In the beginning, it was the cunning Rat who rode the Ox across the river, leaping forth onto the bank to cross the finish line in first place. How the Ox got itself into medal contention we’ll never know, but the Tiger was never in doubt, using its natural gifts to hold off the wily rabbit and snatch the bronze. The pig lost. And so, the creatures of the Chinese Zodiac found their order.
As we farewell the Ox and welcome the Year of the Tiger, we’re reminded of the preciousness of our city’s Chinatown: one of the oldest in the world, and one of the coolest, to be sure. What we once knew as a promenade of august Cantonese restaurants sloping gently from Spring to Elizabeth now sparkles with regional treasures untold, touching each corner of China and many of the provinces in between. From the whomp of noodle on stainless steel at Biang Biang and Lanzhou Beef Noodle Bar to the frenzied hubbub of a packed dumpling house, Melbourne’s Chinatown is more than just a historic dining precinct: it’s a living thing, evolving in perpetuity to meet shifting demographics and global dining trends.
But it also needs our help. The past couple of years have been especially rough in Chinatown, so what better time to get back to your favourite spot – or try something new – than at the dawn of the Lunar New Year.
Eights are considered especially lucky in China; here are 88* Chinese things to eat in (and near) Chinatown on the eve of the Year of the Tiger.
Crazy Wing’s baked wheaten donkey cake
Are Crazy Wing’s crazy wings manifestly too hot? (They are crazy, after all.) In any case, their baked wheaten donkey cakes are just right. Bold northeast Chinese fare.
Crazy Wing, 177 Russell St, Melbourne
HuTong’s boiled pork dumplings
Across the road from Flower Drum, the xiao long bao and potstickers, though delicious, are lime-lit to distraction; what you really want are the hefty boiled pork dumplings.
HuTong Dumpling Bar, 14-16 Market Ln, Melbourne
Shark Fin Inn’s yum cha
Forty-plus years in the fancy Cantonese biz is time enough to perfect Chinatown’s favourite brunch. Off the carts-delicious.
Shark Fin Inn 50 Little Bourke St, Melbourne
Shanghai Street’s spring onion oil noodles
Simple, oily, salty noodles that take a good dumpling party and make it great.
Shanghai Street, various CBD locations
Shanghai Dragon’s fried pork dumplings
Flavourful, crisp-shelled, hot and quick. You couldn’t ask for much more from this no-fuss hole-in-the-wall.
Shanghai Dragon, 163-165 Russell St, Melbourne
China Bar’s char siu
How much is that hoggy in the window? Next time you walk past this piece of Russell Street history, surrender yourself to its hanging meats.
China Bar, 235 Russell St, Melbourne
Secret Kitchen’s live seafood
How much is that lobby in the window? Probably still relatively cheap – make it dinner.
Secret Kitchen, 222 Exhibition St, Melbourne
Bowltiful’s Lanzhou la mian
Clear beef broth with sliced radish, brisket and a thatch of wheat noodles pulled to string behind a glass window. Gansu Province’s number-one noodle is available on most streets in China; happily, the Melbourne CBD is beginning to look the same.
Bowltiful, 382-384 Elizabeth St, Melbourne
A Little Joy’s sheng jian bao
Combining the yeasty paunch of the bao zi with the secret soupy surprise of the xiao long bao, the sheng jian bao is the snack that does it all – one of Melbourne’s best.
A Little Joy, Kmart Centre, 222 Bourke St, Melbourne
Shandong Mama’s lamb dumplings
The arcade eatery’s mackerel dumplings put Shandong on the map for many Melburnians; hit the lamb and tell us they’re not just as good.
Shandong Mama, Midcity Centre, 7/200 Bourke St, Melbourne
Lee Ho Fook’s milk buns, bakwa butter and pork floss
House-made milk buns, cultured butter, candied and flossed pork. New-style Chinese fit for a tiger.
Lee Ho Fook, 11-15 Duckboard Pl, Melbourne
Old Street Hunan stinky tofu
Have you ever had tofu that wasn’t quite stinky enough? It probably wasn’t this Hunanese specialty, cooked to pungent perfection a couple of doors down from Shandong Mama.
Old Street Hunan, Midcity Centre, Shop 3-5/200 Bourke St, Melbourne
Beef Ricenoodle Bar’s beef and beef ball rice noodle soup
There are plenty of terrific clear-brothed soups to get through on this casual southern Chinese menu, but we keep coming back for the joyous elasticity of the beef balls.
Beef Ricenoodle Bar, 146 Exhibition St, Melbourne
Dragon Hotpot’s ma la tang
The ma la tang boom of 2018 was an intense one. Streamlined into a single bowl for the solo diner, this variation of Sichuan hotpot lets you control the fun, putting the tongs and the decisions squarely in your hands.
Dragon Hotpot, various CBD locations
Colourful Yunnan’s small pot rice noodles
Crossing the Bridge noodles are a proud emblem of China’s Yunnan Province, but its small pot noodles deserve just as much attention: rice noodles and minced pork served in soup in a little clay pot for one.
Colourful Yunnan, 240 Swanston St, Melbourne
Dolan Uyghur Food Heaven’s da pan ji
Stewed chicken, potatoes and capsicum with a hint of Sichuan pepper served on stretchy wide wheat noodles. Things get hearty quickly out in China’s west: da pan ji, or “big plate chicken”, is exhibit A.
Dolan Uyghur Food Heaven, 382 Lonsdale St, Melbourne
Flower Drum’s Bar
Melbourne’s grand dame of Cantonese added an exceptional bar last year, not that you needed another reason to visit.
Flower Drum, 17 Market Ln, Melbourne
No1 Delicious Hotpot & BBQ’s Beijing hotpot
Beijing’s lighter interpretation of hotpot happens in an ornate copper pot and puts lamb front and centre; Carlton’s No1 Delicious is the spot if you need a break from the fizz of the Sichuan peppercorn.
No1 Delicious Hotpot & BBQ, 551 Swanston St, Carlton
Panda Hotpot’s Sichuan hotpot
There was an outpouring of grief in theatre dinner circles when Dracula’s went down, but it was ultimately for the better. Reborn as a Panda Hotpot, dinner is accompanied by a live gu qin player and Sichuan Opera face-changing demonstrations. The time-honoured tradition of dinner and a show lives on in these cavernous digs.
Panda Hotpot, 100 Victoria St, Carlton
Lanzhou Beef Noodle Bar’s shredded tofu skin
Because sometimes all you need is a simple plate of shredded tofu skin. A great grab and go.
Lanzhou Beef Noodle Bar, 379 Elizabeth St, Melbourne
RuYi’s numbing beef
One of the flagship dishes at the modern Chinese powerhouse, this beautifully presented, Sichuan peppercorn-imbued beef will numb both your pain and your lips.
RuYi Modern Chinese, 16 Liverpool St, Melbourne
Biang Biang’s biang biang mian
It took one of the most stroke-intensive characters in the Chinese language to describe the sheer deliciousness of biang biang mian, Shaanxi Province’s trending belt noodles. Top them with stewed pork and wash them down with a bei bing yang – China’s favourite orange soda.
Biang Biang, 419 Elizabeth St, Melbourne
Hi Chong Qing’s wan za mian
Yellow peas, minced pork and preserved vegetables do the heavy lifting in our favourite iteration of Chongqing’s spicy “small” noodle series.
Hi Chong Qing, UniLodge, D2/26 Orr St, Carlton
Crystal Jade’s wok-fried snow crab in French foie gras paste
If you guessed that Crystal Jade’s wok-fried snow crab in French foie gras paste was created in the ’90s, you would be correct. Start the day the sumptuous way at the top end of Chinatown.
Din Tai Fung’s airy atmosphere
We could single out the xiao long bao, the siu mai or the potstickers, but the Emporium restaurant’s breezy top-floor ambience might be its greatest appeal. Eat it up.
Din Tai Fung, Emporium Shopping Centre, Level 4, 287 Lonsdale St, Melbourne
Bamboo House’s Peking duck
A Little Bourke Street mainstay since 1984, this is the duck that you want in and around your pancake.
Bamboo House, 47 Little Bourke St, Melbourne
Shaxian’s dry noodle with peanut sauce
Fujianese snack chain Shaxian Delicacies is one of the most omnipresent sights in China. Bourke Street’s Shaxian Snacks is slightly different in name, but the vibe is similar and the peanut sauce noodles are a winner.
Shaxian Snacks, 220 Bourke St, Melbourne
Tang’s huang fei hong peanuts
We could have suggested many items from this comprehensive pan-Asian supermarket, but there’s simply no beer snack in the west that shakes it with China’s Sichuan peppercorn-spiked huang fei hong peanuts.
Tang, 185 Russell St, Melbourne
Dao Noodle’s dao xiao mian
Wheat noodles cut fast from a stiff brick of dough, dao xiao mian are the poster eats of single-A Shanxi Province, and weave all manner of magic under Dao Noodle’s fortifying chicken gravy.
Dao Noodle, 397 Little Lonsdale St, Melbourne
Little Sichuan’s dry hotpot
Friend of malatang, the Sichuan hotpot for one, dry hotpot sees your ingredients friend and served sans soup. Get into it at Dainty Sichuan’s ma la tang spot, Little Sichuan.
Little Sichuan, 27 Red Cape Ln, Melbourne
Rising Embers’ spice mix
The Dainty Sichuan group’s foray into barbecue has been a popular one, a fever dream of wagyu and chuan’r where everything takes a turn in a devilishly addictive house spice mix.
Rising Embers, Level 1/139 Little Bourke St, Melbourne
The Best Guilin Rice Noodles’ house Guilin rice noodle
A hit from the comparatively light southern Chinese noodlesphere, the house rice noodle soup here comes with crisp pork belly, poached beef, pig stomach, pickled green beans, and boiled peanuts.
The Best Guilin Rice Noodles, 72 Victoria St, Carlton
Tim Ho Wan’s pork ribs with blackbean sauce
At a paltry $8 a plate, Tim Ho Wan’s pork ribs with blackbean sauce is a deliciously affordable way to honour the incoming Tiger.
Tim Ho Wan, 72 Victoria St, Carlton
Kwafood chuan’r on Swanston
Stick, meet meat, meat, meet mouth. Quick chuan’r bagged to take away.
Kwafood Fried Chuan, RMIT University Melbourne City Campus
Sichuan House’s dan dan mian
The off-menu dan dan noodles at Sichuan House are a joy, but they are not available at all times. For your best chance, try between midday and 2pm – you’ll be glad you did.
Sichuan House, 22-26 Corrs Ln, Melbourne
Wow Crepes’ jian bing
Another jewel of the Kmart Centre, this could well be the city’s best jian bing – a northeast Chinese breakfast crepe filled with a crisp fried cracker and most of what your heart desires.
Wow Crepes, Kmart Centre, Bourke St, Melbourne
Xi’an Famous Snack’s rou jia mo
The ancient pulled pork burger of Shaanxi Province is essential snacking on Russell Street.
Xi’an Famous Snacks, 260 Russell St, Melbourne
Taste Hunan’s fried minced pork with sour beans
Hunan Province has a reputation for extreme chilli consumption. Put your tongue to the test at Taste Hunan, and order yourself a plate of flagship fried minced pork with sour beans while you’re at it.
Taste Hunan, Tivoli Arcade, 24/235 Bourke St, Melbourne
Niubi’s fish head curry
Heffernan Lane’s pan-Asian eatery is doing things differently, including giving themselves a Chinese name that does not bear translating, nor should be uttered aloud in polite Chinese-speaking company. Great curry, though.
Niubi, 11 Heffernan Ln, Melbourne
Wu Mi Zhou’s porridge hotpot
Plunge your fish into a scalding cauldron of porridge and tell us the foodways of China’s southeast are no fun.
Wu Mi Zhou, 111 Lonsdale St, Melbourne
Nam Loong’s char siu bao
When the hankering for Cantonese steamed bao strikes, Melbourne has for generations made a beeline for Nam Loong Chinese Restaurant.
Nam Loong, 223 Russell St, Melbourne
Magic Cuisine’s husband and wife salad
A salad of braised tripe and pigs ears in a spicy chilli oil that gets theseal of approval from Lee Ho Fook’s Victor Liong.
Magic Cuisine, 331 La Trobe St, Melbourne
Dainty Sichuan’s mouth-watering chicken
If you haven’t had it, allow the group that introduced Sichuan to Melbourne to introduce you to mouth-watering chicken, a stone-cold Sichuan classic that offers welcome respite during a feisty hotpot session.
Dainty Sichuan, 237 Swanston St, Melbourne
Seafood Street’s fried rice
Fried rice. Ever heard of it? Get it here.
Seafood Street, 167 Russell St, Melbourne
*And the other 44? That’s the best part about Melbourne’s Chinatown: there’s always more to discover, and no better way than to get down there and explore it for yourself. Happy Year of the Tiger!
By Frank Sweet