Cafes

Meet North Melbourne’s Warehouse-Turned-Milk-Bar From The Mind Behind Bali’s Potato Head Beach Club

By James Shackell
7th Sep 2021

Melbourne’s love of Japanese café culture keeps rolling with Le Bajo. Honestly, you can’t swing a shokupan loaf in this town without hitting an impossibly cool, Tokyo-style fit-out.

Fair call though—Le Bajo is not your typical Japanese café. Unlike Hibiki, Saint Dreux and Cibi, this place feels more kitsch than trendy. An Indonesian monitor lizard in an orange polo grins down from the front window. Bikes hang near the roller door. Customers inhale cheek-puckering milkshakes from big, stainless steel cups. And instead of the obligatory black-and-white décor, owner Jason Gunawan has gone for Balinese beach bar meets ‘70s Australiana: a wall of potted greenery (including the biggest fiddle leaf known to man), chunky timber beams, garden gnomes, canteen chairs and high industrial ceilings.

Makes sense, since Gunawan is the Aussie ex-pat behind Potato Head Beach Club in Seminyak. Le Bajo was his COVID lockdown project; that’s his collection of vintage Mercedes, stacked against the south wall. (No touching.)

Here’s how to win at Le Bajo. If you’re coming for breakfast, grab the Morning Set—a slice of shokupan with spiced sugar, boiled egg, marmalade, yogurt and batch brew. It’s pretty good value for $12 bucks. The ‘Fruits Sandos’—whipped cream, sliced strawberries and mango, tucked inside crustless milk bread—are basically little breakfast cakes; the foodie embodiment of Kawaii culture. Wash them down with a house-made ginger ale, which, honestly, tastes like someone liquified the gingerbread man.

Le Bajo’s manager, Kantaro Okado, has got the yoshoku salad just right: a chunky mix of carrot, potato and kewpie, spiked with vinegar and dusted with ao nori flakes. And when the menu switches over at 10:30am, it’s Katsu Sando time— Okado makes it hot, crispy and huge, with shredded cabbage, a side of pickles, and hefty slick of miso. A bit steep at $18, but you won’t leave hungry.

This place is what happens when you mash cultures together—Indonesian, Japanese, Australian. And it works. Long-time local favourites, Code Black and Ample, usually rule Howard St with an iron fist, but Le Bajo’s vibe (let’s call it ‘milk bar chic’) seems to be drawing a solid lunchtime crowd. With sandos this good, it’s easy to see why.

Le Bajo is open for takeaway Tuesday through Sunday, 9am to 3pm during lockdown.

Check out more movements happening in Melbourne's culinary scene here.

Image credit: supplied

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