A dirty, dirty restaurant may leave you hunched over the toilet screaming to god for sweet relief and a Sprite, but it's going to be a tasty journey.
I've gone through the mill of shitty hospitality jobs and taken comfort in the fact that, with the abuse, I've fostered an immunity to less-than-savory hygiene practices in the workplace. When you have a line of passive-aggressive brunchers with $900 baby strollers asking you where you source your eggs, there's no time to question why your chef is flipping the steak with his fingers.
I realise that every eatery - within my budget - is dirty. But compared to my parents, who were raised on South East Asian street food, the cushiony enclave of Australian hygiene standards means my stomach is more aluminum foil than steel. So, in an effort to test my digestive system's defenses and do justice to my genetic heritage, I set out to dine at Melbourne's dirtiest eateries. I had two questions in mind: are hygiene levels any indication of taste? And how much dirt can a dirt-cheap restaurant get away with serving before I'm hunched over the toilet screaming to god to send me sweet relief and a Sprite?
Unlike our friends in the UK, Melbourne isn't blessed with a food agency ratings list. But the Victorian Health department does publish the Register of Convictions: a list of eateries convicted by the magistrates' court of breaching food safety standards. Each offender is only listed publicly for 12 months, giving them a shot to clean up their act without murdering their reputation permanently.
Not satisfied with the short-term memory of the public register, I turned to UrbanSpoon and various blogs to aid me in my search. Generally speaking, the worst offenders in the city - like the cockroach-infested Southbank restaurant fined $90,000 for various breaches of food safety standards - are forced to close down. But while Australians should feel proud we live in a country where the government takes your getting diarrhea seriously, there are still a number of establishments that live close to the greasy edge.
My first stop was Noodle Kingdom on Russell street. This humble and busy chain is known for its handmade noodles. It also incurred fines for multiple breaches back in 2010, but, undiscouraged, continued business as usual. When I entered, a guy was walking back and forth nonchalantly between the kitchen sink and the front window with a tofu container of soap scum and a window scrubber.
I ordered a serving of Shanghai fried noodles and a plate of preserved egg. I only managed half a serving of the egg. Don't do it unless salty egg-flavored jelly is your thing. Then out came my face-sized plate of noodles. I couldn't tell what type of animal had given up its life to marinate in a sea of slimy noodles and two sad pieces of bok choy for my dining pleasure, but I thanked its mother and father for making it happen. It was fucking delicious. I reluctantly unpeeled myself from the vinyl seats, paid a tenner and headed to my next destination.
Like most university students around the world, I've spent the past few years surviving on the cheap mysterious offerings of Chinatown. And while the options of interchangeable restaurants are plentiful, I settled on Shanghai Village for its strange popularity despite constant reviews of subpar hygiene levels and poor service. A Yelp reviewer reported maggots in his dumplings and someone named "ShadowRavenwulf" wrote about getting the hot sweats following a visit here.
Shanghai Village is not generally a daytime destination. In the daylight, the shocking pink décor and militant signage ("NO OUTSIDE DRINKS BY THE LAW" next to a "BYO" sign) seemed more charming than usual. I guess everything looks and tastes different when you're sober and not wiping pee off the toilet seat.
I ordered a plate of fried pork and vegetable dumplings and some crispy pumpkin pastries. The pastries had the consistency of mashed potato but tasted like custard. Confusing. Despite having few traces of real pumpkin, what was essentially fried baby food was relatively inoffensive. The fried dumplings, on the other hand, were an instant hit of oil that caused my t-zone to level up with each bite. And while the parcels of indistinguishable minced meat made my dining partner grimace, I was more than content. What can I say? My eating standards are as low as these place's hygiene levels.
Next up was Tiba's on Sydney road, Brunswick. The original plan was to hit up Alaysya's further down the road but friends had noted they'd cleaned up their act majorly since their health breaches in 2006. So Tiba's - with its menu of UrbanSpoon complaints about gross kitchen practices, dirty floors, and greasy cutlery - it was.
Service here is really confusing, and no amount of eye contact with an idle waiter will get you anything more than a glance before they brush past you, leaving tables uncleared. I went for a mixed grill that included an assortment of chicken, sausage, lamb cutlet, salads, and dip.
One of my nonsensical pet peeves is finger contact with food, which happened one too many times here. I don't care much what happens in the kitchen, but for the love of god, don't bring me my food with the tip of your thumb in it. That aside, the salad here was pretty fresh, if a little overdressed. The kebab meat was your standard salt fest while the sausage was, from my best guess, made from a variety of innards and tasted as such. I couldn't stomach the entirety of the sausage, but managed to polish off the rest of the plate.
By the end of the day, I could feel my stomach working in overdrive to digest the excess of salt and oil consumed. Aside from that, my bowels were intact, and after washing my face I was good as new. Either I have extraordinarily low standards for food, or my initial suspicions were correct: dirty is code for delicious.
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