Springvale is home to much more than just a prestigious, international award-winning cemetery. Located 23 kilometres south-east of the CBD, the suburb is one of Melbourne's most effervescent, yet somehow overlooked multicultural hubs, having attracted substantial immigration from Vietnam, India, Thailand and more recently, Cambodia. Its restaurants, markets and beauty salons bustle with the urgency of downtown Saigon.
She's a heady suburb indeed, and while it's well worth a day gorging one's own unique path through its aromatic streets, there's a lot to take in. We've highlighted our picks here from bargain banh mi to tasty Cambodian classics.
Tasty Cambodian's Khmer-style breakfast with chopped sweet pork ribs and eggs three ways. Photo: Simon Schluter
I'm not here to tell you what is and is not breakfast, but the Khmer-style breakfast at Tasty Cambodian is an excellent option for people in the mood for a hearty, porky start to the day. Set in a run of five-or-so Cambodian restaurants, Tasty Cambodian bears the familiar adornments and interior design of its "Little Cambodia" neighbours – faded screen prints of Angkor Wat, photos from the menu and modest-but-cosy furnishings. I order the Khmer-style breakfast – "I'm waiting for that one, too" offers the tradie in the corner – and it rules: rice, chopped omelette, pickled veg, a very garlicky boiled egg and a good 150 grams of sweet chopped pork rib meat accompanied by a sweeter pork broth, which according to our waiter, "gives you a great feeling in your throat. Maybe makes you feel like a child." Protein manifest.
For those who prefer breakfast in doughnut form, Springvale's malls are home to a high concentration of you tiao – a long Chinese savoury doughnut. Bread & Cake Delight in Springvale Central pumps them out with aplomb, and its banh mi, one of the most popular in the neighbourhood if not the most, regularly attracts a snaking queue. In the nearby Springvale Shopping Centre, Golden Age also does the greasy baton justice, not to mention a rather charming coconut waffle. If you prefer your breakfast doughnut with soy milk, meander over to Taiwan-leaning The Sunny Cafe for a cup of either sweet or savoury dou jiang (soy milk) with your you tiao.
Bargain banh mi: The $5 barbecue pork roll from Bun Bun Bakery. Photo: Simon Schluter
If it simply must be a banh mi breakfast, and power to you if so, Springvale Road's Bun Bun Bakery may just be the city-wide GOAT (cue yelling). Slinging the Vietnamese rolls for more than 20 years, its roast pork in barbecue sauce makes you want to punch the sky with your non-preferred sandwich hand. Fatty squares of moist roast pork nuzzle into an outstanding, ASMR-crisp roll, lathered in a sweet Vietnamese barbecue sauce, topped with fried shallots, shot through with generous pickled veg and bolstered again by a particularly liver-y pate and a gleefully eggy mayo. It's a study in decadence at a pauper's price point ($5). Which brings us to lunch ...
Tasty Cambodian, 22 Buckingham Avenue
Bread & Cake Delight, Springvale Central, 268-274 Springvale Road
Golden Age Bread & Cake, Springvale Shopping Centre, shop 5b, 44 Buckingham Avenue
The Sunny Cafe, 6 Balmoral Avenue
Bun Bun Bakery, shop 1, 288 Springvale Road
Bun Ngon's signature bun mam soup. Photo: Simon Schluter
Bun Ngon's patronage curls 20-strong out the door and onto Springvale Central's Windsor Avenue by noon. Many are here for the exceptional pho, but the air is thick with the intoxicating scent of signature dish bun mam – a fermented fish and seafood noodle soup from Southern Vietnam that brings octopus, squid, fermented white fish, prawns, pork belly, thick rice noodles and various greenery into the same bowl in pungent harmony. If surf and turf doesn't do it for you, the beef and pork-based bun bo hue or the straight seafood bun rieu ought to. For straight pho, Footscray stalwart Pho Hung Vuong's Springvale outpost upholds the legacy with its complex stock and superior ingredients, but hit Bac 8 for a grittier, backroom experience (also located in Springvale Central).
Bun Ngon restaurant attracts a queue. Photo: Simon Schluter
Back in Little Cambodia, buzzy 20-seater Angkor Reach overextends a touch with its Chinese offerings, but does a fabulous num banh chok soup – a clean combination of minced fish in green curry, light fish stock, thin vermicelli noodles and julienned carrots, topped with fresh lemongrass – that's more cleansing than some of the heavier options in the area.
Bun Ngon, 266a Springvale Road (5 Windsor Avenue)
Pho Hung Vuong, shop 2, 15 Balmoral Avenue
Bac 8, shop 8 Springvale Central, 268-274 Springvale Road
Angkor Reach, 14 Buckingham Avenue
Phnom Penh Thmei's lok lak. Photo: Simon Schluter
Dinnertime in Springvale seems to go live from about 5pm, winding down at about 8pm. Belying the anti-ambience of the carpark it looks onto, Phnom Penh Thmei is heaving by early evening, its customers busy selecting hits from the Khmer culinary canon via images of the menu that plaster its lime green walls. It's comfortably Springvale's busiest Cambodian joint, and many diners are here for the lok lak: a traditional sectioned dish that looks like a nasi lemak, but shares little in common flavour-wise. Fried egg-topped rice provides the starch, with tender beef cubes coated in crunchy batter and fried with onion and capsicum bringing the heft. A small ramekin of tuk meric – a prison gruel-grey sauce of lime juice and black pepper – cuts through the stodge and should be slopped with caution. Accompanied by a sweeter than expected soup stock that rings of bone and baitfish, the dish is a bona fide all-rounder and completely outperforms its $12 price tag. Couple with a soda egg (soda water, egg and condensed milk) if you dig eggnog but wish it were bubblier.
While you're in the carpark, purple-walled papaya salad-enthusiast Noi Lucky is a good shout for something lighter and fresher, and while the Lao and Thai menu is comprehensive, the focus is squarely on the salads. It's slightly pricier than the area average, but the som tum lao special – a fish-saucy salad of papaya, tomato, long beans, cabbage, rice noodles, pickled crab and pork rind – is substantial and fresh; satisfying without overwhelming.
Back near the station on the northern side, Punjabi standout Missi Roti's glowing red plastic chandelier and red feature wall set things to sultry. The restaurant's namesake is a chickpea flour-based flatbread – drier than its wheaten counterpart, but great with the restaurant's sarson da saag – an exemplary, hug-from-mum rendition of the velvety spinach staple.
Phnom Penh Thmei, 34 Queens Avenue
Noi Lucky, shop 4, 1-3 St Johns Avenue
Missi Roti, 10 Queens Avenue
Cafe Dia Gia makes a sweet and dangerously caffeinated Vietnamese iced coffee. Served machine-sealed in a bubble tea cup, there is no menu: this is it, and at $4.50, it's comfortably one of Melbourne's cheapest highs. After something more mellow? Head to Cafe Phu Khanh (Cafe PK) for a cool, refreshing glass of pennywort juice – a member of the same family as parsley and the carrot – served straight and grassy or sweetened to taste. Speaking of sweet, for a sugarcane juice, mosey over to Rainbow Coffee, an endearingly colourful beverage rotunda and the jewel of Springvale Central.
Cafe Dia Gia, 1a Windsor Avenue
Cafe Phu Khanh, 46 Buckingham Avenue
Rainbow Coffee, Springvale Shopping Centre, 46-58 Buckingham Avenue
The markets in Springvale Central and Springvale Shopping Centre are both wonderful for fresh vegetables and fish. The KFL supermarket in Springvale Shopping Centre has a great butcher, and its Chinese noodle selection, from Shaanxi biang biang noodles to Chongqing xiao noodle, is a huge boon for regional noodle enthusiasts.
KFL, shop g24 Springvale Shopping Centre, 46-58 Buckingham Avenue