SITUATED at the top end of Lygon St, MyCUBE joins a growing number of restaurants that have broken away from the street’s Italian roots, exchanging the spag-bol and carbonara for steaming bowls of curry laksa, Ramli burgers, chicken satay and more.
It is also the first board games café we know of in this part of town.
I arrive at 9pm, just as the weekend dinner throng begins to subside, and ordered the assam laksa.
The aroma sends a tingle to my jaw, and the thick brown broth is a hit-the-spot convergence of sour and savoury.
I love the chewy fat rice noodles, and the generous hunks of fish, thick succulent slices of pineapple, cucumber slivers and paper thin shreds of raw onion in my soup.
Beside me a group of teenagers are engrossed in a noisy card game. A few tables away, a couple of late diners wait quietly for their orders.
The contrast between the two groups says much about MyCUBE – it satiates the appetite of students wanting to unwind after a long day of lectures, fills tummies hungry for authentic Malaysian and Singaporean hawker fare, and succeeds at doing both.
For dessert, I am having the “Pandan Ninja”, inspired by the pictures and postcards plastered on the café’s wall.
I have Pandan Ninja running through my veins!!! one customer scrawled.
It is MyCUBE’s signature dessert, a pandan flavoured pannacotta drenched in the gooey earthy goodness of a brown sugar syrup called gula melaka.
The pannacotta melts in my mouth. I concur with the customer’s verdict. It is worthy of a postcard rhapsody.
But MyCUBE’s offerings weren’t an instant hit with customers when it first began trading just over a year ago, head chef and co-owner Jesse Lee tells me.
The old menu featured fusion food items, which were unfamiliar to the international student crowd they were hoping to attract.
“We made a drastic change to the menu one month after our opening,” Lee says.
Out went dishes like “Siam Sour” as Lee fired up his wok, throwing good old-fashioned ingredients back into the mix.
Char kway teow, nasi lemak, and even the “Milo Godzilla”, made famous by the mamak (hawker) stalls in Malaysia and Singapore – a sinfully sweet concoction of Milo powder and condensed milk, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and heaping mounds of Milo powder – made it back to the menu.
Make no mistake however – Lee is hardly the loud-mouthed, knife-wielding, wok-tossing “uncle” figure that involuntary comes to mind when you think of “hawker fare”.
Lee was a chef at the swish Conservatory in Crown up until the time June Loh approached him with a business proposition.
Food for the soul, home for the heart
Adjectives such as “home-style”, “personal” and “comfortable” are words that come up frequently over the course of my conversations with MyCUBE’s owners.
It took Loh a lot of getting used to when she moved to Melbourne with her husband.
“It was lonely,” she recalls.
The sense of community she found through her local church inspired her to give what she had received, and open up a “home for international students”.
The café’s décor was an intentional exercise in empowering customers to take ownership of the place, she explains.
“See the wall at the back? That’s done by a customer.”
The wall is painted with cartoon mushrooms and inscribed with the following axiom: Life is like a game. You’re dealt a hand you can’t choose, and you never know how the dice will fall, so play hard!
It’s a saying that touches a tender spot in Loh’s heart.
Her dreams of opening shop was almost robbed when Loh, together with her two former business partners, were swindled of their start-up capital one week before settlement.
“We lost everything,” Loh says.
Thankfully, she found favour with her landlord, who agreed to lease her the premises for pittance.
It was a blessing she could only thank God for.
MyCUBE – The Boardgames Café
122 Lygon Street
Carlton VIC 3053
Tel: 03 9663 0639