17 Flemington Rd North Melbourne, VIC 3051
|Opening hours||Monday-Wednesday 11.30am-8pm, Thursday-Saturday 11.30am-9pm|
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
|Phone||0415 358 801|
Gai Wong is a busy order-and-pay canteen specialising in Hainanese chicken rice on a CBD-fringe roundabout. That might sound simple but this business has a huge back story and a whole lot of heart.
It's owned by Shirley Chow and Philip Leong; she's from Kuala Lumpur, he's from Brunei, and when they started dating in Melbourne 20 years ago, Philip revealed his dream was to open a chicken rice restaurant.
He went on to a career in five-star hotels, but a few years ago he took a two-year sabbatical to hone his recipe. Gai Wong – a dream come true – opened in April 2020.
Chicken rice is humble, essential comfort food in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, a dish that expats miss with wistful fervour.
But what is it? Masterstock-poached chicken is served cool to trap a layer of gelatinous fat between flesh and skin.
It comes with chicken broth and rice cooked in chicken stock, plus cucumber and condiments, generally chilli-garlic and spring onion with ginger.
There's no wrong way to eat it. Mix chicken, rice and condiments in a glistening mess. Daintily arrange a meat morsel with rice on a spoon. Sup the soup first or as a final palate cleanser.
You can even recook the whole lot into healing congee. Chicken rice is flexible then, but also threaded with my-aunty-does-this deal-breakers.
For Philip Leong, it's a meal of particular significance. He grew up suffering epileptic seizures and was often hospitalised. Every time he was discharged, his family would take him for chicken rice: the dish came to signify life.
Given that, it makes sense that he makes it with utter care, using free-range chicken and preparing it fresh daily. Being adjacent to hospitals has poignancy: every dish is made to nourish and heal.
The menu goes beyond chicken. Roast pork, barbecue pork, fried chicken wings, noodles and curries are also crafted with passion and care, but it's chicken rice that suffuses the Gai Wong soul.
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