Where: Juicy Bao, 178 Little Bourke Street Melbourne
What: Best little morsels in town for those who don’t prize their personal space
Bloat score: 0 – Living the dream
One of the things I missed most while holidaying in Europe earlier this year was Asian food. As much as I like stews, pasta and pizza, there’s nothing quite like dipping a dumpling in a shallow pool of chilli oil, vinegar and soy sauce and savouring the instantaneous explosion of flavours in your mouth. And there is, of course, my ongoing love affair with rice – it’s not considered a perfect meal, in my opinion, unless there’s rice in some way, shape or form.
Juicy Bao is one of my favourite dumpling places in Melbourne, and that’s a lofty statement when there’s competition in the form of Shandong Mama, Hutong, Shanghai Street, Din Tai Fung and New Shanghai.
But gone are the days when you could waltz through the doors of Juicy Bao, armed with a bottle of wine, and seat yourself wherever you wanted. These days, you’re more likely to find a small queue forming outside and corkage is a whopping $5 a person. I also don’t recall the restaurant being quite as cramped as it was when I last went – you’re in a constant state of eavesdropping on the conversation at the next table, so much so we couldn’t help but make friends with both our neighbouring tables because we were, after all, only separated by a few centimetres. Forget having a place to store your bags – they’ll either have to find a place on your lap or be relegated to the floor.
None of this matters, however, when you bite into Juicy Bao’s pan-fried pork, wombok and chive dumplings. Hands down my ‘favourite dumpling’ in Melbourne, this is best eaten dunked in an optimum combination of chilli oil, vinegar and soy sauce (personally, I go for 3/5, 1/5 and 1/5 proportions).
If you’re a fan of xiao long bao – or soup dumplings, as you may know them – Juicy Bao has some of the best. I dined with a friend who once suffered a grievous nose injury from the hot spurts that come from prematurely tackling a simmering hot xiao long bao, so we exercised caution and devoured the other plates before turning our sights on to the bamboo baskets.
Trying to transport a xiao long bao into your bowl without breaking the thin layer of translucent skin requires nothing short of prodigious skill. Because I am a seasoned dumpling eater, I faced no difficulties – although this is, in part, due to Juicy Bao’s immaculately steamed dumplings where the skins detach easily from the basket.
The pork and prawn wontons in peanut and chilli sauce are another standout. Elastic wontons drizzled with crushed peanuts and doused in a nutty, spicy sauce are every bit as good as they sound.
Coupled with salt and pepper squid, Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce, stir-fried string beans with minced pork and copious amounts of red wine, we had ourselves a balanced meal. I’m considering taking up a religion after this meal, because there must be a higher force up there for me to escape with zero bloats after.
Effective as they are, Juicy Bao took our order while we were still queuing outside, which is great unless you’re fickle diners like us and get food envy from observing what the person practically sitting on your lap orders. After seeing our neighbours’ stir-fried string beans arriving, we quickly tacked that on to our order – much to our waiter’s chagrin, who had already watched the two tables surrounding us order and leave in the time we took to finish our meal. I’m so glad we did, however, because this was one of the highlights of our meal.
Although we didn’t have the table space to order these dishes, the deep-fried chicken with dried chilli; the Shanghai stir-fried noodles with shredded pork; and the vegetarian dumplings are also worth a mention – although note that the deep-fried chicken comes on a colossal plate that is best shared between 4 to 5 people.
I am not one for reductive gender stereotypes, and apart from leaving all the domestic chores to my long-suffering partner in my pursuit of equality, I also eat more than him. Thankfully my life ethos is mirrored by most of my girlfriends, evidenced by the fact that the three of us ordered all of the above and still had space for a choc top at our MIFF film after.
Juicy Bao is open everyday except Tuesday, from 12 to 9.30pm on Sunday, from 11.30am to 9.30pm on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, from 11.30am to 10pm on Friday and from 12pm to 10pm on Saturday.