From local favourites to hip newcomers, this multinational mix of excellent budget restaurants reflects Melbourne’s diverse mix of people and cuisines
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The Moor’s Head
“Inauthentic pizza” is the catchcry at this pizzeria, which pairs thin, crisp Italian pizza bases with Middle Eastern toppings. Patrons can choose either a manoushé (Lebanese-style round pizza) or a pide (Turkish-style, boat-shaped pizza). As Melburnians have come to expect from Joseph Abboud, the chef/owner who also runs the lauded Levantine/Persian restaurant Rumi, the food here is superb. Popular pizzas include the “Golden Terrace”, with minced beef, fresh tomato, chilli, almond and lemon (A$19, around £11), and the “Omar Sharif” with three cheeses (twisted haloumi, feta and ashawan), nigella, soused onions and handfuls of fresh mint (A$17.50/£10.50). The drinks list features local and Lebanese beers, plus an arak (an anise-flavoured spirit) of the day, and the standout dessert is the fatayer pizzetta, filled with banana and halva.
• 2/774 High Street, Thornbury, +61 3 9484 0173, themoorshead.com
This tiny North Melbourne cafe is home to some of the very best cakes and sandwiches in town, thanks to the constantly creative owner/baker, Nat Paull. The ever-changing menu usually has three sandwiches to choose from (A$10-A$16/£6-£9.50), at least one of which is vegetarian, such as The Sydney Road (crispy cauliflower falafel, cucumber, sesame and coriander salad and labne), or The Fry-Day (mint crumbed flathead, with toasted almond aioli and pickled fennel). Gluten-free bread is available on request. The sweet baked goods are also a lavish affair, with specials such as red velvet quadruple layer cake, pink grapefruit éclairs, potato brioche doughnuts and Moroccan Snickers tarts. If it’s available, try The Elvis (A$6/£3.50), a truly outrageous mega-cupcake made from banana buttercake, peanut-butter buttercream and smoky bacon praline.
• 688 Queensberry St, +61 3 9090 7301, facebook.com/BeatrixBakes
Gypsey & Musquito
Named after a notorious English Australian and indigenous Australian bushranger duo from the 1820s, this cosy cafe in Richmond serves all-day breakfasts, seven days a week. What sets it apart is the savvy use of native Australian ingredients on the menu, from finger limes to riberry confit to lemon myrtle hollandaise. Select the open omelette with double hot smoked salmon and native saltbush (A$17.50/£10.50), or keep things simple with eggs and a sausage (A$13.50/£8) – there’s camel, emu, wallaby or crocodile sausage to choose from. In addition to coffee there are six varieties of bush tea to try, and be sure to leave some room for a lamington from the sweets counter.
• 382 Bridge Road, Richmond, +61 3 9939 9314, gypseyandmusquito.com.au
The Mexican culinary wave sweeping the globe has made its mark in Melbourne, with what seems to be a new taquería opening every other week. But nobody does it better than La Tortillería, which makes tortillas according to the traditional Aztec nixtamal method, by lime-soaking and stone-grinding fresh wholegrain corn, then baking the masa on-site before your eyes (rather than by making a dough from processed corn flour and water). The process results in terrifically tasty tortillas, which can be purchased on their own to take home, or enjoyed in the adjacent small cantina as tacos, sopes and quesadillas (A$4.50–A$6.50 each). The share platter for two costs A$40 (£24) and incorporates just about everything on the menu.
• 72 Stubbs Street, Kensington, +61 3 9376 5577, latortilleria.com.au
Opening last year in Melbourne on the strength of two wildly successful sister restaurants in Sydney, this 100-seater Malaysian restaurant in the central business district serves hawker food at attractive prices, with nothing on the menu over A$20 (£12). The nasi lemak, satay and curries all punch above their weight, but the star attraction is the roti. There’s a cadre of kitchen staff stretching, flinging and cooking the stuff in the front window, and the menu has ten roti varieties (savoury and sweet) to choose from. The roti canai (A$5.50) is just about perfect: crisp and flaky on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside. Finish your meal with either the delicate and impressively conical roti tissu (A$10/£6), or the roti kaya, filled with pandan coconut jam (A$8/£5).
• 366 Lonsdale Street, +61 3 9670 3137, mamak.com.au
Run by Thailand-born Pla and her Aussie partner David, Middle Fish is a charming daytime cafe near Melbourne University serving authentic southern Thai fare. Located in a beautiful open-fronted, high-ceilinged warehouse studded with artworks by contemporary Thai artists, Middle Fish keeps things simple and friendly. Street snacks, such as tamarind pork-neck skewers and tiger-prawn spring rolls, start from A$6. Of the larger dishes, the A$16.50 (£10) kang prik (slow-cooked pork ribs and vegetables in a spicy curry broth with Thai ‘slaw), using a family recipe from Pla’s home town, comes highly recommended. If Thai tea with sweetened condensed milk isn’t your thing, there’s excellent coffee from reputable local roasters on hand too.
• 122-128 Berkeley Street, Carlton, +61 3 9348 1704, middlefish.com.au
Moroccan Soup Bar
A Melbourne institution for decades, the Moroccan Soup Bar is a mass of contradictions. Soup is in the name but rarely on the menu, and it’s called a bar despite the absence of alcohol. It also doesn’t take bookings (and it’s almost always packed, so best to get there early or late), and the strictly vegetarian menu is given verbally over a glass of mint tea. What brings the punters back time after time is the reliably good, cheap North African food. Most patrons opt for the A$20-a-head, three-course banquet of dips and other starters, followed by a selection of filling mains and sweets with strong coffee. The cult favourite dish is the chickpea bake, a rich, crunchy, comforting bowl of grilled flatbread, boiled chickpeas, tahini yoghurt, almonds and an abundance of butter.
• 183 St Georges Road, Fitzroy North, +61 3 9482 4240, moroccansoupbar.mobi
Rockwell & Sons
North Carolina native Casey Wall’s cooking credentials include The Spotted Pig and Le Cirque in New York. A twist of fate brought the chef to Melbourne and last year he opened his first venue, on Melbourne’s hippest restaurant strip. Rockwell & Sons blends high-end know-how and respect for local produce with reasonably priced American comfort food and a rocking booze list. Ease your way into proceedings with beers and starters: the crispy confit duck wings with red dragon sauce (A$12/£7) are great for sharing, as are the hand-cut fries with malt vinegar aioli (A$6/£3.50). If you can look past the double-patty smash burger (A$10/£6), the Maine-style poached tiger prawn roll with Kewpie tartare (A$11/£6.50) also goes down an absolute treat.
• 288 Smith Street, Collingwood, +61 3 8415 0700, rockwellandsons.com.au
Tucked into a nondescript Chinatown shopping arcade, Shandong MaMa specialises in dumplings. The eponymous Mama, Meiyan Wang, hails from Yan Tai in east China and she makes many of the dumplings from scratch. Most notable are the Yan Tai fish dumplings, Shandong MaMa’s signature dish: fresh mackerel fillets hand-whipped into a mousse, combined with coriander, ginger and chives, wrapped in thin casings and either boiled or fried (A$14.80/£9 for 10). Other menu highlights include the jellyfish and lightly pickled cabbage salad (A$6.80/£4), equal parts crunchy and chewy, and the scallion pancakes (A$6.80 for two), which are little coiled masterpieces of crisp pastry tendrils.
• Mid City Arcade Shop 7, 200 Bourke Street, +61 3 9650 3818, facebook.com/shandongmama
Thanh Ha 2
Melbourne’s Vietnamese restaurants are concentrated in Springvale and Footscray, and along Richmond’s Victoria Street, in dozens of inexpensive restaurants with laminate table tops. An overlooked gem is Thanh Ha 2, which continues to be so named despite the fact that Thanh Ha 1 no longer exists. The voluminous menu features pho and many other street food favourites, including bò lá lốt (beef wrapped in betel leaves, A$9/£5.50) and bánh cuốn (steamed rice paper cakes, A$12.50/£7.50). However the standout dish is the bánh xèo tôm thịt (A$17/£10), a simply enormous rice flour and turmeric crepe, crammed with juicy pork, prawns, bean shoots and vegetables. Break it into pieces, wrap them in lettuce leaves and mint, and dip them in nước mắm (fish sauce) for the full experience.
• 120 Victoria St, Richmond, +61 3 9421 6219
Claire Davie is the author of the Melbourne Gastronome website and co-wrote the recently published Deck of Secrets guide New Gourmet Melbourne.
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