If Vegie Bar is the king of Brunswick Street, then Rice Queen is, well, queen. Occupying a space in a fiercely competitive Fitzroy block that houses two of Melbourne's cult vegetarian venues — the aforementioned Vegie Bar and Yong Green Food — the overt Oriental restaurant and bar has still managed to become one of the strip's reliable fixtures since they made the move from Smith Street two years ago. Everyone has a place within the monarchy.
The nicest thing about Rice Queen is the space; it's so big you could almost see the horizon on the bar if it wasn't for the hanging red lanterns disrupting your view. The beauty of the large open room allows for tables to be generously spaced, creating intimacy no matter whether you sit at a bar table, on a lounge, in the formal dining space or the outdoor alcove. The fit out is oriented toward Oriental kitsch, yet it remains sleek with a comfortably quiet noise level and attentive table service.
Seven spice Korean Fried Chicken wings ($10 for five pieces, $17 for ten) are hot and peppery, but not fiery enough to kill your taste buds; the fried outer is thin and crisp — and gluten free! — giving way to juicy, juicy chicken. Hands are necessary, napkins are provided. The caramelised pork bites, twice cooked pork belly served with green nam jim, crispy shallots and garlic chips ($13), are just as good and can be eaten with chopsticks if you'd prefer. Balance out the meat with a serve of tofu san choy bau ($9) and maybe some sesame gyoza crisps with white miso tahini smoky eggplant sauce ($8). The menu lends itself to both snacks and larger meals, but your best bet is to order a drink and a few plates to share (especially when the pad Thai edges towards $20).
As the front section of the venue doubles as a standalone bar, dropping in for just a drink is fine too. A selection of sake works perfectly with a snack (ask the bar staff for a recommendation) and a variety of local wines and Asian bottled beers are great if you don't feel like a cocktail. Otherwise, go for the Barberry (Cuervo Tradicional tequila, Mandarine Liqueur, housemade jam, fresh lemon and rhubarb bitters; $14) or the Dark Negroni (Mount Gay XO rum, vermouth, amaro and orange bitters; $17).
It's these drinks, the class bartenders and attention to detail that separates Rice Queen from its neighbouring eateries. It may not be the heir to the throne, but this place is royalty too.