Charlie Zhang was just a teenager when he moved with his family from his home in Lanzhou in the Gansu province of northern China to Australia where, much to his dismay, he found there was a lack of restaurants serving northern Chinese cuisine. “[I was] determined to put the menu of my childhood on the foodie map,” Zhang tells Broadsheet.

Enter Bowltiful, Zhang’s entirely halal restaurant chain dedicated to serving the hand-pulled noodles he remembers so fondly from his childhood. Zhang says he spent most evenings after school in the kitchen with his mother and grandmother, who taught him how to pull noodles, before pairing them with warm, fragrant broths. In 2018, he went back to his hometown to learn properly how to hand-pull the noodles, before returning to Australia to train up a team of chefs. The first Bowltiful restaurant opened in 2019, on Elizabeth Street. A Box Hill venue soon followed.

Bowltiful’s newest spot on Swanston Street is the biggest yet. There are plenty of tables for both solo and group dining and it’s open till 2am every night. It closes for just one day each year, on Lunar New Year. A window into the kitchen provides a full view of the chefs (also known as noodle masters) as they painstakingly hand-pull all the noodles and prepare everything fresh daily.

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According to Zhang, Lanzhou cuisine is known for its fresh and spicy flavours, as well as for being salty and tart. Most of the menu at Bowltiful doesn’t involve soy sauce, instead calling on fresh and light seasoning. The dough is made from scratch and kneaded into 300-gram cylindrical pieces, before the pulling process begins. Choose between nine different noodle widths, starting with super thin at 0.5-millimetre and moving right through to 30-millimetre. Almost every dish is entirely customisable – from the type of noodle to the type of meat added – or you can order one of the bowls on the menu. The Lanzhou beef noodle soup, a Chinese-Muslim dish, is the most popular, followed closely by the braised lamb flap (or lamb belly) noodle soup and the hot chilli oil dry noodles.

Then there are the sides – choose from spicy beef salad and braised beef tripe, shredded tofu salad and seaweed salad. With everything on the menu being halal, the restaurant’s first dessert special – a black sesame bun – will debut in time for Ramadan on March 22 (it could earn a more permanent spot on the menu, depending on how popular it is). The chilli oil, which you’re encouraged to add to almost every dish, is also available to purchase.

Most of the menu items are Zhang’s family recipes, passed down through generations. Dining in at one of the restaurants is designed to be like eating at his family home. “To this day the smell coming from Bowltiful’s kitchen still reminds me of home.”

249 Swanston Street, Melbourne

Mon to Sun 10am–2am