352 High St Preston, VIC 3072
|Opening hours||Sun-Thu 10am-9pm; Fri-Sat 10am-10pm|
|Features||BYO, Licensed, Cheap Eats, Family friendly, Accepts bookings|
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
|Payments||eftpos, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9470 6389|
There will be diners using serviettes for their sweating brows rather than their spattered chins, but the signature Sichuan, menacingly red, hot-and-spicy flavour is just half the Tina's story.
The wide-mouthed bowls of rice-noodle soups can also be mild and milky coloured, and clear and slightly sour. Though Tina's specialises in one dish – rice-noodle soup – the dozens of possible permutations have an infinity effect.
Soups on the user-friendly picture menu fall into four categories: Thick Stock, Signature Spicy, With Pickles, and With Pickled Chilli. Variations within those categories come from different soup bases (pork, chicken, veg, seafood) and combinations of ingredients. Plus there's a page of add-ons so you can load in extras of your favourite bits – be they black fungus or wagyu – or add an ingredient, such as egg.
A Mixed Seafood soup (from the Thick Stock section) gained little with the addition of a fried-solid egg, which added a rubbery element already there in slices of firm tofu, prawn balls and crab sticks. Also mingling in the twists of noodle and cloudy seafood-rich stock are prawns, scallops, seaweed and beanshoots.
One bowl amounts to a lot of food to get through; it can feel like the magic pudding of soups.
The power of the signature spicy soups comes from the double punch of chilli and tongue-numbing Sichuan pepper. Rather than committing to a whole bowl, I dabbled in the spicy entrees.
The skewers are cold but with the heat of the electrifying red oil in which they bathe, have a confounding pat-your-head-while-rubbing-your-stomach glee to them. The chicken skewers are popular apparently, the thin wooden sticks threaded with feet, giblets, heart and liver.
The vegie version includes two skewers each of black fungus, tofu, cauli, sheaths of potato, and quail eggs for just $5.80.
The slight sourness of the soups from the section With Pickles can be refreshing on hot days when the idea of filling up on hot soup may seem anathema. There are veg, fish and beef options, and six pork versions, including deep-fried pork pieces with quail eggs, canned ham, tofu and a carpet of fresh coriander, or the speciality "kidney flowers", where pork kidneys are cut with surgically precise incisions to create an attractive, jagged frill.
Tina's casual, no-table-service, number-on-a-stick, nothing-over-$16 set-up belies its comfortable and quite classy interior of red-brick walls with black-and-white vintage photo prints in lacquered timber panels. Combined with an open kitchen, at the back of the long space, Tina's Preston is modern Asian meets inner-Melbourne industrial edgy.
It's popular; there may be queues (psst: you can book), and this Preston outlet is the fourth Tina's, which now covers the north, Box Hill in the east, Maribyrnong in the west, and the CBD (with a slightly smaller menu).
Tina's, being part of the Dainty Sichuan dynasty, owned by Ye Shao and Tina Li, comes from a long line of crazy-popular restaurants with a busy future. This new year of the monkey, the Sichuan crusaders will open a new Dainty Grilled Fish Bar concept in Clayton in mid-February, bringing the couple's restaurant tally to 10.
Do … Look to the drinks list for quelling watermelon or orange and passionfruit juices, and beers.
Don't … Wear white; just saying – that chilli oil will never come out.
Vibe ... Fast, one-course wonder with class.