The kind of chef who says “I couldn’t find what I wanted to eat, so I opened this”, is usually of the same ilk that closes a year later, wondering why nobody was interested in eating a deconstructed shepherd’s pie. In the case of James Roach, however, we’re good hands with that statement, because we want to eat that kind of food too.
Born to an Australian dad and a Viet-Laotian “tiger mum” (his words, not mine), James came to Australia in high school and stayed on to finish university in Melbourne. Having grown up with the punchy, textural and unapologetically pungent food of Laos, he quickly started learning how to cook it – with the help of his mother on the other end of the phone – so he could eat the dishes he and his fellow Laotian student housemates missed so much.
Laos is considered by many as the dark horse of Southeast Asian cuisine, a culmination of the rich food heritage of neighbouring countries China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Those flavour profiles and ingredients are mixed with its own sense of place, forming a culinary epicentre of flavour and texture.
These tried and tested recipes, a combination of his mother’s staunch sense of tradition and his own interpretation of the food of his youth, form the backbone of the menu at Noodle House by Lao-Luangprabang. The diner is a cheerful, light-filled second floor noodle shop in Melbourne’s CBD fringe, across from Queen Victoria Market. It's also, to date, the only Laotian noodle venue in Melbourne.
“I love noodles! I eat them all the time. My friends invite me out to eat and if noodles aren’t on the menu, I think about saying no,” James laughs. “What I love about Laotian food is that the flavours are strong. It’s spicy and pungent, but it’s balanced out with fresh herbs and filled with different textures, so it’s really fun to eat. People [in Australia] may not know Laotian food yet, but there are familiar dishes that reflect where we’re geographically located. Mee kati is a coconut-based broth that’s similar to a Malaysian laksa, for example,” he says.
The initiated will recognise Vietnamese pho and Thai pad see ew on the menu (which doesn’t exceed the very student-friendly price of $15), but our pick is any dish featuring James’ handmade rice noodles: a combination of rice and tapioca flours that give them a bouncy, chewy texture and add a certain density to the broth. They are showcased best in the khao piak sen, a rich chicken soup filled with pieces of tender chicken and chicken meatballs topped with crunchy bean sprouts and fried shallots. Amp it up with the house chilli oil but be warned – it packs a punch for the heat-adverse.
Noodle soup fiends, look out – this Laotian joint is worth checking out.
Daily 11:30am - 9:00pm
4/500 Elizabeth St, Melbourne VIC 3000