Emporium food court

Bargain hunting: The food court on level 3 at Emporium Melbourne.
Bargain hunting: The food court on level 3 at Emporium Melbourne. Photo: Wayne Taylor

287 Lonsdale Street Melbourne, Victoria 3000

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Opening hours Sat-Wed 10am-7pm; Thu-Fri 10am-9pm
Features Cheap Eats, Gluten-free options, Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access, Licensed
Prices Cheap (mains under $20)
Payments AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, eftpos

For a city that actively seeks out food in the smallest, darkest alleys and pays to have jaffles launched from roofs, Melbourne stigmatises food courts and it's weird. Maybe everyone got teased at school and all those trays send sharp waves of wedgie-related panic to the heart. Who knows.

The truth is, there are jewels in those Formica fields. The rough-to-diamond ratio just happens to be high. And so this week's budget review is brought to you by the number 10, the colour fluorescence and a magical symphony of house beats.

In a lot of cases you're better off mining for gold in Melbourne's lesser food courts. Mason Dixon Sandwich Bar in the Collins Street Food Plaza turns out North Carolina pulled pork rolls with authentic torrential drip and extra vinegar for $9.50.

Potato noodles with an added egg served at Dainty Sichuan Noodle Express.
Potato noodles with an added egg served at Dainty Sichuan Noodle Express. Photo: Wayne Taylor

ShanDong MaMa in the Bourke Street arcade may be the sweetest dumpling house in town. Paramount Centre, home to a nail bar called Issues, also has some of Melbourne's most gutsy boat noodles at MeDee for $6. Here, rice noodles tangle with thin strips of beef and pork liver in a dark, peppery broth enriched with pig's blood and cinnamon. It's loaded with fresh coriander and spring onions, peanuts and a bubbling strip of pork crackling. For a fiver you can add a baggie of deep-fried battered bananas and starchy purple sweet potatoes. That's a win for all mankind, tightwads or not.

Emporium – the reimagined food court which hit the city last year in the wake of a tsunami of press releases and a super shiny opening party directed by Baz "glitter bomb" Luhrmann – is the perfect restaurant for the ADD afflicted.

Here, every snack you covet on Instagram is available in one gold-chain-festooned forum.

Seek and find: Dumplings at ShanDong Mama.
Seek and find: Dumplings at ShanDong Mama. Photo: Paul Jeffers

The vendors are a rollcall of people you know and love: Jimmy Grants, Dainty Sichuan, Earl Canteen. There are comfy banquettes and the sense-rattling symphony of 18 different club anthems competing at peak volume, with the exception of Jimmy Grants, proudly pumping Queen and just generally being awesome as they punch out chip-stuffed souvas and loukoumades to the masses.

Everywhere you look, embattled partners are being soothed and groomed with noodles and snacks for hours of pensive shirt consideration.

Head to the lower ground food court, where it's more of a collection of mini-restaurants.

Cheap as chips? Jimmy Grants is popular but you can find good-value food-court options all over town.
Cheap as chips? Jimmy Grants is popular but you can find good-value food-court options all over town. Photo: Jesse Marlow

Dainty Noodle is one of the group's better offspring. They back up their classic, pungent noodle soup heroes – served still bubbling beneath a slick of chilli oil – with the option to buy embellishments such as a single stewed pork trotter, all star anise-fragrant gelatinous meat for $4, or a trio of soy-salty quail eggs ($2) on a skewer. It's these that make your $10 work for you.

Potato noodles in a salty-fiery sauce with bok choy and soy nuts are like tasty silicon strings and make a solid base for embellishment at $7. Between two, you can split a main soup ($12-$16). I've yet to see someone pound even half a full serve.

Dumpling King is next door, with workers in a window pinching on-point fillings into skins – prawn and chive are all chunky sweet meat; pan-fried pork has a fresh ginger kick; vegetarian don't just taste like bamboo heart and dirt. Sadly, they pre-cook and store the smaller serves (i.e. what you'd order alone), so our mixed basket of dumplings ($8.50)are either gluey or leathery.

I'm obsessed with the Bing Boy omelette wraps upstairs. Crepe batter goes onto the hot plate followed by a thin layer of egg so you've got a double-texture wrapper for filling with fresh prawns, avocado and sweet pickled carrot for crunch ($7.90).

The salad bars are full of promising combinations of ingredients that could allegedly bench press you, but health, it seems, is a luxury for the rich. Although you can afford an $8 lemon meringue smoothie from Supercharger – coconut yoghurt, dates and lemon juice whizzed into breakfast dessert – if you can face drinking from a jam jar.  

The only drawback is that a crisp blue tenner only lets you gnaw at the edges of most menus at Emporium, and some trusted brands are not so much resting as fully reclining on their laurels. Pho Nom is a bright spectacle, but pho is beyond our budget, and the ingredients of our banh mi and a vermicelli salad ($9.90) featuring fish the texture of chicken lunch meat, seem to have been thrown at their receptacles from a distance.

But who's complaining when you're making it rain with coins? Embrace the tray.

Pro tip Seek some of the lesser-known food courts for better value
Like this? Check out MeDee in the Paramount Centre Shop 2, 108 Bourke Street
Go-to dish Potato noodles and a braised egg, at Dainty Sichuan ($9)

There is no score this week for the food court round up.