Jess Ho's guide to where to eat in Richmond, Melbourne

"When I was a kid, I literally put a spoonful of this in everything," says Ho, holding a tin of Bull Head barbecue sauce.
"When I was a kid, I literally put a spoonful of this in everything," says Ho, holding a tin of Bull Head barbecue sauce. Photo: Sofia Levin

The best places to eat, drink and shop in Richmond, according to writer, podcaster and former hospitality professional Jess Ho.

"You have some Big Dog on your forehead."

I'm eating the namesake vegetarian ciabatta at Big Dog's Deli, a sandwich shop in Lennox Street, Richmond, that opened in 2016, well ahead of Melbourne's current carb influx. Jess Ho is pointing at my hairline. To label Ho a writer, podcaster and memoirist falls short of encapsulating their personality. In fact, they've struggled with labels their whole life.

Jess Ho orders hot and sour tom saap at Tom Toon.
Jess Ho orders hot and sour tom saap at Tom Toon. Photo: Sofia Levin

Ho is a non-binary Cantonese Australian who uses the personal pronoun "their". But when asked how they identify, their answer is loaded with deflective humour and signature existential dread. "Human, preferably not an arsehole, unfortunately alive," they say.

I wipe the smear of house romesco from my brow.

"That's the thing about me; I've worked in hospo, I'll tell you," says Ho, who might have greeted you while working front of house at restaurants that defined Melbourne dining, emailed you as food and drink editor of Time Out Melbourne or served you chips with gravy made from prosciutto fat trimmings and spirit samples at their South Melbourne bar, Smalls (now closed).

They're taking me on a tour of their neighbourhood, timed with the release of their memoir, Raised by Wolves. I'm halfway through reading it when we meet, and while Ho insists it's not an expose, there's something very Kitchen Confidential about it. But instead of Anthony Bourdain glorifying the ugly parts of what goes on behind the scenes at restaurants, Ho's is a poignant, front-of-house perspective of hospitality from the all-seeing eyes of someone who isn't a white man.

Grilled pork sausage banh mi at Phuoc Hung Baker, Richmond.
For Jess Ho's Richmond by Sofia Levin, Good Food, July 26, 2022
Pic credit:Â Sofia Levin

Grilled pork sausage banh mi from Phuoc Hung Baker. Photo: Sofia Levin

We start at Phuoc Hung Bakery, where Ho, an avid baker, talks to owner Lachlan Le about the merits of using less yeast in the banh mi rolls his father has been baking since 5am.

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"If I get a banh mi and walk home from anywhere else, the bread turns to soup from all the fillings," says Ho.

Le left his job in software to open the Victoria Street shop in 2021. It's been a slog. A note on the counter beginning "Dear loyal customers" indicates a price increase of 50¢. The banh mis are currently between $7 and $9.

The price of banh mi is the subject of an episode of Bad Taste, Ho's SBS podcast. It delves into why people feel ripped off biting into the $7.50 grilled pork sausage banh mi we've ordered – a crunchy roll stuffed with a sliced, garlicky sausage still hot from the oven and slathered with pâté that takes three people a day to make – but are happy to drop $16.50 on a beef brisket sandwich from Hector's Deli around the corner.

Another of Ho's favourite local spots is Ca Com, the lockdown success story from the team at Anchovy. Here, chef Thi Le breaks down whole pigs to make jungle sausage banh mi. It's just $14.

It's an especially icy Melbourne morning and Ho's compensating for a shaved head with layers of designer Aussie threads, including a men's ACNE leather bomber jacket, proudly purchased on sale.

We walk to Unicorn Kitchenware, where Ho bought the 16-litre pot they use to brew herbal soups at home. They also buy plastic squeeze bottles that they decant bulk oils and sauces into for cooking.

A few hundred metres away is Minh Phat, the huge Asian grocery store where Ho buys the aforementioned sauces in bulk, along with five-kilogram bags of rice that they keep in repurposed salt pails for easy storage and use.

They walk up and down the aisles, spurting rapid-fire product recommendations: their current favourite chilli oil is labelled "Money God Brand", the garlic chives are unbeatable, they pack Gold Star fresh noodles into their carry-on luggage for Sydney friends and are working their way through different brands of pungent Liuzhou snail rice instant noodles.

Jess Ho calls into Minh Phat supermarket, Richmond, to stock up on rice in 5kg bags, Bull Head sauce and instant noodles (strictly one packet per visit).
For Jess Ho's Richmond by Sofia Levin, Good Food, July 26, 2022
Pic credit:Â Sofia Levin

Liuzhou snail rice instant noodles. Photo: Sofia Levin

"When I was a kid, I literally put a spoonful of this in everything," says Ho, holding up a silver tin labelled Bull Head, a barbecue sauce made with chilli, garlic, ginger and shallots. "It's the dipping condiment for steamboat, a Cantonese delicacy."

When Ho speaks, they insert the phrase "I don't know" an awful lot for someone who has very clear opinions. I've always liked them, but more pertinently, wanted them to like me. It's inevitable when they're smart, have a penchant for punchy flavours and admit in their memoir, "I don't care if I'm likeable."

But not too far below the surface is someone who cares deeply about their friends, the industry and the under-represented. I ask why they retired from hospitality. They tell me to finish the book, and warn me that their editor asked for an epilogue so it finished on a happier note.

Across the road at Saigon Village Fresh Food Centre, we make a beeline for a shelf stacked with plastic bags of heavily discounted produce, including bulk fresh ginger from $3.50 that Ho washes, dries and puts in the freezer sliced for later use in noodles, soups and more.

They also buy fresh chrysanthemum and herbs for banh xeo (Vietnamese pancakes) here, though their favourite place to eat them nearby is Thanh Ha 2.

For rice-paper salads, bun mam fermented fish noodle soup and pork cooked over coals, they hit up Co Thu Quan.

Our lunch stop is Tom Toon, a Thai noodle cafe where Ho orders tab wan (pork liver salad with onion, mint and fish sauce), sai oon (deep-fried pork intestines) and "medium spicy" tom saap, a hot and sour soup with chicken feet that has enough chilli to elicit coughing mid-interview.

There's more to eat, but first we walk to Chef's Armoury, a Japanese kitchenware store specialising in knives, sharpening stones and sake.

"For me, knives are like shoes: you like what you like, and it's all about what's comfortable for you," says Ho.

Japanese kitchenware store Chef's Armoury  specialises in knives, sharpening stones and sake.
For Jess Ho's Richmond by Sofia Levin, Good Food, July 26, 2022
Pic credit:Â Sofia Levin

Japanese knives at Chef's Armoury. Photo: Sofia Levin

Comfort is everything for Ho, who has been treated as a curiosity their entire career. A day earlier, an Uber driver asked why they shave their head.

"I've never really identified as being female, but you take on that role, because growing up there was no alternative," says Ho. "It's always been a point of contention for everyone. Everyone wants to know what my sexuality is, who I'm dating, why I like to dress this way. It's, like, this is how I'm comfortable."

Afghani-style smoky chicken and lamb skewers cooked over coals at Kebab Stick, Richmond.
For Jess Ho's Richmond by Sofia Levin, Good Food, July 26, 2022
Pic credit:Â Sofia Levin

Chicken and lamb skewers at Kebab Stick. Photo: Sofia Levin

We're close to bursting as we sit down for smoky chicken and lamb skewers cooked over coals at Kebab Stick.

Then somehow we manage one final stop at Jan Chi Korean Feast. Ho's ex-colleagues shrill with excitement when Ho walks in the door. We eat juicy fried chicken and cheesy pan-fried tteokbokki (cylindrical rice cakes), washed down with soju bombs (a shot of Korean grain spirit in a Cass lager).

As the sun sets, it's clear Ho still feels at home in hospitality. It's where they found a family when theirs was abusive; experienced racism, classism and sexism; ate their way into other cultures; found and tragically lost their soul mate; and discovered a place where they felt comfortable – for a time.

I stay up late finishing Raised by Wolves. There are parts I relate to, and others I'm thankful I don't. What I really want to do is drive back to Richmond and give Ho a big hug, but I know they'd hate that. I send a congratulatory text instead.

Details

  • Big Dog's Deli 327 Lennox Street, Richmond
  • Phuoc Hung Bakery 152 Victoria Street, Richmond
  • Ca Com 336 Bridge Road, Richmond
  • Unicorn Kitchenware 403-405 Victoria Street, Abbotsford
  • Minh Phat 2-8 Nicholson Street, Abbotsford
  • Saigon Village Fresh Food Centre The Hive Shopping Centre, shop 11, 313 Victoria Street, Abbotsford
  • Thanh Ha 2 120 Victoria Street, Richmond
  • Co Thu Quan shop 6, 234 Victoria Street, Richmond
  • Tom Toon 241 Victoria Street, Abbotsford
  • Chef's Armoury 422 Church Street, Richmond
  • Kebab Stick 277 Bridge Road, Richmond
  • Jan Chi 362 Bridge Road, Richmond