Juicy joy: Malaysian canteen SugarBun occupies three floors of a heritage building.
Juicy joy: Malaysian canteen SugarBun occupies three floors of a heritage building. Photo: Chris Hopkins

205 Russell Street Melbourne, Victoria 3000

View map

Opening hours Tues-Thurs noon-3pm, 6-9pm; Fri-Sun noon-9.30pm
Features Licensed, BYO, Cheap Eats
Prices Cheap (mains under $20)
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9650 4336

SugarBun's bak kut teh earns a place at the podium of benchmark broths; up there with laksa and pho. Though the literal translation of this Hokkien speciality, "meat bone tea", neatly describes the dark broth steeped with pork bones, herbs and spices (among them, star anise and garlic), the name is more prescriptive: eat soup, drink tea (traditionally served in hand-wrapped parcels to brew yourself).

The tea part is less integral to bak kut teh these days, generations after the dish was named, and thousands of kilometres from West Malaysia where it originated. While SugarBun has new-generation tea (in a glass, iced and sweet), its soup is old-school.

Breaking the shimmering oil-freckled surface are clumped threads of enoki, bobbing pork balls, tofu puffs, thin-cut ribs (the meat barely holding on to the bone) and belly fat. It's rich, aromatic and engrossing to eat, skipping between the contents of the claypot and its little assembly of sides: fried Chinese doughnuts for dunking, rice, and garlic-chilli pickled mustard greens. There's a range of add-ins (from offal to chrysanthemum greens) and a dry bak kut teh – it's the same pork (balls, belly and ribs cooked in broth), only stir-fried in garlic, chilli and soy.

Eat soup, drink tea: Bak kut teh is a benchmark broth.
Eat soup, drink tea: Bak kut teh is a benchmark broth. Photo: Chris Hopkins/Getty Images

For Melbourne's Malaysian population, the SugarBun brand is an old pal. The fast-food chain, established in 1979, has 50-plus outlets. This is the first branch outside Asia, brought to you by the SugarBun founder's twin daughters, Francesca and Fiorn Lee.

The girls have given SugarBun Melbourne distinct qualities and kinks. The heritage bones of the Russell Street building have deep character. The three-level refit is mostly soft-industrial (subway-tiled and brick walls, timber tables, black bentwood chairs), with the second level a slightly off-kilter Charlie Kaufman-like half-floor – the building's original doors and windows cut in half by the new roofline and wall partitions.

The inclusion of bak kut teh is also exclusive to Melbourne's SugarBun. The plan is to expand the SugarBun empire and start a splinter Bak Kut Teh franchise whereas throughout Asia, SugarBun is shorthand for fried chicken. 

Dry bak kut teh: pork stir-fried in garlic, chilli and soy.
Dry bak kut teh: pork stir-fried in garlic, chilli and soy. Photo: Chris Hopkins/Getty Images

It's pressure-fried or "broasted", a combination of pressure cooking and deep frying, and comes in three varieties. Most tables are topped with a plate of sambal pedas: lemongrass, chilli and ginger crisp chicken served with coconut rice. The Sarawak-pepper seasoned version is a drumstick and thigh piece, crisp and juicy without being oil-sodden, served with tasty chicken rice and a tangy cucumber, pineapple and carrot salad – labelled appe-hancer ("appetite enhancer").

Hawker classics include nasi lemak and laksa. Here it's Sarawak-style laksa (less coconut milk, more prawn flavour than you'd taste in a curry laksa), and full with vermicelli, beansprouts, strips of omelette, shredded chicken and prawns. It takes SugarBun's blue-ribbon-broth tally to two.

Do ... Join the wait list; it's fast food.
Don't ... Ask what the herbs are in the broth: it's a secret mix from Sarawak.
Dish ... Bak kut teh (meat bone tea).
Vibe ... Dashing Malaysian caff.