with joy. I have only one word for this clean and humble venue – GO! Shaanxi-Style is a find; a gem from Xian (think Terracotta Warriors) in China's north-west, this eatery serves fantastic roujiamo, a crisp flat bread with braised pork and magnificent stir-fried house-made noodles with cumin and lamb that's evocative of the Silk Road.
Roast Duck Inn, 29-31 Carrington Road, 9897 3788
Hong Kong Best Food, 35 Carrington Road, 9898 6088
Umaido, Shop 60B Box Hill Central South, 9890 3852
Madam Kwong's Kitchen, 1025 Whitehorse Road, 9898 8108
Shaanxi-Style Restaurant, 945 Whitehorse Road, 9890 0830
With its sizeable Asian population, there's no shortage of fantastic Chinese "delis". Hong Kong Dim Sum displays cabinets packed with frozen Cantonese dim sums, including daily specials like sweet black sesame roll made with water chestnut flour. Swing by Shanghai Food, a tiny ma-and-pa place for their fridge full of authentic goodies from China's eastern school, like chopped spinach with pinenuts and fried fish with green soy beans. Baidu BBQ features Shandong and northern specialities including the hard-to-find Dezhou braised chicken with spices to go or eat in.
For the sweet tooth, Chinese cake shops abound, but if you're after something unusual, drop by Bread Kingdom, a superior Korean pastry chain for sweet treats like fluffy rolls, cinnamon manju, sort of like moon cakes (filled with pureed green beans) but tastier, and castella, a sponge cake originally from Portugal.
Hong Kong Dim Sum, 37 Carrington Road, 9898 8573
Shanghai Food, 55C Carrington Road, 9890 0772
Baidu BBQ Restaurant, 574 Station Street, 9899 2636
Bread Kingdom, 55A Carrington Road, 9898 0442
If Korean's your thing, pop into Charm Mart grocery for some of the friendliest service and advice on kimchi, assorted pickles and how to cook Korean. And for the carnivore, there are brilliant beef and pork cuts like moksal (neck), galbi (ribs) and samgyeopsal (pork belly) for your next Korean barbecue.
Cha-T is a shop that beats to a different drum. At this calm and soothing place, you enter a unique world of traditional Chinese teas where staff will walk you through the most exquisite teas from China – from Fujian's iron goddess of mercy oolong tea to Hangzhou's dragon well green tea to Yunnan's pu'er tea. It's one of the most beautiful shops in Box Hill. Complete with a tea ceremony when you've selected their more expensive teas, a journey here starts from a mere $3 for 10 grams of dragon pearl tea to a whopping $12,000 for a collector's cake of Yunnan's best naturally fermented 40-year-old pu'er tea!
This is another find! Oriental Healthy Way has a cornucopia of Chinese pharmaceutical ingredients which may look strange to some, but for Chinese chefs they hold culinary secrets so precious that a code of silence prevails. If you want to stock up on top-grade sachets of master stock ingredients and five spice powder, as well as health-giving herbal teas, make this place your next culinary destination.
Charm Mart, 57 Carrington Road, 9898 9865
Cha-T, Shop 53 Box Hill Central South (enter via Main Street), 9898 8900
Oriental Healthy Way, 15 Carrington Road, 9899 0166
Although there are no fine dining restaurants in Box Hill, there are some impressive newcomers and vintage stayers that will not break the bank. Dainty Sichuan, pioneers of Sichuan cuisine in Melbourne, and winner of The Age Good Food Under $30 best new restaurant award, has upped the ante by bringing solo-serve hotpot to this buzzy space. Opened in June last year, you select your broth (spicy or non-spicy), your ingredients (including staples like sliced pork and exotica such as duck gizzard), and start cooking!
Another newish arrival is Gangnam Station. This excellent, friendly Korean gem complete with K-pop does arguably the best KFC (Korean fried chicken) in town, fresh crisp seafood pancake (haemul jeon) and hearty chilli-flecked potato stew (kamjatang). Long-time stayer Dumpling King still offers fine Shanghainese dumplings, but their tea-smoked duck, beautifully infused with fennel seeds and rose dew wine, is pure magic. Tien Dat, the 30-year-old Vietnamese, is still as fresh as ever with its excellent banh cuon, steamed rice rolls filled with wood fungus and pork, as well as bo la lot, grilled wild betel leaves stuffed with minced beef.
Food Republik resembles an exciting night market with six separate stalls featuring Taiwanese street foods like beef brisket noodles, gorgeous paper-thin xiao long bao, the much-copied gua bao, an incredibly delicious steamed "burger" packed with pork belly, pickles and coriander, and great Asian desserts. A hit with locals the moment it opened, the menu is extensive and the service amateurishly friendly. The drill is to select your choices, tick the number on the pad and let the wait staff do the footwork for you. Once you've had their shengjian bao, crisp bottom dumplings, you'll know why diners keep returning to this crazy fun venue.
Despite Box Hill's reputation as a dry area, it's possible to wrap up the night with a cocktail and a tipple at Platform 3, a cool industrial space that is a cafe by day and a bar by night. What's more, it hosts local bands on Tuesday nights and that's a game-changer for this 'hood.
Dainty Sichuan, Level 1, 2A, Cambridge Street, 9041 4318
Gangnam Station, 5 Carrington Road, 9899 8818
Dumpling King, 572 Station Street, 9890 3719
Tien Dat, 3 Carrington Road, 9890 9699
Food Republik, 1 Main Street (Box Hill Central South), 9898 6669
Platform 3, Shop 48-49 Box Hill Central South, 9898 6236
This article was originally published May 29, 2014.