Is the ma po tofu jaffle a contender for the Aussie-Chinese hall of fame? Michael Li's version at Carlton's Super Ling suggests so. His toasted sandwich is the stuff of cravings, a sesame prawn toast for a new generation that starts with everything that makes ma po great – fermented chilli bean paste, garlic, chilli oil, soy, black vinegar, ginger, minced pork, tofu, water chestnut for texture – and then encases it in a jaffle's essential toasted fluffy white bread shell. Crunch, spice, heat, familiarity, comfort; it's a cross-cultural snack engineered for maximum happiness.
The same applies to Super Ling as a whole. Owner Iain Ling is a master of mucking with formula while preserving essence. He also knows how to bring the fun. At The Lincoln, a few doors from Super Ling, he seamlessly blends an egalitarian pub atmosphere and attitude with trend-conscious wine, beer and food lists, footy on TV and eclectic playlists. Here at his 30-seat shopfront diner, he and Michael Li combine a gaggle of influences – their Hakka Chinese heritage, the food Li's mother cooked when he was growing up in Mauritius, modern mid-range Melbourne bistros, classic Aussie-Chinese restaurants – and blend them into a clever whole that's seriously delicious without being too serious.
The relaxed approach translates to the shopfront dining room. It's been done on a budget without obvious frills, but the room's palette of dark floors and ceiling, white walls and a neutral-coloured banquette dodges being too stark via clever lighting and the colour splash of two commissioned prints by artist Alan Walsh featuring Bruce Lee. A communal table in the centre of the space underlines Super Ling's preference for all-in good times.
To that point, there are the thrice-fried pork and barramundi spring rolls, the protein joined by a textural jumble of grated choko, onions, carrots and bamboo. They arrive super-crunchy and cut into bite-sized pieces for sharing.
Pork and cuttlefish wonton soup is another winner. The wontons are made with gyoza skins (the denser texture is closer to the Mauritian version Li ate growing up) and are filled with minced pork and dried cuttlefish that's been grilled and blended with fish sauce. They come in a clean, deep flavoured pork broth with floating cubes of winter melon. A dish to make you feel better about the world.
Li's CV includes Lee Ho Fook, MoVida and Restaurant Shik, so there's more than home cooking in his toolbox. The pepper-beef tartare, a fresh take on a normally stir-fried dish, consists of coarsely chopped raw meat flavoured with oyster and soy sauce and seasoned with white and black pepper. It's a great combination that brings heat and depth, especially when topped with a flurry of fried grated potato and pickled garlic stems and served with rice crisps and spring-onion aïoli. Unmissable.
Barramundi collar, fried until crunchy and flavoured with onion and ginger oil, should be in the priority queue, too. It's a treasure-hunt dish, where digging into all the nooks and crannies of the fish brings multiple fleshy, tasty rewards.
Noodles are also worth checking out. They're made in-house for Super Ling's lunch menu (which should also be on your radar, both for the excellent value – $12 for a bowl of noodles – and the presence of an immensely satisfying chicken congee). Come dinner, the silky noodles come with a variety of toppings, such as fragrant eggplant or fantastic offal – pig's ears, tripe, tongue – braised in masterstock.
There's one dessert – a cute, textural "Chinese mille feuille" made with layers of wonton skins, Sichuan-spiced custard and pineapple – and a short list of booze. Those needing options might feel short-changed.
The one-page drinks list features the kind of artisan, minimally fiddled with booze that The Lincoln specialises in – Arfion's Fever white blend, Stomping Ground's Watermelon Sour – with a couple of sakes alongside a list of small-batch softs from PS40. The Lincoln's more extensive natural-heavy wine list is available for those feeling dictated to.
Super Ling represents a particular kind of modern Melbourne dining. It takes its influences – whether it be Hakka Chinese or Aussie-Chinese – seriously, but is also happy to cross barriers and mix it up for the sake of flavour and fun. You're served and fed well. And you can get a ma po tofu jaffle. For that alone it deserves a spot in your repertoire.