The year is 2019, and I’m a dad with a two-year-old girl.
Once every two weeks ish, for various reasons - meeting clients, in-between shoots, after fixing the computer at Chika’s school, I’d find myself in the middle of the CBD, hungry, like a scene from the Japanese TV show The Lonely Gourmet.
What do I do? Where do I go?
Dainty Szechuan Noodle House
La Zi Ji aka Chong Qing style spicy chicken is a dish I can’t cook at home (and if I try my apartment block will smell like chili for the rest of the year). The dish is 20% chicken and 80% dried chili. Coupled with the tongue-numbing peppercorn, garlic and probably opium, the umami of this dish is off the roof.
I love La Zi Ji, but the only option was to go all the way to Dainty at South Yarra and order the main dish by myself, which is impossible (and kinda sad) for a modern dad in 2019.
So when I realised the Emporium basement branch offers a soup noodle option, it replaced ramen as my heart-stopping, my soul-warming, spirit-lifting dish.
I do not recommend having your first date here.
Also avoid if you have a client meeting after.
This dish will clear your sinus. The constant sniffing, drooling and wiping of the mixture of tears and sweat off your face is the norm. If you have suffered a trauma recently - be it the end of a relationship, work abuse, financial difficulty etc and need to cry it out, do it with this dish. No one will judge you.
For the longest time, this is the only place I'd spend money on in the CBD.
It’s cheaper than therapy.
Here’s a life pro tip: ask for the thick noodles for a better texture. Less chili bits to stick on.
Go Noodle House
Speaking of thick noodles, the antidote to the spicy La Zi Ji noodle, is the Pan Mee at Go Noodle House.
I'm not being racist here, but you do need to be Asian to decipher the menu at Go Noodle House.
I've missed count of the times I see a white family sitting down, having a look at the menu and walk out. Because they can’t find the dumplings, the spring rolls, the prawn crackers.
The menu has a flow chart of numbers and alphabets representing different dishes and toppings.
I tend to ignore everything and go for the only dish worth getting here: Pan Mee.
Pan Mee (literally translated as block noodles) has different reincarnations - Ban Mian, Mee Hoon Kueh, Dao Ma Chet, they’re variations of noodles served in rich anchovy broth, topped with ground pork, green leaves and more crispy anchovies.
My parents used to bring me to a dirty store next to the supermarket. Rooted in my memory, it’s why tsuke-men, and udon with their bonito stock resonate with me deeper than pork broth ramen. Truth be told if I were to ever open a ramen shop, this flavour will be my starting point.
But why bother? In the year 2019 I have Go Noodle House. They add a touch of rice wine into the broth which is an improvement. Superfluous? Sure, but I can live with it.
If you're there without me, just write down ‘501’, and 'X' for the thick noodle.
While you’re at it, write down ‘AD 00’ for the fish ball with explosive roe topping.
The year is 2019, and this is my favourite restaurant to bring friends to in the CBD. I’d be laughing five years ago if you told me I’ll be eating along the tourist end of Hardware Lane, but here we are.
With Dainty and Go there’s a chance that my company can’t handle spice, not fond of noodles, or are just plain racist. Everyone, EVERYONE - vegetarians, meat lovers, seafood enthusiasts, will find something at Miznon. It is a sneaky dirty-modern restaurant disguised as a trendy fast food eatery. If you don’t pay attention your wallet will suffer.
If you're going with friends, make sure one of you grab the table outside, because if you're stuck in the basement the loud music will make you feel like you're in a Abercrombie & Fitch store in the 90s. My theory is that everyone's high on drugs and the music is just to numb their sensations. Maybe I’m just old.
People usually go for the falafel or wagyu pita, but I'm a sucker for the golden fish. It's like a supercharged Fillet o' Fish (no offence to FOF, it's the golden standard of fish burger) - soft pita bread with its pocket filled with fried fish, egg with diced tomatoes and tartar sauce.
If your crowd is a big one, try the roasted whole baby cauliflower so you can say you've had it on Instagram. My best discovery is 'run over' - nicola potatoes smashed and flat pressed in (I think) a sandwich machine with butter, sour cream, garlic and herbs. They serve it on a torn bit of cardboard box, that's how cocky they are.
Cartel used to be Little Mule. I know because I shot Little Mule for Broadsheet. It’s not far from all the three places mentioned above, handy if you’re looking for an end of meal boisson. They're a roaster from Geelong, and the first to charge $5 for a flat white in Melbourne. The beans are super floral here, Chika said it's one of those things that once you get used to, you can't go back. So we treat this place as a treat.
It’s hidden in an alley, good coffee, and the staff leaves you alone.
Just right for a dad in 2019.