This time last year Chinese restaurants were deserted. Melburnians curtailed their activities fearful of the approaching pandemic and things went downhill from there.
A year on, we're eating on street-side tables and in sunny parklets. Yum cha is back, the spark of Chinatown is starting to flare.
Travel to Asia is still a while off, but Lunar New Year (February 12) gives us impetus to explore beyond familiar city Chinese haunts to the burgeoning alternative Chinatowns in Glen Waverley, Springvale and Box Hill.
I called in expert tour guide advice in the form of chef Victor Liong, from CBD restaurant Lee Ho Fook.
Liong was born to a Hainanese father and Hakka Chinese mother and spent his early years in Malaysia before moving to Sydney. He trained under Mark Best at now-closed Marque and with Dan Hong at Ms. G's and Mr Wong.
In 2013, when he was 27, he opened Lee Ho Fook in Collingwood focusing on "new-style Chinese", weaving the traditional food of his roots with his Aussie upbringing, before moving to the Duckboard Place location in 2015.
He accompanied me on a whistlestop tour of Glen Waverley and Springvale, two of Melbourne's most exciting dining destinations. He probably wasn't prepared for how much I'd make him eat.
"Dude, you should follow my mum on Instagram, she kills it." Liong thrusts his phone across the table where @big_wok_mama has recently baked a sourdough loaf imprinted with the Chinese symbol for longevity.
We're sitting in a booth at the Glen Waverley branch of Hainan Chicken (there are other branches in Box Hill and Docklands) inside King's Centre, a seven-level building dedicated entirely to food and entertainment with a rooftop bar. "It's like The Ivy [Sydney multi-storey Justin Hemmes-owned venue] for Asian food," says Liong. "Why would you ever leave?"
Our "mixed chicken" with a quarter each of Hainan and roast chook arrives quickly, accompanied by broth and rice cooked in stock. As Liong is half Hainanese, this is the food of his childhood and it's good.
"I think boiling or poaching food is underrated," he says. "No one where I came from ever grew up eating medium-rare, perfectly-cooked anything."
The Hainanese chicken is tender; the skin on the roast thin and crisp, but it's the house condiments – one garlicky chilli sauce, the other ginger and spring onion – that steal the show.
Shop 2, ground floor, 52 Montclair Avenue, Glen Waverley, 03 9561 7866, hainan-chicken.com.au
Char kway teow at Danny's Kopitiam. Photo: Sofia Levin
We get in the car and drive around the corner to Danny's Kopitiam. The kitchen takes up most of the simple space with a huge rangehood for catching the plumes of wok smoke. On the menu are Malaysian and Singaporean hawker classics: rojak, roti canai, laksa, beef rendang.
"We have to get a CKT," says Liong, referring to char kway teow. The version here has chewy, clumped rice noodles and essential wok hei, the charred aroma that translates as "breath of the wok".
I pick a traditional Cantonese dish. When I order it at the counter, I'm warned that I'm in for trotters, but insist that's fine. When the dark brown bowl bobbing with tender knuckles in sticky, ginger-loaded vinegar sauce emerges, it's a window into Liong's childhood memories. "My mum used to make this all the time," he says.
264 Blackburn Road, Glen Waverley, 03 9886 7699, dannyskopitiam.com.au
XO pipis and watercress with fermented bean curd sauce at Imperial Chinese Restaurant. Photo: Sofia Levin
Imperial Chinese Restaurant
We pull up in the massive car park of the Imperial Chinese and admire the wonderfully dated building. "It's one of those restaurants that when you're a kid, you take awkward photos out the front of," says Liong, so we do.
We ascend salmon-pink tiled stairs to the huge dining room with white tablecloths, ornate wooding carvings and every shade of beige and brown. "Everyone's head is still stuck in this as a 'nice Chinese restaurant'," Liong says, gesturing around the room, "but everyone in China or who is coming out here, they think this is old-fashioned."
Pickled cabbage and peanuts are placed in front of us to nibble. We eat XO pipis and watercress with fermented bean curd sauce. Liong is telling me about how he's ordered half-price lobsters for Lee Ho Fook when he takes his first bite of the greens. "It's got all the hallmarks of really nice Cantonese-style, southern Chinese food. It's super bright, still crunchy. You taste the vegetable, which is a very Chinese thing called the essential taste, the xian wei," he says. We resolve to come back for yum cha.
546 Waverley Road, Glen Waverley, 03 9802 6787
We make one last stop for the night at Hoa Tran, a popular Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant down a laneway. The matriarch seats us with a hand gesture before we're three steps in the door.
By this stage we're a little delirious, and Liong's telling me he's so full he hates me, but he's smiling, so we order salt and pepper quail and egg noodle soup with salt and pepper chicken ribs. It's the busiest place we've been so far, probably because the food is so familiar and comforting. "The biggest compliment you can get from a Chinese person is, 'Oh, this tastes like home food.' But then the biggest compliment you get as a home cook is, 'Oh, you should open a restaurant,' " says Liong.
We're defeated, and I pay $1 for a couple of takeaway containers and look forward to finishing our feast tomorrow.
246A Springvale Road, Springvale, 03 9547 7879, hoatran.com.au
The Sunny Cafe
I allow Liong three days to digest. Then we head back to Springvale. We could have opted for Gold Leaf's extraordinary yum cha, but instead we start with Taiwanese breakfast at The Sunny Cafe. Next door, men crowd around outdoor xiang qi tables, while inside the restaurant there are no more than five tables, walls plastered with proverbs and a counter crowded with traditional sweets and buns.
Ordering is done on a laminated menu with a whiteboard marker that doesn't quite work. "We used to eat Taiwanese breakfast a lot because there's a restaurant in Sydney called Mother Chu's Taiwanese Gourmet. We'd do market runs and it's open really early… I love it so much, I opened a Chinese breakfast place that didn't work," says Liong, referring to now-closed Lawyers, Guns and Money.
We share beef noodle soup tangy with pickled mustard greens, sturdy xiao long bao with pork and crab, baked hu jiao bing buns stuffed with pork and spring onion and a pan-fried egg roll wrapped around a Chinese doughnut. It is the best start to the day I have had in ages.
6 Balmoral Avenue, Springvale, 03 9540 3804
Ana Yurt Dolan Uyghur Restaurant
We walk to Ana Yurt, a Dolan Uyghur restaurant with branches in the CBD and Box Hill. North-western Chinese and Afghan pop music plays as I comb over the multitude of hand-pulled noodle dishes, braises and buns. Overwhelmed and far from hungry, we order tender, fatty lamb skewers fragrant with cumin and a cucumber salad that may be the most garlicky thing we'll eat this year.
This is one of the best places in Melbourne to try regional cuisine from the Xinjiang autonomous region in north-west China, home to the Uyghur ethnic minority, which is mostly Muslim. The halal menu is extensive, a mix of flavour and spice courtesy of the region being wedged between the Middle East and Asia.
Servings are ginormous, whether hearty lamb and potato stir-fries, traditional tripe and dumpling soups, or yangyu tohu kormisi (spicy, saucy chicken chunks with potato and capsicum piled on handmade noodles). "Everything comes out looking like a dare, it's so big!" Liong says.
10 Queens Avenue, Springvale, 03 9546 0698
Roast meats and rice at Ming Ky Central. Photo: Sofia Levin
Minh Ky Central Restaurant
The final stop of our eating adventure is Minh Ky Central. This no-nonsense Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant specialises in roast meats. The cleaver comes down on roast duck, barbecue pork, suckling pork, sausages, soy sauce chicken or intestines. We pick a selection of three with rice for $15.50, but were we not being so traditional, the Vietnamese version that comes with vermicelli noodles and Asian herbs for wrapping would have been the go.
Minh Ky is on Springvale's main drag, and there's a steady flow of customers. Passers-by stop to admire the glistening roast ducks, head and feet intact. Whole birds are common on dining tables over Lunar New Year as they symbolise completeness. Liong points out that despite foot traffic, it's important to maintain the momentum of eating out at Chinese restaurants. "Everyone thinks we're out of COVID, but we're definitely not, especially business-wise," he says. "The problem is the aftermath of it, like with the bushfires. We need to keep coming back."
Shop 10g, 8 Balmoral Avenue, Springvale, 03 8555 3241, minhkyspringvale.webs.com
In last year's lockdown, people embraced their local cafes, restaurants and grocers. Now the challenge is to balance this with encouraging people to explore Melbourne again, from our CBD to our culture-laden suburbs.
With Lunar New Year coinciding with Valentine's Day, Chinese restaurants in the city are once again filling up. Liong's banquet menu at Lee Ho Fook (pictured) is booked out from February 11 to 14, with spots quickly filling until it ends on February 28.
"The general vibe is good. Everyone is pretty stoked and it's great to see larger groups booking. The more people eating and drinking, the better," says Liong.
Tony Tan's Box Hill hit list
Chinese cuisine is usually split into eight main regions: Zhejiang, Sichuan, Shandong, Jiangsu, Guangdong, Hunan, Fujian and Anhui.
You might not recognise them all, but if you explore Box Hill – where 35 per cent of residents have Chinese ancestry, according to the most recent census – you'll stumble upon them without realising.
Someone more likely to decipher regional differences is cooking teacher, chef and author Tony Tan. He's been kind enough to share his favourite places to eat in Box Hill, but he also encourages people to shop there.
"It is such a great Asian hub because not only can you eat there, but you can also go there to buy some of the best Asian ingredients around town," he says.
For soup dumplings: Kitchen Republik
"I always go there for two things, for the xiao long bao, because to me their pastry is so thin and the stock they have inside is so flavoursome – they're probably using a tonne of MSG – and the pan-fried dumplings with pork. They're always fresh and have got a very nice crisp skin at the base, which means you get that double texture of the pastry on the top being nice and soft and the one underneath being crunchy. And it's cheap!"
Shop MM2, 1 Main Street, Box Hill, 03 9898 6669, facebook.com/kitchenrepublik
For roast meats: Roast Duck Inn
"This is one of those places where they are very well-known for doing roasts, including Chinese sausages, and then of course there's the roast duck, there's the roast pork and there's the char siu. Those are the four things that most people go for. Every now and then when I feel like my body needs softer nourishment or comfort food, I go for the soy chicken."
29-31 Carrington Road, Box Hill, 03 9897 3788, roastduckinn.com.au
Hot pots are split into two soups at Dainty Sichuan in Box Hill. Photo: Ken Irwin
For hot pot: Dainty Sichuan
"The hot pot is beautiful because they do the split soups – one is really hot and one's mild, so it's really dependent on how you like it. It's authentic, that's what I really like about it, and I know very well that they pride themselves on being one of those few places that import their own ingredients from Sichuan province."
Level 1, 2A Cambridge Street, Box Hill, 03 9041 4318, daintysichuanfood.com.au
For duck: Dumpling King
"I always go there for the Sichuan roast duck because the way they do it is really quite different from so many of the other places. Traditionally the duck is marinated, then it's steamed, then it's fried – but what they've done is actually marinated it in portions. They cut it up, which makes a big difference, so when you go to eat their duck, the flavour is something else. Just talking about it, my mouth is watering."
570-572 Station Street, Box Hill, 03 9890 3719, facebook.com/dumplingking1996