275 Barkly Street, Footscray
Phone: 9687 4094
I’ve lived in Footscray for just over two years now. Just about every day, I walk past Poon’s on my way home. On most nights it’s busy; on weekends it’s usually packed. Yet if you take a closer look through the venetian blinds, you’ll notice that there’s rarely – if ever – any Asian customers. A quick read of the menu posted in the window pretty much explains the reasoning behind the lack of Asian patronage. You see, Poon’s isn’t so much a Chinese restaurant as it is an Australian Chinese restaurant.
Before you chide me for making the distinction, or conversely stop reading because of your disdain for the ‘inauthentic’, let me explain. Historically, traditional Chinese fare didn’t do so well commercially in Australia, at least not until the last decade or two. My family owned a(n Australian) Chinese restaurant in Swan Hill for over a decade, so I saw first-hand the types of ‘Chinese’ food that Australians responded well to back then. Restauranteurs, needing to make a living, naturally pandered to these tastes, and a particular genre of Chinese restaurant emerged over time – what I like to refer to (lovingly) as bastardised Chinese food. For a while, they dominated the Chinese eatery landscape, but the shifting tastes of our cosmopolitan society have, for the most part, moved on. Many of us now recognise the difference between Shanghainese, Cantonese and Sichuan flavours (arguably the three most prevalent styles of Chinese food in Australia).
When my previous housemate moved in with me, he was pretty fresh off the plane from Italy – a country not known for its Chinese food – and so he was continually intrigued by Poon’s. It was always busy, so it must be good, right? He was a little confused at first when I explained that there was an element of secret shame when it comes to the enjoyment of this style of Chinese food. For the better part of a year, he would suggest from time to time that we go to Poon’s, and I would suggest we go elsewhere. However, sometimes this was in the company of others, most notably @eatnik, and the seed was planted to organise an excursion to Poon’s one day (you know, just not today).
Fast forward a year, and I had a new housemate, and @eatnik had moved interstate. She was back in town for a weekend, so we had to do something special for the occasion. I suggested Poon’s on twitter, and there was quickly a flood of interest – a Poonami, if you will. In the end, there were fifteen of us, which I thought might have been a little challenging for Poon’s, but they were more than ready for us. Though I should note that ‘ready’ didn’t include laundering the tablecloths. They’ve since gotten rid of tablecloths altogether, moving to the more utilitarian dark wooden tables, so I guess that’s not an issue anymore.
One thing that I found sorely missing from the Poon’s menu was a mixed entree. Typically it’s all deep fried, involving a spring roll, dim sim, and sesame prawn toast. So we improvised, and just ordered enough of each of these (we substituted mini-dim sims as I’m prone to over-ordering) for each person to have some of each. The sesame prawn toast was decent, the mini-dim sims were a bit forgettable, but the spring rolls – which some members of the group didn’t like – transported me back to my childhood spent in the kitchen of our family Chinese restaurant in Swan Hill, when I would get super-excited as a child when the kitchen hand made a mistake and their were extra spring rolls fried. Filled with cabbage, minced pork and shredded carrot, these golden tubes of shameful joy were executed exquisitely. And no, I still will never order them at yum cha. That’s just wrong.
Next thing that I ordered was the seafood combination, not so much for the seafood, but because it came in a ‘bird’s nest’ – an artful deep fried noodle bowl. I found this version interesting because there was a combination of deep-fried (sensing a theme here yet?) seafood with the more traditional stir-fried seafood and vegies, glazed in glistening cornfloured ‘clear’ sauce.
Of course, you can’s have a Chinese Australian meal without special fried rice. Poon’s was decent, but clearly designed as a foil to their dishes, and not that ‘special’ in my book. We used to have two fried rice dishes on the menu – a regular one, which was much like Poon’s’ minus the prawns, and the Special Fried Rice, which had big pieces of chicken and slices of roast pork, and was pretty much a meal on its own. Still, I was happy to see that Poon’s doesn’t add soy sauce to their fried rice. Very few things in this world offend me more.
I was a little disappointed with the sweet and sour pork at Poon’s. The pork itself hadn’t been marinated much, and as often happens in Chinese Australian restaurants, some of the pieces were more batter than meat. The sauce itself was on the bland side, and the vegetables were over-cooked. It reminded me a little of bain-marie food. As much as I love sweet and sour pork, I’d definitely avoid this one.
The honey king prawns, on the other hand, were deftly done. Battered and fried till crispy and golden, then lacquered in honey. Delicious. The garnishes were a little odd – lettuce and fried strips of wonton skins – but presentation isn’t really what a place like this is all about.
Again, the lemon chicken – another stalwart of the Chinese Australian menu – appeared pretty lacklustre, and to be honest, tasted that way too. The lemon sauce lacked acidity, and also, lacked sauce. The chicken itself was moist and tender enough, but it also was pretty bland. Is this what bland people eat? Perhaps…
One of the highlights of any Chinese Australian restaurant’s menu is anything that has “(sizzling)” next to the item. This was the Mongolian beef – which was tasty enough, but lacked any real spiciness which I usually associate with the dish in my mind. The beef had the noticeable texture of meat that had been tenderised with bicarb, but then that’s not unusual, and cost-cutting measures like that are almost to be expected when you consider the prices that Poon’s charges – it’s pretty damn cheap.
Of course, we couldn’t have a Poonami without dessert, right? Banana fritters and fried ice creams were the standard order around the table, and let’s just affirm once more, if I haven’t been clear so far – the chef/s at Poon’s know their way around a deep fryer.
I opted for the pineapple fritter and ice cream – I find banana fritters are too sweet when covered in golden syrup and paired with vanilla ice cream.
Poon’s stands as something of a last outpost for those who hold fast to this uniquely indigenous form of Chinese cuisine. And even if it’s not to everyone’s taste, they do what they do pretty well, as evidenced by their continual success.