Go out and stay wealthy at these cheap-eat gems
There aren’t a lot of places you can get a traditional kha-nom jeen nam ya (fermented rice noodles and fish curry sauce, $14.50) partnered with a coffee for breakfast. Don’t let the industrial exterior fool you – inside it’s decked out in Thai splendour: a spacious barn of brightly coloured cushions and shining silverware. Thai expat Sri Siriporn sells Thai cooking products too, so you could really skimp and DIY at home. Carlton.
The grand old dame of Melbourne’s restaurant scene offers comfort food at comfort prices (unless you’re gluten intolerant, then you shall seek little comfort here). There’s something special about sitting at a 70-year-old bench on a 70-year-old stool and looking at a 70-year-old menu while you shovel into a sliding colossus of lasagne ($16). We recommend it highly. A white shirt, not so much. Melbourne.
The average meal here pulls in at six damn dollars. That’s chump change. Formica tables spill out of the restaurant, over Port Phillip Arcade and into the shopfront across the road. You can’t miss it. Order at the counter, get your giant plastic number, some chopsticks and stand by to tackle steamy wonton soup ($6), slick chilli-laden pork noodles ($6) or the incredibly popular fried chicken steak on rice – not unlike a Chinese parma and no more than, yep, $6. Melbourne.
DonToo rocks super-quick rice-based Japanese food by day (bento boxes and curries mostly) and sticky, porky ramen soup by night. And at between $8-$10 per bowl and $5 bucks per beer you can pay for your date too. Make yourself comfortable on the long wooden bench table in the front room (great for people watching). The second dining room fills fast so you should aim to be part of the first or last 20 through the door to avoid a wait. Melbourne.
Don’t you dare order the main-size mixed grill, because here at the Croatian Club, you can’t shake the feeling that baba is waiting in the kitchen with her rolling pin if you don’t clean your plate. Even the entrée size is a behemoth ($18.90). It’s comprised of cevapcici (fat, skinless sausages), raznjici (tender pork pieces), lightly cooked capsicum and onion, zingy cabbage salad and an avalanche of chips. Footscray.
These sister venues don’t just have cheeky names, they have $4 pizzas too. Choose from 20 on offer like the bianca al pomodoro: a thin-crust base with a price-defying helping of mascarpone, feta and mozzarella and a last-minute addition of guilt-easing cherry tomatoes. Even at full price (around $10) it’s still a steal. Fitzroy.
This Korean diner is at its cheap best when you take a lot of people – that way you can get a keg of beer to share ($42 for four litres) and a whole chook for $30 (original, soy-garlic or sweet chilli coated), which will feed three to four depending on gluttony levels. A shower in the toilet, haphazard service and widespread wearing of bibs sets the low-key good-times tone. Melbourne.
Purple Peanuts does excellent brown rice sushi ($2.50) – fresh, tightly wrapped nori rolls with added vitamin B. If that’s too healthy for you, check out the Japanese take on a burger: a slab of fried chicken marinated in soy, ginger and sake, and whacked in a Turkish bread bun ($10.50). The café is helpfully open into the early evening for late office workers and famished Virgin gym attendees. Spot it a tram stop away by the line out the door. Melbourne.
African gnocchi? Put that eyebrow down – this tiny, bright restaurant specialises in Euro-Afro combos. Their toasted barley flour gnocchi ($10.95) is a winning cross-cultural mash-up. Light and pillowy with a slight graininess, the little puffs are draped in a rich, creamy red sauce loaded with berbere, an Ethiopian magic fairy dust of heady, warm spices. Seddon.
A new Yim Yam outlet has recently sprouted up in already swollen Smith Street, taking over an old shopfront and its downstairs garage area to bring you over 100 Thai and Lao favourites like Chiang Mai noodles – a near bottomless bowl of creamy coconut, egg noodles with poached chicken, eggplant and carrot for $12.90. It’s BYO only for all liquids except water, so expect to over-order and under-spend. Collingwood.
Grab a friend or a bystander. Conversation won’t matter – you’ll be too busy stuffing yourself with the cavalcade of dishes that is the two-person banquet at Woo Ga ($39 for two). Load up on unlimited banchan (little side dishes like fermented cabbage kimchi or sesame-dotted veggies), before getting stuck into three cuts of beef cooked on your own individual charcoal grill. Squeeze in your miso and veggie hotpot before rolling all the way home. North Melbourne.
Why didn’t Melbourne cotton onto Spain’s awesome edible honesty system sooner? Help yourself to pintxos (pronounced pin-choss), $2 snack sized slices of baguette impaled with toothpicks holding tasty morsels like octopus, waves of house cured salmon or air-dried ham. Eat, repeat and tally the toothpicks at the end to calculate your bill. At lunch, they can be as cheap as 80 cents a morsel, which leaves you extra cash for their house-infused vodka. Fitzroy.
Yum cha is always a cheap win, and at Gold Leaf a battle of the trolley dollies takes place under the chandeliers. Go the har gao – steamed prawn dumplings like chubby baby cheeks ($5.90); ham sui gok – golden torpedoes of pork and mushroom mince ($4.90) and keep your eyes peeled for the deep-fried squid bearer. Stay vigilant, remember that no means no, and delicious victory is assured. Burwood East.
At Tiba’s you’ll barely crack a twenty for platter of hoummus, tabouleh, yoghurt, rice, pickled turnip, and the fresh felafel that are crisp on the outside and silky soft on the inside. Drop another couple of dollars for a skewer of halal lamb or a plate of dolmades and you’re set. It’s alcohol-free and family friendly, so go early if you’ve got brats, or, skip the first sitting if you’re not a little-person person. Brunswick.
Like her many-limbed Indian goddess namesake, North Carlton’s Lakshmi has her hands busy stirring many pots, be they Malaysian Nonya chicken, Thai papaya salads or Sri Lankan curries. Salivate over South Indian lamb so tender you can cut it with a teaspoon. As part of a thali platter with dhal, raita, pickle, chutney, salad, poppadoms and rice, it’s enough for two and only $18.90. BYO and the serene decor make this is an ace cheap date place. Carlton North.
Set sail for this high-energy neighbourhood hot spot. It blows typical seedy fish and chippers out of the water. Chargrilled calamari is the pick ($14.70): thick yet tender twists, marinated in citrus and herbs, and blackened attractively on the grill. Be virtuous and have it on nutty brown rice with a punchy Greek salad on the side. A plain burger is just $5.90. Port Melbourne.
We dig a bold title, and we do indeed bow down to Laksa King as the ruling monarch of noodle soup. The broth’s so warm and creamy you’ll want to slip right in. The combination laksa ($9.80) has you gobbling up springy Hokkien noodles and al dente rice vermicelli while you work your way through choice toppings including tender poached chicken, silky fried eggplant and jewel-like pink prawns. Flemington.
Join travellers, starving students and St Kilda locals around the open kitchen, where the menu has no prices and the good vibes no bounds. Pay what you can for the array of vegetarian curries, cakes, salads and bakes. The okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) is a local favourite, lacy around the edges, studded with shredded vegies and generously squiggled with vegan mayo and sweet chilli sauce. Peace, love and lentils all round. St Kilda.
What could be better than lemongrass-rubbed beef ($10) atop a hillock of rice noodles, crowned with a snowcap of roasted peanuts? Why, that same warm salad with a Fluffy Duck on the side, that’s what! New Wind do Vietnamese, Thai and a so-bad-they’re-good range of retro cocktails like Fruit Tingles and Orgasms, all winningly served in obscure glassware (your Martini comes in a cup with a straw) and costing less than eight bucks. Windsor.
When you’ve got no beef with the Earth and no cash to boot, hit Trippy Tacos for a vegetarian or vegan Mex-fest. A cool tenner buys you a twohands-required burrito rammed with black beans, salad, tofu and avocado. Add some cheese, grab a $6 glass of sangria, and settle in amongst the trippy orange decor for the live music sessions. Fitzroy.