It is a brave thing to enter the realm of Southeast Asian in Melbourne. While our pho and banh mi joints have been a central aspect of Melbourne’s food culture for decades, various modernised takes on the cuisine have popped up across the city in the last couple of years.
Of course, if you bring something unique to the table, then competition isn’t so much an issue.
The latest to hit this landscape is the Vietnamese Cambodian pop-up Mototaxi, operating out of the Glass Merchant’s space in East St Kilda. The brainchild of former Rice Queen manager Lee Mack, Danny Neate of Pei Modern and Phillippe Mouchel, and Tad Maclean of the UK’s Hanoi Bike Shop, Mototaxi focuses on challenging your view of Southeast Asian fare with an inventive cocktail list and snacks offering.
We had a chat to Mototaxi’s cocktail aficionado Mack about what makes this new establishment special.
Southeast Asian food has been popular in Melbourne for decades, but it’s only in recent years that Australian restaurateurs have dared to modernise it. What do you think is the appeal to the food industry creating Southeast Asian Fusion food?
We’ve enjoyed Southeast Asian food in Australia for some time, but I think it’s only recently that we’ve moved from just eating it to gaining a proper understanding of the basic flavour combinations and the complex balance of sweet, hot, salty and sour that form the building blocks of the region’s cuisines. Travel’s now inexpensive, so it’s easier to immerse yourself in the culture; and as you begin to understand the meaning behind the ingredients and their purpose in cooking, it allows you to start to get creative.
What are your favourite things on the menu, both cocktail and food-wise?
Hands down my favourite cocktail is the Love you Ha Long Time. A blend of Mekong whisky, pineapple juice, lemon juice, green shiso sugar syrup and a dash of dark chocolate bitters. We used a classic whisky sour as the base but you get subtle herbal notes from the green shiso and although it sounds strange, the chocolate bitters just works!
I don’t even know where to begin with the menu – so many favourites. I’m very partial to our scallop tartare which is served on a salty black rice cracker with tamarind and pork floss (think fairy floss made from pork!). Our Cambodian Khampot pepper and ginger beef jerky is pretty cracking too, whether as a bar snack or just something to nibble on while you’re waiting for the rest of your order to arrive.
What is unique to the Mototaxi Pop-up that in your opinion makes it stand out from the rest of the modern Southeast Asian food offerings in Melbourne?
We cook on charcoal, which I think is the main point of difference. Sure it’s labour-intensive managing coals and creating heat zones rather than turning a knob for a gas flame, but I think the results and flavour speak for themselves. It’s one of the things that really stood out for me travelling in Vietnam, how very simple ingredients were transformed into something wonderful using this cooking method.
We’ve also gone to a lot of trouble to source ingredients native to the Mekong, but not readily seen on menus, like sawtooth coriander, paddy herbs and black garlic. The kitchen team even staked out market stalls in Springvale and Footscray waiting for wholesalers to show up to see where they got their produce from! Although we present things in a modern way, we have been very conscious to establish authenticity in our menu items.
You’re formerly from Rice Queen. Can you tell me a little bit more about your journey from Rice Queen to Mototaxi, and who has been part of the journey with you along the way?
I’ve been in the industry for almost 20 years, and my 3+ years running Rice Queen were the most fun. It does have its own private karaoke room, after all! I went into the role determined that it would be my last job working for someone else, and to learn as much as possible about being an owner rather than a manager.
Although Mototaxi is definitely a different concept, there are some very important values that I have taken with me; most importantly that dining should be about having fun. Sure, fine dining is great and I’ve had some tremendous moments in some amazing establishments; but when you sit down and share a table with friends and family, you want to laugh, perhaps get a bit noisy and enjoy the moment. It’s all about providing an environment for that to happen, and I believe that’s integral to a great dining experience.
I was also very blessed to work with and gather an amazing team around me. Although there aren’t any Rice Queen staff working at Mototaxi, several key members of staff at Rice Queen have had input into the concept. My first bar manager Carlos Araujo designed the signature cocktails on our list, and Gabby Haydon, a central member of the floor team at Rice Queen, is part of the family-owned More Tea, who provide some wonderful products for the venue.
Having said that, I think the strongest part of Rice Queen was the team we had (and they still have), and I like to think I’ve incorporated a little bit of [the Rice Queen ethos] into Mototaxi.
Where do you hope to take Mototaxi beyond the pop-up?
Although we are in the infancy of pop-up stage, we are definitely here for the long haul. As we speak, the hunt is on for a permanent venue and ‘popping up’ has allowed us to create some brand awareness, test some concepts and get our foot in the door. I guess the end goal is to create a space where people can come and forget about the rules and just have fun.
After years of fine dining I came to the conclusion that to eat good food, drink good booze and be looked after well needn’t mean you have to behave in a certain way, and I’d really like to create a space where that becomes a possibility.