Review: Tasty BBQ Chinese Cafe, Bentleigh

Growing up, I always felt like an ‘other’, like someone who didn’t belong at the local primary school in her wealthy predominantly Anglo-Saxon neighbourhood. The only reason I was there after all, was because my parents ran a takeaway shop in the area, and we lived in a apartment above the shop…a far cry from my schoolmates who went home to sprawling four bedroom houses with three bathrooms, two living areas, large gardens and a pool in the backyard.

It’s only as I’ve gotten older and started seeking out stories from other migrant children that I’ve realised I wasn’t so special after all. Reading the work of authors like Benjamin Law and Alice Pung and watching shows like The Family Law and Fresh Off The Boat has made it clear that my experience and all the associated feelings of inadequacy are very common to the experience of Growing Up Asian in Australia (which coincidentally, is a fantastic book).

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I’m starting to learn to embrace my Chinese heritage. I learnt Mandarin in university, I seek out books about Chinese history, I read articles about modern China. I’ve told K that I intend on giving our children Chinese names, and of course, they’ll also have to attend Chinese school on the weekends no matter how much they protest.

The most immediately rewarding aspect is of course, embracing all that’s to love about Chinese food in all its different varieties! Our whole family recently met up with my aunt and uncle in one of their new local favourites – Tasty BBQ Chinese Cafe in Bentleigh.

Bentleigh may not be the first suburb you think of when you think of Chinese BBQ meats. Other suburbs like Glen Waverley, Box Hill or Springvale might pop into mind instead. However, don’t let its location f0ol you, there’s a reason this little BBQ shop is a new favourite for my very picky and discerning extended family.

Crispy Roast Pork and Roast Spiced Sausage ($30 AUD per kg)
Crispy Roast Pork and Roast Spiced Sausage ($30 AUD per kg)

My family are greeted by name as we enter the cafe, and my father promptly orders some serves of different roast meats for the whole table to share. The Crispy Roast Pork has a wonderfully salty and crunchy crackling, though I find the meat itself a bit too fatty. The standout here is the house-made Roast Spiced Sausage which is equal parts savoury, sweet and spicy, and the perfect weekend indulgence.

Roast Duck (Whole), $30 AUD
Roast Duck (Whole), $30 AUD

Forget the pork and the sausage for a moment. If you’re dining alone or as a couple and can only justify ordering one serve of roast meat, the Roast Duck is the way to go. We started off with a half serve as shown in the above photo, before quickly demolishing the plate and ordering another half a duck. My family rhapsodises lyrical about its virtues – the glistening succulent skin, the tender and juicy meat, the sweetness of the paired sauce. My aunt claimed that it was as good if not better than any roast duck she’s had in Hong Kong, so that’s pretty high praise indeed!

Dry Beef Ho Fun, Approx $10 AUD
Dry Beef Ho Fun, Approx $10 AUD

While we would normally a number of main meals and share them, the whole family was coming down with a cold and so we decided to order individual meals so as not to share the germs around. Dad chose the Dry Beef Ho Fun, complete with plenty of wok hei, fresh crunchy bean shoots, and smoky slippery rice noodles. A very simple dish that wasn’t particularly generous with its serving of beef, so it is worth ordering the roast meats on the side.

Beef brisket and wonton noodle soup, $10.80 AUD
Beef brisket and wonton noodle soup, $10.80 AUD

K ordered the Beef Brisket and Wonton Noodle Soup. The braised and slow-cooked brisket was particularly tender and tasty, clear evidence of the restaurant using a better quality of beef than you would normally find in a neighbourhood Chinese restaurant. The wonton too were nice and plump, with a hearty pork and prawn mix.

Vegetable and bean curd noodle soup, $9.80 AUD
Vegetable and bean curd noodle soup, $9.80 AUD

Recognising that I’d had more than enough meat with the roast duck, pork and sausage, I chose to have a vegetarian main – Vegetable and Bean Curd Noodle Soup. This proved to also be a good choice as I was nursing the start of what would end up being a cold that lasted a fortnight – the extra nutrients offered by the green veggies, mushrooms and carrots hopefully helped to give my immune system a boost! A simple noodle soup that was very satisfying.

BBQ Sweet Pork on Rice, $9.80 AUD
BBQ Sweet Pork on Rice, $9.80 AUD

My brother decided that he needed more roast meat, so he chose the BBQ Sweet Pork on Rice. The quality of this BBQ pork was just as high as the other roast meats, and I do have to give a special shout-out to the chef whose knife skills created these sliver-thin slices of BBQ pork. As my family debated at length, the thickness of BBQ pork slices does impact its overall quality. It’s rare to find BBQ pork sliced as thinly as this, and it really does make a difference.

Stir fried rice noodle with beef, $10.80 AUD
Stir fried rice noodle with beef, $10.80 AUD

My aunt chose the Stir Fried Rice Noodle with Beef…or more accurately, she had originally chosen the noodles with beef brisket, but it came out with simple beef slices instead. She was a bit disappointed that she didn’t get the tender beef brisket she originally wanted, but the thick and flavourful gravy of this beef noodle dish soon soothed any disappointment she may have had.

As I mentioned earlier, Bentleigh is not a suburb I would normally venture to for good Chinese BBQ. Tasty BBQ Chinese Cafe is certainly strangely located in the Aldi shopping complex in a blink-and-miss-it location right at the end of the long Centre Road shopping strip. Do yourself a favour though – don’t blink and miss it, and instead, make a specific point of seeking it out the next time you’re in the neighbourhood. You’ll have some of the best Chinese roast duck you’ll ever have in your life!

Tasty BBQ Chinese Cafe is located within the shopping centre at 285-305 Centre Road, Bentleigh.

Review: Tim Ho Wan, Chatswood

Is everyone still talking about Tim Ho Wan? It feels like the opening of a branch of the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in Sydney was all anyone (read – any food blogger) could talk about in April. Instagram abounded with glorious shots of their famous BBQ pork buns, and the prospect of waiting for up to four hours in the long queue wasn’t a deterrent at all.

I’ll admit that I fell prey to the hype. The Thursday before the Easter long weekend, K and I took the day off work to make it an extra long weekend. Ostensibly, the extra day was so that we could attend his cousin’s wedding in the late afternoon, but really, it was so that we could visit Tim Ho Wan in the morning before the wedding.

With a 10am opening time, K dropped me off at 9.30am so that I could start lining up while he looked for a carspace. We’d heard the horror stories about the queues so imagine my surprise when I found that I was sixth in line! I only had to wait half an hour until the restaurant opened and then managed to walk straight in for a table – so for those who are interested in visiting Tim Ho Wan without a queue, early in the morning on a weekday is definitely the way to go!

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Unlike most yumcha establishments where you expect to see old Chinese aunties pushing dim sum trolleys around the restaurant, Tim Ho Wan operates on an order form system. Simply choose what you want, pass your order form over to one of the many young wait staff, and sit back as you wait for your food to arrive.

Baked bun with BBQ pork, $6.80
Baked bun with BBQ pork, $6.80

A lot has been written about Tim Ho Wan’s famous Baked Buns with BBQ Pork. As the signature dish, you’ll often see three or four serves of these buns brought out to tables of diners. No one walks away without eating at least two of these buns!

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For all the hype though, how does it actually taste? It’s as good as you would expect. The top crust of the bun is slightly sweet, reminiscent of the Cantonese style pineapple buns. This enhances the smoky but sweet filling of the slow-roasted BBQ pork, making it a real sweet yet savoury treat. It’s so good that yes, we end up ordering another serve of the buns for takeaway as an afternoon treat!

Steamed egg cake, $5.50
Steamed egg cake, $5.50

Malay cake (ma lai go) was always one of my treats at yum cha when I was a kid. I’ve always loved the soft spongey texture with the brown sugar flavours in your mouth. Tim Ho Wan calls their ma lai go Steamed Egg Cake instead, which makes me think that they may have adapted the titles on their menu for a more Australian audience who aren’t familiar with this treat. Whatever the name of it, it was a real winner – almost as good as the ones I remember from my childhood. Soft, spongey, sweet, delectable.

Pork dumpling with shrimp, $7.20
Pork dumpling with shrimp, $7.20

I liked the inclusion of the goji berries on top of the Pork dumpling with shrimp (siu mai) – something a little bit unusual that you don’t always find with other dim sum restaurants. What I loved about these siu mai though, was the dedication to using quality produce, with the dumplings featuring huge whole chunks of fresh plump prawns. It certainly made a nice change to the nondescript pork and prawn mince that you normally get, where you wonder how much of what you’re eating is actually the real deal.

Pan-fried carrot cake, $6
Pan-fried carrot cake, $6

Surprisingly, the yum cha classic of the radish cake was called a Pan-fried carrot cake at Tim Ho Wan. Rest assured though – it’s certainly not made of carrots and is very much made of radish, or what some would know as Japanese daikon. While the radish cake was grilled beautifully, the mixture itself left a lot to be desired. Made up almost exclusively of grated radish (and slightly floury radish at that), it lacked the cornucopia of ingredients that marks an excellent radish cake – dried shrimp, lupcheong, shiitake mushrooms…there should have been a lot more to this radish cake. Alas!

Prawn dumpling, $7.80
Prawn dumpling, $7.80

Like the siu mai before it, the Prawn dumplings were absolutely chock-full with real chunks of prawn meat. There was no cheating by including bits of water chestnut or ginger in this dumpling mix! The only downside is that the skin was actually a bit too sticky as a result of having been over-steamed, meaning that the skin stuck to the bamboo steamer as you tried to pick up a dumpling. The structural integrity of the dumpling was less than ideal!

Glutinous rice in lotus leaf, $8.80
Glutinous rice in lotus leaf, $8.80

I absolutely adore lor mai gai – or as described in English Glutinous rice in lotus leaf. I remember my mother making lor mai gai when I was a child – making three or four dozen at a time to freeze for future meals, or to give away to friends or family. As I got older, I helped her with bits and pieces along the way but never learned how to make it from start to finish. I regret not having the opportunity to learn from her before she passed away, as I’ll have to cobble together tips from different recipes to come up with my own bastardised version now.

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As my mother always said though, it’s all about the ingredients. “Mine are a lot better than what you would find at yum cha,” she used to say. “They overload theirs with rice, but I only use enough to wrap up all my ingredients – lup cheong, chicken, mushrooms, cabbage, a quails egg.”

While Tim Ho Wan aren’t quite as generous with their ingredients as my mother used to be, their lor mei gei is still well worth ordering. The chicken pieces inside are deliciously braised and tender, and they’re generous in their serving size.

Vermicelli roll with shrimp, $7.80
Vermicelli roll with shrimp, $7.80

K and I finished the savoury component of our brunch with one of the more disappointing dishes of the meal – the Vermicelli roll with shrimp. Even though we were one of the first customers of the day, the edges of the vermicelli roll had somehow dried out, meaning it wasn’t as soft and slippery as it should be as parts of it were much too hard and chewy. I think this negative experience was an anomaly though – we’ve been back to Tim Ho Wan since this first visit, and the sesame vermicelli roll was excellent!

Mango sago pomelo, $6
Mango sago pomelo, $6

I insisted on ordering dessert even though K had reached his limits, claiming that I had ordered too much food. You always have dessert though right? We shared a mango sago pomelo – sweet with a slight tart tang. It’s quite a refreshing dessert that works quite well as a palate cleanser to finish off your meal.

Since that first visit, K and I have been back to Tim Ho Wan twice – once with friends, and once with a larger family group. Most of the dumplings and dim sum are superb, but I remained unimpressed with the radish cake, and don’t even get me started on how terrible the braised chicken feet were. If I can make one recommendation, it’s to order carefully when you go to Tim Ho Wan – not all dishes are created equal. Still, you can’t go past those BBQ pork buns – I’ll be back for those at least!

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April 2014: Eating in Hong Kong

I can’t believe it’s been two months since I came back from holiday. It feels like only yesterday that I was catching a bus from Nathan Road in Mongkok out to Tuen Mun City Centre in the New Territories to see my uncles, aunts, cousins, and cousins kids – all million of them. (Slight exaggeration, but I do have a very large extended family).

The funny thing about going to Hong Kong is that I never view it as a holiday. Instead, it’s always a whirlwind of family obligations, visiting and dining with branch after branch of my extended family. And honestly? I wouldn’t have it any other way. We eat a lot of street food, and in a lot of dodgy little diners and eateries. The food is always what I describe “ugly delicious” – visually unattractive, but so satisfying!

Here’s just a few of the meals I had in Hong Kong. Prepare to drool!

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On my first night in Hong Kong, I went out with my dad and brother to explore the streets of Mongkok near our hotel. We had two goals in mind – 1) to put an order in for tailored suits for them and 2) to get a decent dinner. We succeeded in both – there’s nothing more satisfying then a simple bowl of noodles with fish balls ordered from a tiny little restaurant staffed entirely by middle-aged ladies. Pure satisfaction at $10HKD a bowl.

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But of course, you can’t spend more than five hours in Hong Kong without going out for tofu fa as well. We went out in search of my favourite dessert after we finished our noodles. All my older cousins will tell you about how they used to pick me up from kindergarten twenty-five years ago, and then take me out for tofu fa before taking me home. My love for tofu fa hasn’t weakened since then, and I almost moaned as the first mouthful of silky smooth pudding entered my mouth.

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My dad decided then that he was still hungry, so ordered a plate of dumplings and turnip cake from the same street vendor. Oily crispy delicious dumplings, with fatty pork soup inside that filled your mouth with flavour.

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I find it really hard to eat healthily whenever I’m in Hong Kong as I inevitably end up in a never-ending series of visits to diners, fried street food vendors, and cake shops. Buying fruit to eat when I’m back in the hotel room at night is one of the small things I try to do, made easier when there’s fantastic options like tiny watermelon the size of a grapefruit!

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And finally before we headed back to our hotel on the first night, I had to buy some egglettes – light, airy, fluffy, sweet and addictive. It became a habit to buy a serve to share between the three of us every night before we returned to our hotel room.

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Speaking of habits, egg tarts! Quite often we would catch a bus directly into the New Territories for breakfast with my extended family, so we had to have a small snack beforehand to get us through the half hour bus trip. With a half dozen bakeries around our hotel all bringing out trays and trays of piping hot egg tarts early in the morning, it became all too easy to have an egg tart each every morning. I always think the egg tarts are better in Hong Kong – flakier, smoother, and less sweet and definitely a lot more more-ish.

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An egg tart and a Vitasoy – could you think of a better pre-breakfast taster?

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I’m not going to lie – my family takes yum cha very seriously. This particular feast was at a restaurant in Shenzhen across the border in China. A dozen of my family members had crossed the border together to pay our respects to my late grandmother and late grandfather’s graves located in Shenzhen. After visiting and going through the rituals of lighting incense and burning paper offerings, we all went to have a late yum cha lunch. Can you believe that we managed to finish it all?

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Yum Cha Round 2, in a restaurant in Yuen Long in the New Territories. We’d strategically arrived late in order to catch the post-2pm afternoon specials menu, where many of the dishes are offered at only 75% of their usual price. Yum cha is already cheap in Hong Kong when compared to Sydney prices – now take another 25% off that!

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A simple breakfast is best. We ate a lot of congee while we were in Hong Kong, served up with plates of rice noodle rolls and fried noodles. My go-to option was the fish congee, my brother opted for beef, and my dad’s a big fan of the pork with century egg.

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My brother and I had never been to Hong Kong Disneyland – oh the travesty! We decided to go together on an overcast day that turned into storm clouds which actually worked in our favour as it meant that there weren’t as many crowds and we didn’t have to queue long for rides! There’s something truly magical about Disneyland – you walk through the gates and you’re transported back to a time when cartoons were real and Mickey and Minnie Mouse are your friends. It’s amazing.

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And just because we’re suckers for kitschy offerings, we had to buy a waffle in the shape of Mickey’s head! It’s a pretty terrible waffle to be honest, and really not worth the $50 HKD.

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Having high tea at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong has become a bit of a tradition. It’s pricey by everyday Hong Kong dining standards, but cheap by Australian high tea standards. While I’m a big high tea fan, I go for a particular reason – one of my cousins is the chief pastry chef in the kitchens of the Mandarin Oriental. His creations are absolutely beautiful, you can see them in the Mandarin Oriental cake shop as well as experience them during a long luxurious afternoon tea.

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Finally, while this meal doesn’t look like much, it represents everything I love about Hong Kong. The HK experience at diner chains like Cafe de Coral is just so quintessentially everyday-Hong Kong. All my relatives go for a diner breakfast three or four mornings a week, not to mention countless morning and afternoon teas. I go multiple times whenever I’m back in Hong Kong, and find myself craving that diner experience every couple of weeks whenever I’m back in Australia.

Coming up – recaps of my dining experiences in China and Seoul!