When it comes to food, a cult classic is a dish that inspires a following beyond its own neighbourhood. Something so good, it justified time-consuming detours to sate the deepest of cravings.
Here, we celebrate some of Australia's best-loved bites that have earned the esteemed title, as determined by those in the know.
Words by Fiona Donnelly, Michael Harden, Joanna Hunkin, Jordan Kretchmer, Georgie Meredith, Max Veenhuyzen & Karlie Verkerk.
Illustrations by Hannah Blackmore, Jeannel Cunanan, Laura Jacobs & Kelsie Walker.
CHARCUTERIE PLATE from Must Winebar, WA
When Must opened in late 2001, the Beaufort Street wine bar sold half a dozen of these each week. Two decades later and the dish – a joint creation from chef-patron Russell Blaikie and his Brittany-born charcutier Andre Mahe – is a Perth classic that introduced the west to the pleasures of parfait, rillettes and terrine. It also inspired many chefs to sharpen their boning knives.
"[My wife] Susan and I would go to Must just to have the charcuterie," says Melissa Palinkas, chef at Fremantle bar Young George and a respected charcutier. "You couldn't fault any of it. Being Hungarian-German I grew up eating a lot of cured meats and pâtés, but this was a lot more refined."
519 Beaufort St, Highgate, WA, must.com.au
CONTINENTAL ROLL from The Re Store, WA
For some people, Western Australia's Italian-Australian sandwich is about the roll's deli meat and vegetable payload. For others, it's about the roll itself. "The bread is what makes it," says Joel Valvasori-Pereza, chef-owner of pasta bar Lulu La Delizia. Like many Italian West Australians, he grew up with "contis" and the jaw-busting white rolls they're made with. "It's crusty, chewy and fluffy at the same time. When you get one that nails the balance between all three, there's nothing better." Valvasori-Pereza's go-to order is prosciutto, cheese and artichoke: a winning combination of salt and acid that evokes memories of the panini and tramezzini found at train stations across Italy.
231 Oxford St, Leederville, WA
XO PIPIS from Golden Century, NSW
Like an indie rocker who releases a surprise chart anthem, Golden Century's XO pipis are a Sydney cult classic that has gone global, earning a legion of high profile fans, from Momofuku's David Chang to former Chinese president Hu Jintao (who once requested the fiery favourite be delivered to Canberra during a state visit). Whether dished up at 2pm or 2am, the ritual remains the same: Fresh pipis are scooped from the tank and presented to your table, before returning just moments later, sizzling in a rich, spicy sauce atop a bed of crisp vermicelli. The trick is to leave them long enough for the noodles to start turning soggy but before the sauce cools completely.
393 Sussex Street, Sydney, NSW, goldencentury.com.au
MUFFULETTA from A1 Canteen, NSW
Expertly layered with Italian provolone, double-glazed ham, mortadella and salami, then spinach, artichokes, olives and sun-dried tomatoes, A1 Canteen's muffuletta is the sandwich to end all sandwiches. The intricately pressed work of art was birthed in New Orleans by Sicilian immigrants, but was made popular in Sydney by chef Clayton Wells – and it's well and truly on its way to being the most 'grammed sandwich in the world, with chefs such as Neil Perry and Jowett Yu publicly declaring their adoration. It's a classic made new again, and can be ordered for breakfast or lunch, seven days a week.
2-10 Kensington St, Chippendale, NSW a1canteen.com.au
A1 Canteen recently announced it's closing on 9 October.
SCALLOP PIE from Jackman & McRoss, Tas
Scallops in a curried white sauce, encased in pastry, is a combination rarely found outside of Tasmania and could easily be the stuff of nightmares if not handled with care. According to Jo Cook, Hobart-based food writer and the food curator for Dark Mofo, this is where Battery Point bakery Jackman & McRoss steps in. "They make the best scallop pie," she says. "They're actually delicious with really golden flaky pastry. The filling is lightly curried and thickened with wakame. They're generous with the scallops too – about eight in a $9 pie!"
57 Hampden Rd, Battery Point, Tas
Want the recipe for Jackman & McRoss's scallop pies?
LAKSA from Asian Gourmet, SA
Who knew so much happiness could come from a bowl so small? Bean sprouts and noodles, vegetables, protein, and a creamy soup topped with sambal, all contained in an unassuming plastic bowl that's at your table in 10 minutes or less. It never looks like enough – but it is. Asian Gourmet has been sating laksa cravings since the '80s – including those of famed chef Cheong Liew, who was a lunchtime regular during his stint at The Hilton. The vegetables have crunch, the seafood is fresh and you can customise it to your exact spice level (and grit factor) with extra sambal for 50c.
Adelaide Central Market, 44-60 Gouger St, SA, adelaidecentralmarket.com.au
Try these laksa recipes at home.
PORTUGUESE TARTS from Saudade, SA
Saudade specialises in one thing and one thing only: pastel de nata. This perfectly scorched Portuguese treat can be inhaled in just three bites – or two if you have a big mouth – so it's advisable to order a few extra. Shatteringly crisp layers of golden puff pastry encase smooth, rich custard that has been blistered, almost burnt, on top. The tarts are baked and sold on the same day, no exceptions. They're the best you can find in Adelaide, and quite possibly the southern hemisphere.
Mitcham Square, Shop 22/119 Belair Rd, Torrens Park, SA, saudade.com.au
You could also try making these Portuguese custard tarts from home.
SAND CRAB LASAGNE from The Stores Grocer, Qld
When chef Gillian Hirst came up with the recipe for her original sand crab lasagne in 1989, she had no idea the luscious crab and abalone boosted fresh pasta creation would evolve into one of Brisbane's best-loved signatures. Three decades on, the version she perfected working at riverside Italian, Il Centro, is now sold exclusively through West End providores, The Stores, and tributes/interpretations grace menus of many other restaurants. "I'm quite proud of it," says Hirst. "It's not often in a career you create a dish that gets so widely copied and yet is still known as yours."
404 Montague Rd, West End, Qld, thestoresgrocer.com.au
Or, you could try these lasagne recipes.
LAYERED BUTTER CAKE from Cake & Bake, Qld
Like any elevated classic, this decadent butter cake by baking queen Jocelyn Hancock relies on its core ingredients. Good unsalted butter, quality eggs, sugar – and a traditional lemon curd made with Hancock's own citrus. It's appeared in different guises over the past 25 years – starting out as a retro bar cake when Hancock opened Jocelyn's Provisions. At Cake & Bake, her current digs, it's a multi-layered affair, decked out with butter cream, that can be dressed up or down to suit any occasion. It's a country-style Queensland cult classic.
58 Commercial Rd, Newstead, Qld, cakeandbake.co
Feel like baking these layer cakes?
DAMPER & SMOKED BUTTER by Fervor, WA
Honey ants. Bush coconuts. Catfish baked in an earth oven. A meal at this roving native food pop-up is likely to feature rare and unique ingredients carefully and thoughtfully sourced from Indigenous communities around Western Australia and the rest of the country. One constant, however, is Fervor's signature flat bread and lush smoked butter. It was served at Fervor's first event in Margaret River in 2013 and continues to appear on menus to this day. Flour, water and Australiana never tasted so good or comforting.
BÁNH MÌ THỊT from N.Lee Bakery, NSW
You can't really claim to be Melburnian without having queued for a lunchtime bánh mì thịt at Smith Street's N.Lee Bakery. There are fancier versions around town but this no-frills joint has been pumping them out in Collingwood since 1991 and can set off Pavlovian salivating at the mere sound of one of their crisp house-baked white rolls being sawed open, ready to be stuffed with egg-mayo, butter and pâté, pork cold cuts, pickled carrots and daikon, hoisin sauce and fresh chilli and coriander. N.Lee has outlets in the city and South Melbourne but it's at the Collingwood mothership where you'll earn your stripes.
220 Smith St, Collingwood, Vic
POTATO CAKES from The Agrarian Kitchen Eatery, Tas
One person's potato cake is another person's fritter. Or even a potato scallop. Regardless, these perfectly crisp morsels from The Agrarian Kitchen Eatery are good enough to have warring parties declare "nomenclature be damned!" as they tuck in. Made from local potatoes (mostly King Edwards) these are smaller and more irregularly shaped than your fish and chip shop numbers but possess a thrilling added level of flavour, thanks to a sourdough batter and the richly spiced, kasundi-like sauce that accompanies them.
11a The Avenue, New Norfolk, Tas, theagrariankitchen.com
TONKOTSU RAMEN from Taro's Ramen, Qld
Is the best ramen an art or a science? Taro's tonkotsu combines elements of both. Crowned with char siu, nori, and a perfect hardboiled egg, this bowl of creamy pork broth arrives spiked with black garlic oil and bouncy straight-edge noodles that are also made on-site. Traditionally ramen is a cold weather treat but this version is so superior, it's topped the must-eat list in steamy Brisbane for more than a decade. Chef Ben Williamson, co-owner of Agnes in Fortitude Valley, is a die-hard devotee. "It's a dish that's stood the test of time – lip-smackingly good, it's so rich and unctuous," says Williamson.
Locations throughout Brisbane, taros-ramen.myshopify.com
EMPEROR'S PUFFS from Emperor's Garden Cakes & Bakery, NSW
There are very few things you can buy for less than a dollar these days, which only makes these cream puffs more enticing. For a gold coin, you can have three piping-hot puffs in your hot little hands (or 18 for a fiver), but you'll have to brave an inevitable queue, which consistently snakes it way through Dixon Street Mall in Sydney's Chinatown. The tiny hole-in-the-wall has been pumping out vanilla custard-filled sweets for decades, so it's no wonder they have a cult following. But they come with a word of warning: the freshly cooked puffs contain molten custard that will strip your tastebuds if you don't let them cool first.
96-100 Hay St, Haymarket, NSW
SOUVLAKI from Kalimera Souvlaki Art, Vic
Does Thomas Deliopoulos, owner of Oakleigh's Kalimera Souvlaki Art, make the best souvlaki in Victoria? Many (including us) think so but don't take our word for it. Ben Shewry, owner and chef at Attica, stumbled on Kalimera by chance and was instantly hooked. "The pork souvlaki blew me away," he says. "It was so well seasoned and so well cooked and they were obviously using female pigs because the flavour was so clean. There was also a delicious oregano flavour to the meat, different to any oregano I'd tasted. The thing that struck me immediately was that there were no shortcuts being taken."
41 Chester St, Oakleigh, Vic, kalimerasouvlakiart.com.au
YAKITORI from Yakitori Yurippi, NSW
Crows Nest has become a bubbling hub for the Japanese community in NSW, with devoted grocery stores and restaurants dotted throughout the area. A hot spot that exudes the charm of downtown Sapporo is Yakitori Yurippi: a tiny restaurant that regularly sees waiting diners line the street outside. Sticks threaded with chicken hearts and tsukune are kissed with smoke and soy, rendered soft by the charcoal-lit flames. Lotus head chef Sam Young is a regular customer. "The heart, chicken skin and liver are the best," he says. The meat is locally sourced and all skewers are made in-house. "It's an arduous process and we take a lot of time and care," says owner Tin Jung Shea.
7 Falcon Street, Crows Nest, yurippi.com.au
VANILLA SLICE from Bridgewater Bakehouse, Vic
You don't get to be reigning champion and two-time winner of the Great Australian Vanilla Slice Triumph (Australia's most prestigious vanilla slice competition) for nothing. That's certainly the case for this quiet masterpiece of slicedom at Bridgewater Bakehouse, outside of Bendigo in central Victoria. The shiny, white fondant, the rich, firm but not-too-sweet custard and the ovation-worthy pastry that breaks rather than bends all come together to emphatically answer the question of why the "snot block" is such an enduring Aussie classic.
6 Main St, Bridgewater on Loddon, Vic
Want the recipe for a classic vanilla slice?
BAKED RICOTTA CAKE from Pasticceria Papa, NSW
Hundreds of cannoli, biscuits and sugar-coated baked-goods line the display cabinets of this Haberfield institution, yet the humble baked ricotta cake is Pasticceria Papa's crown jewel. It's traditionally Italian in style, with a smooth cream and ricotta centre that's light, fluffy and just the right amount of sweet. Encased in the softest, shortbread-like pastry and dusted with a magical combination of cinnamon and icing sugar, this cloud-like cake has been around since the bakery opened more than 30 years ago and, thankfully, doesn't look to be leaving anytime soon.
145 Ramsay St, Haberfield, NSW, ppapa.com.au
PLAIN PIE from Yatala Pies, Qld
If you've never veered off the Gold Coast Highway to order a plain steak pie from Yatala (preferably dialled up with sauce, with a serve of mashed potatoes and peas stuffed beneath its flaky top) are you even a Queenslander? The bakery has changed ownership and location a few times during its 130-year history, but the team still fires up their traditional ceramic pie ovens to turn out those golden-hued, crisp-bottomed comforters, which sell in their thousands daily. Nostalgia never tasted so good.
48 Old Pacific Hwy, Yatala, Qld, yatalapies.com.au
BBC from Ying Chow, SA
Cheap, cheerful and abrupt is how Africola's Duncan Welgemoed describes Adelaide's late-night dining institution, Ying Chow, heralding their "BBC" as a hero of the menu. The renowned Sichuan specialty comprises broad beans, bean curd and Chinese chutney, stir-fried with garlic, chilli and pickled cabbage. It's a nourishing way to end an evening out on the town.
Ying Chow, 114 Gouger St, Adelaide, SA
Plus more broad bean recipes for your spring-cooking needs.
DIM SIM from South Melbourne Market Dim Sims, Vic
While there are still annoying purists around lamenting these dumplings haven't been the same since the passing of owner Ken Cheng in 2006 (he started selling them out of a trolley at Caulfield Racetrack in 1949 before moving to South Melbourne Market), they still pack a punch and draw a crowd. Larger and rounder than traditional dim sim, they come filled with cabbage, pork, beef, lamb (yes, three meats) and spices. You can choose to have them steamed (better) or fried (if you're hungover).
322-326 Coventry St, South Melbourne, southmelbournemarketdimsims.com.au