As condensed milk oozes down a bed of bright orange shaved ice-cream, decorated by black jelly and clear pearls, your hand almost instinctively reaches for your phone.
This is bingsu, a classic Korean dessert with a modern twist.
Angelo Labrador founded Scoopy Milk Bar with four friends in November after seeing the dish for the first time during a trip to San Diego.
“We thought, ‘wow, this is very interesting and there’s nothing like it in Melbourne’,” says the 25-year-old.
The store now serves five varieties of the brightly coloured dessert at Hawker, a trial site in Melbourne’s CBD for pop-ups serving modern Asian food.
It’s part of an emerging trend of specialty Asian dessert stores and joins the cluster around Melbourne Central that includes Harajuku Crepes, Dessert Story selling Taiwanese and Hong Kong puddings, Japanese apple puffs from Pafu, and Hokkaido Baked Cheese Tart.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the next six to eight months, we see a lot more,” says Bianca Ling, who started Instagram account Melbourne Food Baby in 2016, and now has more than 70,000 followers.
Single-option food stores are common across Asia, where street vendors often specialise in one type of noodle, dessert or snack. This style has been replicated in Melbourne and people are queueing up to get involved.
Ling says the trend shows a growing appreciation of Asian culture. “It’s almost like in this last year, with the release of movies like Crazy Rich Asians, we’re celebrating what it means to be an Asian in Australia. And food is definitely a big part of that culture,” she says.
We’re celebrating what it means to be an Asian in Australia. And food is definitely a big part of that culture.Bianca Ling, Melbourne Food Baby
The theatrics of a dish, its “Insta-worthiness” or “wow factor”, can sometimes be more important than the flavour as social media followers tune in from abroad to admire the spectacle.
Social media is particularly important for international students in Melbourne, who want to share their experiences with their families back home, says Ling.
Labrador estimates between 70 and 80 per cent of his customers are international students, who come to try flavours from home. But customers of all backgrounds frequently pull out their phones to capture the dish.
While these stores are exciting, food blogger Ihua Lin says many businesses fold once the initial hype fades.
East-meets-west LuxBite patisserie, which has stores in the CBD and South Yarra, trialled the single-option model three years ago but had to expand the variety to stay afloat.
“It didn’t work for us,” says director Bernard Chu. “And I don’t really want to do just one thing forever.”
Chu says social media is important to the business and has helped desserts such as their bubble tea croissant and matcha macaron become signature dishes. But with a guiding philosophy of “tastes good, looks good”, they regularly turn down requests to make social media-inspired gimmicks such as the unicorn cake.
“We know what’s good for our brand. We don’t do something just for the money,” he says.
Over the past eight years, the bakery has innovated with a range of products, which has enabled them to develop a diverse audience.
“It used to be 80 per cent Asian customers, but now it’s almost 50-50,” says Chu.
And Scoopy Milk Bar’s bingsu has become so popular that Labrador says they have plans to open a flagship store in Melbourne later this year and perhaps one in Sydney.
But meanwhile, he is not about to become a one-tricky pony and quit his day job as a risk consultant for KPMG.