When I was growing up, my dad always took me to the backstreet alleyways of Springvale for dinner. We would side-step the smelly puddles of water and through the misty steam rising from the footpath to enter the threshold of the many incredible restaurants lining the road. This early initiation into Melbourne cuisine led me into a lesson in the unexpected. The most un-styled 'hole in the wall' has served up some of the cheapest and tastiest food I have ever tasted.
A restaurant doesn't need to be aesthetically appealing to the eye in order to deliver amazing food. It seems that a 'hole in the wall' focuses its energies into delivering rich, authentic food to hungry customers who are too busy eating to notice how pretty a shopfront is, anyway.
A pot of soothing oolong tea at Veggie On Board
Luckily, I have retained this gut-feel for restaurants in my food travels. Enter the newest vegetarian 'hole in the wall' in Melbourne's inner east – the food-focused, Taiwanese vegetarian restaurant Veggie On Board. Aesthetics, as to be expected, are basic – tables, chairs, the occasional pot plant to decorate a table, small paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling. As I sit, the hostess places cutlery and napkin aside glasses of water and bullet point menu of entrees, mains, drinks and teas. Upon recommendation, I choose a pot of Mt Alishan Oolong tea.
Spongy and tasty bean curd and cabbage salad
After some considered discussion (working out what can and can't be veganised; what is gluten free, too) we place an order for a series of entrées that will wander into a main dish before finishing off with a last, salvaged cup of tea from the remaining dregs. Before long, my tea is ferried to the table, a clear and robust glass teapot immersing the fragrant tea in its inner bladder alongside a gorgeous Chinese teacup delicately decorated in a flower print.
Hand rolls bursting with colour and flavour
Another bonus when choosing a 'hole in the wall' is that the busy times might not be the same as some of Melbourne's more revered establishments. Tonight, my husband and I are the only customers so our food is prepared immediately. Only a few minutes pass before our entrees arrive. Fluffy cushions of fried bean curd dusted with a tasty Chinese five-spice and served with a simple cabbage side salad garnish, wobbly slabs of homemade fried turnip cake scattered in sesame seeds and a side dish filled with soy sauce for dipping. Derived from Japanese influence, there's a serve of colourful vegetable sushi hand-roll, seaweed 'trumpets' of fresh raw vegetables, grilled tofu, all scattered in sultanas.
A homemade favourite - turnip cake!
All entrée items are delicious and warming on this cool Melbourne night. What's just as appealing is the price-point here at Veggie On Board, where it's easy to enjoy an authentic two-course feast for under $50 for two people. This is another magnet to Melbourne's 'holes' in the wall, as you can experience such traditional fare for a fraction of what you would expect.
Delicious and tender mushrooms on a bed of rice with veggies.
As filling and fulfilling as these entrees are, I am still keen to try a main course so I can understand the quality of Taiwanese food from a vegan perspective here at Veggie On Board. It's rare to find such restaurants and I order a plate of mixed mushrooms and vegetables on rice so I can take advantage of this experience. The dish is served steaming hot, mushrooms in all sizes and contorted shapes are spongy and tender, laced with lightly salted soy with crispy fresh mix of vegetables, all lying on a bed of fluffy white rice.
Delicious Taiwanese food among simple aesthetics.
Munching on traditional Taiwanese homemade food while sipping on cup-fulls of Oolong tea in a cosy and warm hole in the wall is what Veggie On Board is all about. It's a back-to-basics and soul-warming way to spend an early Sunday night dinner out in Hawthorn.