A simple shopfront just off Swanston Street, sandwiched between Lincoln and Argyle Square is home to one of the most authentic tasting Malaysian street-food experiences in Melbourne.
Chai Carlton is a neighbourhood gem which channels the spirit of Malaysian hawker-style eating centres in Kuala Lumpur, where locals gather to catch up and share tasty hawker favourites.
The menu features a wide array of options and as co-owner Cindy explains, “Choose whatever you like - it’s all good!” And it’s true, you can’t really go wrong here.
From top (clockwise): Tofu Bakar, Mamak Rojak, Kampung Sardine, Lobak, Cripsy “Ichi Kabin” Chicken Wings
Our dinner commenced with a few plates from their “Jonker Street Favourites” menu section. Each item was full of flavour and meticulously prepared. Of particular note was the Lobak. The Lobak is a mixture of ground up lean pork, water chestnuts and herbs wrapped in a beancurd skin which has been steamed and then pan fried until crisp. The crispy beancurd exterior, juicy interior and salty-sweet chilli sauce makes for an excellent appetiser. Another crowd pleaser was the rojak which took us to the streets of Malaysia. A textural spicy hot salad with vegetable and delicious gravy - nothing short of yum!
Yam Gravy Crispy Pork with rice
The wonderfully crisp morsels of pork were slathered with the most delicious yam gravy. This dish was comfort food at its best. The fluffy rice was the perfect canvas for the rich flavours.
One of the few places in Melbourne delivering an authentic Assam Laksa, Chai Carlton’s take is a real treat. For the uninitiated, Assam Laksa is a spicy and sour fish-based soup from Malaysia. It was a fiery treat which was notable for its use of high quality sardines and the interplay between salinity, heat and acidity.
Beef rendang nasi lemak
The beef rendang was decadent. The full-bodied, pungent rendang gravy paired beautifully with melt-in-your-mouth morsels of beef. We enjoyed the richness of the curry and the generous use of spices which showcased the customary punchy flavours exhibited by Malaysian curries generally. Together with fluffy coconut rice, crispy anchovies and sambal, it was an addictive and comforting dish.
Har Mee - Prawn noodles
The Har Mee was delightful. The soup was complex and aromatic and was served with generous amounts of noodles, vegetables, fish cakes, pork, and garnished with the requisite components, egg and prawns. We adored the wonderful chilli kick from the soup.
Fried Kuey Teow
The fried kuey teow was wonderfully authentic. Long and thick ribbons of flat rice noodles were cooked with an assortment of ingredients - shrimps, fish cake, Chinese sausage and egg – all of which possessed a beautiful wok caramelisation. The dish had the perfect amount of heat and boasted a great depth of flavour.
Top: Sago gula Melaka
Bottom (from left): Bubur cha cha, Yu Tiow with House Kaya
The desserts were lovely. The bubur cha cha was a decadent and textural dessert of sweet potato and taro immersed in fragrant pandan flavoured coconut soup sweetened with palm sugar. The Sago Pudding was yet another scrumptious dessert with beautifully balanced flavours. We appreciated the slight saltiness of the coconut milk which took the dessert to the next level. The house kaya on the other hand was also well made and went perfectly with the crisp Yu Tiow (a form of Chinese doughnut).
Chai Carlton brings delicious Hawker-oriented Malaysian fare to the table. Simple favourites are featured alongside lesser known options - but all stay true to the hawker spirit by focusing on authentic flavours at bargain prices. We will definitely be back.