We always said if we ever found a city with Philadelphia’s layout and San Francisco’s weather, we’d move there in a heartbeat. Little did we know that’d require moving to the opposite side of the world to Australia’s hippest city, Melbourne.
We arrived in-style, fresh from Sydney after a perfectly executed 2-hour nap, starting before we took off and ending upon landing. We checked into our hostel within the CBD, Central Business District, a perfect rectangular shaped grid, eight blocks wide by four high. Trams run in just about every direction but walking is easy enough unless you’re trying to get a bit out of “town” to visit some of the cool suburbs like Fitzroy and Collingwood for art, music and beer or South Yarra for high-end fashion and what would become our favorite restaurant. We knew before arriving this was our kind of town as one of the few things on television worth watching, Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, had just done a special on Melbourne, and it had our mouths watering. Whenever you build a city with immigrants from all over the world, you’re sure to find the Peanut Butter Nomads, fork, knife, spoon, chopstick, or freehand, ready to dig in. Flush with some extra cash after a stellar month at my company, we proposed to spend a little extra and put ‘ol Bourdain to the true test. We were going to follow in his footsteps, within reason of course, as it was unlikely we’d be getting tasting menus at the city’s most lauded kitchens, and see if the author was just full of fluff or really did make good suggestions and recommendations on his show.
But first, we needed to cure a craving, get this food exploration started right, and we knew this was just the spot to do it.
Melbourne has one of the oldest, biggest and best Chinatowns in the world and since these days Chinatown is really just a name, you’re sure to find several Korean, Thai, Burmese and our favorite, Vietnamese joints. Here, they’re serving up hot, delicious, and unbelievably nutritious Pho. We quickly scoured UrbanSpoon for reviews and made our way to Mekong Vietnamese by 10 am. The sign out front alerted us we were home where it proudly advertised that “President Bill Clinton Had Two Bowls. How many can you have?” We sat down, the only non-Asians in the half-packed restaurant, a surefire good sign for what’s to come, and ordered our Pho Tai, the classic albeit less adventurous rice noodle soup, having only thinly sliced rare beef as opposed to the tripe, brisket and intestine versions. I ordered my beef rare on the side as usual, as I like to cook it myself like at a hot pot in Hong Kong. Out came the steaming beef broth, flavored perfectly with onion, cilantro, garlic and five spice, soaking up the heap of rice vermicelli below. In went the beef, fresh bean sprouts, hot chilis, basil, sriracha, hoisin and two wedges of lemon juice to taste before the orchestrated massacre began. Chopsticks in my right, short-handled spoon in my left, chin down, lips moistened for the added layer of protection against heat contact, eyes in zen-like meditation for the next perfect bite – the hand-eye coordination in perfect harmony – whilst the surgical strike began, and didn’t end until every last drop was gone. In
between slurps and mmm’s, Erin and I smile at each other with our eyes, both knowing this is exactly what we needed and what we had so sorely missed. It’s a perfect meal for any occasion and at $8, a great value in typically over-priced Australia. Plus, slick Willy had two bowls here. No wonder he was a lard-ass. We were dreadfully full after one bowl but more importantly, were already starting to think about lunch.
In the Northwest corner of the grid is the Queen Victoria Market, hands-down the best market I’ve ever visited. Though my Philly pride is ripping at the seams to argue that Reading Terminal Market is better, I’ve got to lean here towards the Southern Hemisphere. Bourdain was here, chowing down on bratwurst sandos, but first, allow me to explain this beautiful monstrosity in all of its perfect foodie (and more) glory. There’s an organic and an old-fashioned produce section. There’s sections for seafood and sections for meat. There’s a crappy, cheap Chinese goods like clothes and souvenir sections. There’s the food court, with a nice spattering of quality lunchtime restaurants. And then there’s the deli sections ranging from Polish, Italian, German and Jewish; basically the best ones but all in one place (er, kinda like the USA in general.) Imagine grabbing a fresh kielbasa, perfectly dried genoa salami, crispy-skinned bratwursts and a pound of corned beef, all within footsteps of each other. Selection is one thing but pricing is a whole ‘nutha ball game. Typically with markets like this, you’re lucky to get one stall for each type of cuisine, but here’s where glorious Queen Vic is oh-so-different. There’s plenty of each category. Twenty meat vendors and twenty fish vendors all selling exactly the same thing. Fifteen different farmers and ten different organic farmers. Four different polish delis, five German, and so on. Artisan Chocalatiers. Cheeseries. Candy. Coffee. And more. What does this all mean?
Competition! And when you have lots of competition, you get low prices. Really low prices. And to make it even better, these guys and gals are really anxious to sell to you, too, and are yelling out deals of the century every minute! The market typically closes at 2:00 so if you’re smart enough to be doing your shopping starting around 1:15, you’re sure to hear all sorts of deals like: “Any tray of meat for $10; first one up here gets it!” they scream. “5 kilos of cherries for ten bucks!” “Buy one get one!” “Free, free, free!” And then they start to compete with each other. Joe Schmo is yelling a sale for $3 ribeyes? Pattie McButcher is selling it for $2.50, right next door! But actually, that’s the beautiful thing about the food optiions in Melbourne; they’re plentiful, they’re locally grown, and they’re priced pretty damn well. Probably because they’re buying their produce and meat from all the local farmers in the lush, fertile land surrounding the city; the same farmers that are bringing their goods into Queen Vic Market.
Onto the Bratwurst. In the deli section, right around the corner from the free wine tastings that we somehow managed to sniff out, is a simple joint that specialized in Bratwurst and so has an aptly named establishment called Melbourne Bratwurst. Slick. And the word has definitely gotten out; there’s a line because they’re damn good. Crispy skin, several different styles, 8 different kinds of mustard, freshly made kraut and most importantly, fresh baked bread that can hold up to the goods inside without breaking down. Schneids and I buckled down,
sat down, and chowed down and we were off to a good start with Bourdain’s first recommendation. Hopefully this was an indication of things to come and swore we’d eat at the Queen Vic Market as much as possible for the rest of our trip. Bourdain is batting 1.000.
For dinner, we pinched a ride on the No. 8 Tram down to South Yarra for Bourdain’s second recommendation, Dainty Sichuan. We’ve all tried Sichuan cuisine before I’m sure, getting hopped up on some over-sugared crap from the local Panda Express, Hong Kong Pearl, or one of its many equivalents. “This is real Sichuan just like they make in Sichuan,” Bourdain coaxed and we were excited to finally try the real deal. Entering the restaurant at around 5:30, we were surprised at how packed the restaurant was at this early hour. Plus, much to our delight, we were yet again surrounded by Asians and the smell was overwhelming. Spice. Strong, deep, and overpowering but pleasant and alluring. Our eyes soon began to water, joining our mouths that had already begun at first whiff. We were soon seated at a table upstairs and presented with a large menu, opting for three dishes to share. Crispy Broadbeans, Mouth-watering Chicken, and Bourdain’s much lauded, Fish Flavored Eggplant. We anxiously waited for the food to come out, our stomachs growling in anticipation. Looking around the restaurant, we realized that over 80% of the tables had a large bottle of soy milk on their table, and after my last foolish attempt at treating fire mouth from stupid-spicy wings at BW3’s with ice and cold water ended miserably, we decided to join the lip, tongue, mouth, throat and stomach-coated soy-drinking crowd. The dishes came out simultaneously and with our individual bowls of white rice and chopsticks in hand, we
dug in. The Crispy Broadbeans lived up to their name. They were crispy, and spicy. But sichuan pepper isn’t spicy like a habanero or jalepeno pepper. It’s spicy in a long, overdrawn way. The one where you have to keep eating, and fast, before it catches up to you, placing you in agonizing pain. It gets your salivary glands firing on all cylinders, screaming and yelling, running for the exits with their hair on fire. But, it’s oh-so-nice and each crunchy bite was better and better. The mouth-watering chicken was even spicier, basically because of additional Sichuan pepper but the ultimate dish was the Fish Flavored Eggplant. “I could eat this every day,” Erin said. We knew it sounded less than desirable. Fish flavored eggplant? Really? But wow, it’s out of this world. They slice the eggplant, dip it in fish sauce, and saute until half-cooked, rolling in sugar, re-dipping in fish sauce before finishing. It was addicting, spicy, and just perfect. Bourdain, you’re good. Damn good. Thank you. Still batting 1.000, Bourdain.
Cat flew into Melbourne to spend some time with us before going to her cousin’s wedding near Canberra and we pinched tram 19 up to Sydney Road for the A1 Lebanese Bakery, for what would be Bourdain’s final
recommendation. First was a zatar pide. Zatar, the glorious Middle-Eastern concoction of oregano, two types of thyme, sesame and salt, then spread thickly on top of seasoned dough, folded in half and baked in a wood-fired oven. All for $1.50? Wow. Fantastic. Haloumi cheese pizza, anyone? The Cypriot special, we like to call it, haloumi is the mild, yet heavily salted cheese from ewes made famous in the eastern Mediterranean. Seasoned lamb calzone? No explanation needed there but yes, yes, and yes, we’ll take them all! All in, we each spent $4 too, which is about as cheap as you’ll find in Australia. All were incredible and we were convinced (not that we ever really doubted) that Anthony Bourdain is the real deal. If he’s featuring it on his show, it’s damn good food. Can’t wait to follow in his footsteps throughout the world. I’d better go for a run to burn off some of these extra Ell Bees I’m packing on.
Cat said we had a surprise the following night, a wedding gift from her mother and father, Kay and Des. With that in mind, we hit the streets to celebrate our good fortune, toured around famous Hosier Lane, the mecca for Melbourne’s famous street art, before beginning a long night sampling the night life until the wee hours of the morning. The next morning we lazed about and I went to watch the Eagles game while Erin continued studying and Cat napped (haha, cat napped, I never thought of that one!) We made our way to the surprise and before long and much to our amazement, the Melbourne Restaurant Tram pulled up and we boarded to learn we would embark on a three-and-a-half hour rail tour of Melbourne while enjoying a five-course meal and an open bar! Champagne, wine, cocktails and digestives. Pate and bread to start. A rocket and goat cheese salad. Local cheese, from mild to my favorite, an amazing veiny bleu. Rabbit and a filet mignon, both cooked to perfection. And finally, dessert, a chocolate and white mousse parfait. Unreal! And as if Kay hadn’t already gone out of her way to accommodate us while in Noosa, she and her hubby treated us to a wonderful night. The only thing that could’ve
made it better is if Kay was able to join us herself. But the gift meant so much to us all and we cannot thank her enough. Thank you, Kay and Des!!!
For backpackers, we sure were grateful to have had such an amazing experience in Melbourne, from following the food expertise of Anthony Bourdain to enjoying the nightlife, receiving a wonderful gift from Cat’s family and most importantly, hanging with our great friend Cat one more time. And if it couldn’t get any better, after 10 weeks of hard studying, Erin took the GRE on our final night and we celebrated with wine and one more trip to Dainty Sichuan for the fish-flavored eggplant. Don’t worry, we still paired it with soy milk.
Next stop, Queenstown, New Zealand, the adventure capital of the world!