Thanks to some Melbourne miracle, the sun stayed out all day and truly worked its magic on the first day of the Age Good Food Month Night Noodle Markets. On my way out of Flinders Street Station, I was met with a relaxed, sun-drunk crowd on their way to the Royal Botanical Gardens to have their taste buds taken on a whirlwind tour around Asia.
Busy is an understatement – when I first arrived around 6:30pm, I was told the event had already reached maximum capacity, with queues for the stalls already estimated at one hour.
Obviously there was no way I was leaving, so I wandered around the grassy area known as the Lantern Garden, just near the markets’ entrance. A handful of food trucks were parked there, including Let’s Do Yum Cha, Lil Nom Noms, the Ghost Kitchen, the Banh Mi Boys and Bean Rollin’. The lines for these were incredibly long as well, but a cluster of beautiful bright paper lanterns hovering above the small seating area created a lovely spot to have a well-deserved Banh Mi and Vietnamese iced coffee.
We were allowed in after only waiting 15 minutes, which I spent happily looking around the beautiful flower beds of the botanical gardens.
Walking through the crowds, it struck me just how many different types of people this event attracted. Couples, groups of friends young and old, families with little ones clutching satay sticks for dear life with their chubby little hands, and others relaxing with their four legged friends on the grass, sitting back with cold beers in their hands while they bopped along to chilled afternoon beats.
After assessing the waiting line situation for pretty much every stall, I decided to split the team in half so we could manage to sample the cuisine from at least two places. I lined up at Wonderbao, one of Melbourne’s top 10 best eats under $10 which serves up classic Asian street snacks, and my partner went with Thanh Phong, a Melbourne favourite offering authentic Vietnamese flavours.
We both waited in line for roughly 40 minutes, during which I endured the gut dropping feeling of watching more and more items get crossed off the menu as they sold out. My planned order of the “Carnibao” ($16) – including char siu, chicken bao, BBQ cumin chicken and twice cooked pork belly gia bao – was swapped for the “Traditional Wonders” ($13) – char siu bao, chicken bao, choi bao and nai wong bao.
Luckily the gua bao of “fried silky tofu with green papaya salad and crushed peanuts” ($5) was still being churned out – it was the dish of the night. A generous chunk of fried, juicy tofu combined with the freshness of the papaya salad, the crunch of peanuts and a perfect amount of salty soy sauce, all laid snugly in a soft bun soaking up all the juices – the perfect handheld treat for the hungry market goers. My dining partner described it perfectly as a savoury marshmallow, but better!
The custard bun from our “Traditional Wonders” box was a surprise – it’s something I would never have chosen had my first option been available. But let me tell you, nothing tastes as delicious as something you were not expecting to like but end up enjoying so much you want another one straight away – if it wasn’t for the 40 minute line up. If you’re a custard fan, definitely get your hands on one (or three) of these soft, dense custard filled clouds.
From Thanh Phong, we got prawn and pork rice paper rolls ($3), pork spring rolls ($2) and beef wrapped in betel leaf ($6), which we ordered after seeing others holding the distinctive skewer. Flavourful beef wrapped in betel leaf came as five little cigars on a skewer, topped with crushed peanuts – and we devoured them. The skewer allowed for a neat and easy eating experience, as well as a tasty one of course!
We managed to get in to Gelato Messina just before they closed and were rewarded with a bucket sized serving of the pun-tastic “En-thai-sing”, a sundae of Pandan coconut sorbet, sticky rice, fresh mango and salted coconut cream ($9). It was the perfect size to share, and the perfect way to end a night at the Night Noodle Markets.
Bite sized tips:
* Before heading to the markets, look up the stalls and choose a handful you want to try. This will save you time and allow you to line up quickly!
* Bring a rug to sit on so you can spread your feast out and get comfortable.
* Get there early!
Gabriela Palestra-Depasse is a Melbourne and Sydney-based food writer who loves to discover all the foodie treasures these cities have to offer. Read more about her culinary adventures at her blog, whenwhereyum.tumblr.com.