324 Racecourse Rd Flemington, VIC 3031
|Opening hours||Mon-Thu 11.30am-2.30pm, 5pm-9pm; Fri 11am-2.30pm, 5pm-10.30pm; Sat 11am-10.30pm; Sun 11am-9.30pm|
|Features||Licensed, Accepts bookings, Cheap Eats|
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9376 2288|
"I am the founder of Laksa King," Esmond Wong tells me. And I admit I have a fan-girl moment.
Eating at LK is one of Melbourne's dining rites – over the years many thousands have marked celebrations by eating brothy bowls of coconut noodle soup at the humble Malay-Canto diner. And Wong's kingdom is only getting bigger.
Born in northern Vietnam to Chinese parents, Wong arrived in Australia aged 15. "I was a refugee," he says. "We didn't know where we were going. You risk your life to cross the ocean. It's very dangerous. A lot of people lose their lives. We thank God we are lucky to be on the earth here. We were very, very lucky to choose Australia."
Wong's first gig was as a kitchenhand at Dragon Boat in Chinatown, where former Melbourne Lord Mayor John So was boss. He learnt on the job, worked hard, and cooked his way around Cantonese and Malaysian restaurants in Melbourne.
"As a refugee in Vietnam, you don't have opportunities, it's very poor conditions," he says. "When you have the chance, it gives you a lot of momentum, so you feel and do things differently to people who grow up here."
In 1998, he opened the first Laksa King, a no-frills, fluoro-lit bolthole in a Flemington arcade with queues out the door and a staff of Wong, his kitchenhand, and "a couple of waiters".
"The King's" speciality was laksa lemak (also called curry laksa or nyonya laksa), a dish hailing from the Peranakan people, a cultural mash-up of Chinese who settled on the Malay archipelago. Wong brewed the chilli-slicked broth for five hours, loading the bowls with rice noodles, king prawns, chicken, tofu – whatever you like – but punters also piled in for fish-head laksa, gado gado and fall-apart beef rendang.
When the arcade shop became too small to hold the hordes, LK moved around the corner to flasher digs in Pin Oak Crescent. But it still wasn't enough.
Wong has again adapted and reinvented, expanding his kingdom to include Laksa King Kitchen, a more sophisticated iteration of LK using fancier ingredients.
Is the laksa as good as the original? Honestly, I think it's better.
Flemington's new Laksa King Kitchen uses the same recipe for the broth but with top-notch produce – organic vegies, nothing canned, organic eggs, and better cuts of meat. In the beef laksa, each piece of angus skirt steak is pan-fried. The chicken uses only breast, as does the roasted barbecue duck, given a quick deep-fry for crispness. Seafood laksa is rich with head-on king prawns, tender calamari, scallop and mussel.
"We're trying to do tapas-style," Wong says. "Dishes with more presentation, something more upmarket so people can enjoy the food and have a nice beer or wine."
The vibe at Laksa King Kitchen is shiny, designer and bright (perhaps too bright, if you like a dimmer setting), but it's still rambunctious and family-friendly, with warm staff who are eager to please. Ordering via iPad is super fun, with little under-table trays for stowing devices, and there are a few new dishes including five-spice tofu and confit duck in a sour tamarind chilli sauce.
"I feel happy and satisfied that all the customers – Western, Asian – they all like my food," says Wong, who now owns four restaurants and manages 60 staff. "I really feel privileged."