While I’m having a chat with Esmond Wong, Laksa King’s founder, customers stop to say hi, and one of them tries to convince him to open a branch in his neighbourhood. “My customers always ask me to open where they live,” says Wong, smiling.
It’s not surprising since his spicy noodle soup is known to be one of the best in Melbourne. What might surprise you is that Wong didn’t grow up anywhere near laksa.
Born in Vietnam, to Chinese parents, he came to Australia as a refugee when he was a teenager. He worked his way up in kitchens until he became the chef of a Cantonese restaurant.
“One day, I ended up working in a Malaysian restaurant when somebody was on leave. I stayed for a few months and found the cuisine very interesting. I wanted to cook that style of food,” he says.
He opened the first Laksa King in 1998, in a small arcade in Flemington. It took a few years for things to pick up, but when the word got out about his curry laksa, queues started forming out the door.
“We make everything from scratch. We make the paste with some lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, curry powder and we cook it with oil,” explains Wong. “We cook down our chicken broth for a few hours so it gets the meat flavour and a bit of sweetness. Then we mix the broth with the paste and the coconut milk to balance it out.”
He says that he adjusted the level of spice and herbs to the perfect level so "it works for both the Western and Asian palate".
Each bowl comes with rice vermicelli and Hokkien noodles, tofu puffs, eggplant, fried shallots and fresh mint. You can then decide what to add, from duck to seafood and fish heads.
“I always ask my staff and customers about their feedback and opinion, and from there, I’m changing and fine-tuning my recipes, I’m still fine-tuning today,” says Wong, who also often travels to Malaysia for inspiration.
Laksa King also serves assam laksa, which has a fish and tamarind base. “It’s a bit sour and it’s hot and we also use shrimp paste to create a very nice flavour. The fish is cooked in the broth and we top it out with cucumber, red onion and pineapple,” says Wong.
In 2010, Laksa King moved just around the corner from its original location, in a space three times larger. Wong has also opened another Laksa King in Glen Waverley and Laksa King Kitchen outlets in Southland and Flemington.
Laksa King Kitchen has a shorter menu than its older brother and more small plates. But, of course, the famous laksa remains.
“I always ask my staff and customers about their feedback and opinion, and from there, I’m changing and fine-tuning my recipes, I’m still fine-tuning today."
The soup is the same as Laksa King, but Wong has taken things up a notch with higher-quality ingredients and better cuts of meat.
For example, the seafood laksa sees the addition of plump fish fillets, and the vegetarian laksa is filled with organic vegetables like purple cauliflower, baby corn and mushrooms.
A strong following
“A lot of my customers still support me from when they were students and now that they’re mothers and fathers, they bring their family here,” says Wong.
“Even when students go back to Malaysia, Hong Kong and other countries, when they come back to Australia to visit, they come back to my restaurant. I feel very privileged about that.”
6 – 12 Pin Oak Crescent, Flemington VIC, (03) 9372 6383
Daily 11:30 am – 3 pm
Sun – Thu 5 pm – 10 pm, Fri – Sat 5 pm – 10:30 pm
Shop 3/39-51 Kingsway, Glen Waverley VIC, (03) 8555 0755
Sun - Thu 11 am – 10 pm
Fri – Sat 11 am – 10:30 pm
324 Racecourse Rd, Flemington VIC, (03) 9376 2288
Mon 11:30 am – 2:30 pm, 5 pm – 9:30 pm
Sat 11 am – 10:30 pm, Sun 11 am – 9:30 pm
1239 Nepean Highway, Cheltenham (Southland) VIC, (03) 9584 8858
Sun – Thu 11 am – 10:00 pm
Fri – Sar 11 am – 10:30 pm
Laksa curry is one of Malaysia's most popular dishes. Be sure to strain the soup before serving, for a silky smooth dish that's full of flavour.
This rich laksa was inspired by my fishing trip with local Brian Lee to Cape Leveque, surely one of the best fishing spots in the world.