273 Smith Street, Collingwood
Phone: 9419 2949

I don’t think I could ever really by a vegetarian. I tried it once. Well, sort of. I think it was sort of a mutual dare between my boyfriend at the time and I. We decided that we’d be vegaquarians/pescetarians/whatever you call it. Vegies + fish. For environmental reasons, primarily. I lasted about two months before I added chicken to my diet. My sister commented, “What, fish isn’t enough for you?” Quite obviously not. Then I moved to Viet Nam, and it was all over. As if I’d restrict my diet there!

Anyway, I have something of an admiration/disdain relationship with vegetarians. I respect them for their ability to stick to an ethical life choice, though I know it’s not always ethics which drives vegetarianism, but I resent the need to be mindful of where I can take them when eating out together. Which is why I like vegetarians who know and are willing to suggest places to eat. I don’t mind skipping meat in some meals, I just don’t like the idea muddying up my decision making process. So if I don’t have to make a decision, I don’t have a problem!

Mr A is one of those great vegetarians, who doesn’t try to convert you, knows lots about good food, and isn’t shy to suggest a place to eat. So when we had a lunchtime meeting recently, he suggested we have it at Soulfood. There was the promise of wifi, which didn’t eventuate, but it was a good place for lunch nonetheless.

I had the arancini, which was a sizeable hunk of rice, peppered with bits of olive, pumpkin and feta. The chilli napoli was nicely acidic, but could have used a bit more heat. I had this with the Caesar salad, which quite frankly was a bit bland without bacon and anchovies. But all in all, not a bad lunch!

Mr A had the pumpkinopita, a play on the traditional spanakopita. It looked tasty, as did the roast vegetable salad he had on the side.

It’s not really surprising that the food at Soulfood is good. It’s been there for as long as I can remember, and has always had a reputation for tasty, interesting vegetarian dishes. It’s a shame that I’m so addicted to meat, because sometimes I think it might be a good thing to try vegetarianism again… Oh OK, who am I kidding!? Bring on the animal flesh.

Soulfood Café on Urbanspoon

Chinta Blues

6 Acland St, St Kilda
Phone: 9534 9233

I don’t often go South of the river, as regular readers will know. It used to be an ideological thing, but then when Mr N moved South, that changed. I started to embrace the idea of heading to St Kilda, or South Yarra, and it didn’t seem like such of a chore. To be honest, it helped that he would drive everywhere, so I wouldn’t have to deal with schlepping about on public transport, or the inevitable headache of navigating the least traffic-fraught route across the river.

So when Penny initiated the Melbourne Food Blogger’s Dinner, and I received an email saying that it was going to be hosted by Miss Jackson, I’ll admit I had only a vague idea of where Miss Jackson was. It’s in St Kilda, right? Right.

After our initial meeting, we thought we’d sneakily duck over to Chinta Blues for a quick bit of hawker satisfaction. I don’t know why, but I was a little surprised at how down to earth Chinta Blues was. I guess its proximity to Lau’s Family Kitchen and Il Fornaio just made me assume it would be more of an upmarket proposition. And the idea of high end combined with hawker food just doesn’t quite sit right with me. Partly why I’ve never been to Gingerboy, and have no real desire to, I guess.

Anyway, I always like to judge a Malaysian restaurant on two things, if they’re available: the laksa, and the char kway teow. I wasn’t in the mood for a laksa that evening, so I opted for the char kway teow.

It was a good rendition plenty of wok hei and well seasoned. A serve of sambal came on the side, but I only needed half of it. My only complaint was I would have preferred it a little more heavily charred, but I’m splitting hairs now.

Ms J had the hokkien mee, which looked pretty appetising, but I’m not sure about the shredded lettuce on top. It seems a little mealy to me, but maybe it’s a traditional thing I don’t know about, so I’m not going to question it too much.

The other three at the table chose the laksa, which is apparently what they all order whenever they go to Chinta Blues. So, I’m guessing it’s good. I didn’t really feel comfortable asking for a taste, as I hadn’t met Mr M and Ms S before.

Mr M and Ms S shared a serve of the roti as well, which is a good idea in my book, because I always end up wanting to mop up the laksa broth after all my noodles have disappeared.
I’m glad that there are decent, cheap and tasty options south of the river. I think my tendency to think of everything over there as homogonised and plasticky is probably unjustified. Even if Chinta Blues is part of a chain!

Chinta Blues on Urbanspoon

Los Amates

34 Johnston St, Fitzroy
Phone: 9417 0441

For ages, I’ve listened to people bemoan the lack of good Mexican food in Melbourne. I’m not sure I’d agree with that – I’m obviously no authority on the matter, but I’ve had good experiences around town. But I recognise that by and large, we’re served up ‘Tex Mex’ food, rather than ‘authentic’ Mexican fare. And some people take issue with that. Some people take issue with Sweet and Sour Pork at Chinese restaurants, too. Those people need to loosen up.

However, all of that being said, the same people who lament the presence of lack of true Mexican food in Melbourne generally tend to refer to Los Amates as something of a shining beacon in the sea of mediocrity. Of course, this is prior to the opening of Mamasita, which I’m still yet to visit, as I don’t like waiting in lines, and also I’ve heard mixed reviews.

Anyway, I stopped in at Los Amates with Mr J, after having introduced him to Dos Equis (XX) beer at Black Pearl. Continuing my ‘memories of the Yucatan’ theme, as soon as we sat down, I flicked the menu straight to the drinks page. Los Amates definitely gets points for their Mexican cerveza list. Seeing as Mr J wasn’t in a decision making mode, I took the reins, I ordered us both Modelo Especial, and the Taquiza platter to share.

The Taquiza platter is your choice of three taco fillings, with a stack of soft tortillas. You basically make your own tacos at the table. Fun! We had the Cochinita Pibil (braised pork with achiote), Lengua (ox tongue Mexico City style) and the Tinga (chicken with tomato and chipotle salsa), shown below left to right.
I was expecting to love the cochinita pibil the most, as I can still remember sitting at the town square in Cancun, watching families practice for a dance performance, munching on a tostada laden with pulled pork. While Los Amates’ version was good, it failed to capture the same flavours I remembered from years ago. Or maybe my memory’s just failed? In any case, the standout was clearly the lengua. With a soft yet springy texture, and lightly flavoured, the ox tongue was probably amongst the best I’ve tried. Mr J and I kept furtively going back for more, not wanting to seem greedy (that’s the only problem with sharing food) and pretty much ignoring the tinga, which was a bit too salty, in my opinion.

Los Amates claims to be the only authentic Mexican restaurant in Victoria. I’m not sure if they’re the only one, but they certainly are authentic. At least in my limited experience. I’d go back there for sure, if only for more beers and tongue. Ox tongue! It wasn’t that sort of date… 😉

Are there any places in Melbourne which have dishes which arouse your memories of past travel adventures?

Los Amates on Urbanspoon

Melbourne Food Blogger’s Dinner

So after just over a year of this food blogging business, a year of judging others, the time has come for me to let others judge me. Along with a few other local food bloggers, I’m part of a rag tag team who will be putting our food where our mouths (? that mixed metaphor didn’t really work) are. We’re getting our cook on, and inviting the public to test our mettle in the kitchen.

We’ve dreamed up a five course menu, and we’ll see if we’re able to bring that dream to life on the night. Here’s hoping! The menu will include ox tongue, pork belly, anchovies, gin and strawberries, and there will not be any variations – no, there are no vegetarian options – so if you have any food intolerances, please mention them in your email when booking, so we can make sure we won’t be poisoning you!  

The team:
Penny (aka @jeroxie
Ed (aka @tomatom)
Jess (aka @thatjessho)
Mat (aka @cookinwithgoths)
and myself, with a bit of help from the crew at Miss Jackson, of course.

So, the details:

Where:            Miss Jackson
                         2/19 Grey Street St. Kilda (enter via Jackson Street)
When:              6:30pm Monday 8th November
Price:               $100 for 5 courses with matched wines

The fine print:

Please note that bookings will be taken by email only, for a maximum of four per booking. Payment will be by direct deposit, required within 1 week of confirmation, and will be non-refundable.

So come along and support and/or heckle us – seats are limited, so get in quick!

Saigon Pho

73A Nicholson St, Footscray
Phone: 9689 8806

You know, I place a lot of emphasis in my life these days about proximity. I like the idea of living (relatively) close to work, I am happy that I have markets, shops and restaurants all within a short stroll from my building, and the idea of heading to visit my parents across the other side of Melbourne can only be described as a sojourn. Is it laziness, or efficiency that causes this force of inertia within me? And within us all, I think? I think it’s a bit of both, and it’s something we should all try to overcome a little. Sure, eating and shopping locally are great things, but sometimes it works against us.

Take, for example, a simple (joyous) activity like sitting down for a hearty bowl of pho bo dac biet. Given that I live in Footscray, it’s not hard to find decent pho. With a little trial and error, you can find good pho. But the principle of proximity led me to mediocre pho. At Saigon Pho. Literally (by about half a block) the closest pho joint to my home.

Don’t get me wrong – if Saigon Pho were in the CBD, or in Fitzroy, it would be quite passable. But again, proximity weighs in. It’s half a block from Hien Vuong Pasteur, Hung Vuong, and about a block further away is Pho Chu The. So the availability of quality pho in the very proximal area creates an obligation for pho greatness. Up to which, unfortunately, Saigon Pho does not live.

The broth is rather one-dimensional, and that dimension is called MSG. It’s not particularly clear, either, which is odd, because that means there must have been some beef involved in the creation of the broth. The rare beef was good, as was the amount of offal (tripe, tendon) but the brisket was something of a dry let down. Not enough fat. Enough said? The noodles were quite good, but I could have dealt with a bit more in that department.

It’s not horribly bad pho. It’s just not that good. Which in Footscray, is not good enough. And that, my friends, is the rule of proximal pho.

Saigon Pho on Urbanspoon

Hao Phong

136 Hopkins St, Footscray
Phone: 9689 8373

I tend to get a little bi-polar when I’ve had a few drinks. Either I’ll be assertive and a bit alpha-male, insisting that I’m right about everything, or I’ll be massively indecisive and just want to go along with whatever someone suggests, as long as I don’t have to think. This isn’t always the best behavioural trait when you’re out on a date and things take a turn for the boozy. But I digress, as usual.

I’d had a few post-work drinks before meeting up with Mr I to finally get around to recording a new episode of our podcast. We went to grab a bite to eat before recording, and spent about 10 minutes wandering up and down Hopkins st, with me vacillating about which restaurant deserved our custom. To be honest, we walked past Hao Phong the first time, because I was unimpressed by the ethnic mix of people inside; there weren’t nearly enough Vietnamese people in there for my liking. Yes, let’s be honest, I do judge a restaurant by the clientele it attracts; especially Asian restaurants. Anyway, as I wasn’t in the mood for pho – I know, what the!? – we were rather uninspired by the restaurants which we passed, and we ended up back at Hao Phong.

Now this makes Hao Phong sound rather lacklustre, which isn’t fair. The place is inoffensive, in that new-school decor Vietnamese way, and the service was prompt, if a little on the characterless, efficient side. The menu, like most Vietnamese restaurants, was voluminous. You might have trouble deciding on what you want to eat, rather than finding something in the menu that appeals.

On this occasion, I went for one of the classics – bun thit nuong (rice vermicelli with grilled pork) with some cha gio (spring rolls) thrown in for good measure. There are probably five dishes on which I will judge a Vietnamese restaurant, and bun thit nuong is definitely one of them.

The pork was well seasoned, and satisfyingly moist and tender. The spring rolls weren’t bad, and overall, the dish was pretty good.

Mr I chose the seafood combination with stir-fried rice noodle.

This dish was pretty close to a Sha Hor Fun – stir-fried flat rice noodle topped with seafood, vegetables and a thick, crystalline gravy. It wasn’t what Mr I was expecting – I think he thought it would be more along the lines of a Singapore noodle, with rice vermicelli, but he enjoyed it nonetheless. I had a quick sample of the noodles, and it was pretty magnificent. Wok hei out the wazoo. Impressive. I wouldn’t normally order this dish off a menu, but I’d consider it here next time.

All in all, Hao Phong was a pleasant place to eat, and I think we may have stumbled upon the Minh Minh of Footscray – the place where the Gays like to eat – as we definitely weren’t the only gays in the village that night. It’s often busy, but there’s more tables out the back, so if it looks full, still pop your head in and try asking.

The lesson here is not to judge a restaurant by who goes there, right? I’m still not going to Poon’s or Jim Wong’s. Unless I’m drunk and indecisive. Oh, looks like maybe I am, then.

Hao Phong on Urbanspoon

Tarim Uighur

257 Glenferrie Rd, Malvern
Phone: 9500 8828

I’m not sure exactly how the conversation started, but I managed to self-invite myself along to a Uighur tweetup a couple of weeks ago. Along with @eatnik, I set out East to meet @alexlobov, @jillianjtl and @bui for a feast at Tarim Uighur Restaurant in Malvern.

Tarim is presumably named after the Tarim basin, which covers a large part of the Xinjiang region of North-Western China. The restaurant is run by a husband and wife team, who are both wonderfully friendly. It’s one of those places with a functional, sparse decor, where you get your own tea, and the chopsticks are disposable. Be aware that service may be a little slow if they’re busy, but the food’s worth the wait.

We started off with the beef tongue. It was wonderfully tender, and had good flavour.

We were recommended to try the baked buns, filled with beef mince and onion, so we decided to share one between two. The bread was light, kind of like Turkish bread. The filling wasn’t particularly flavoursome, but it was pretty good anyway.

The close proximity of the Tarim basin to the steppes of the ‘istans (Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan) and the Turkic ethnic roots of the Uighur people meant that there’s a bit of a Russian/Turkish style to this food, as opposed to your typical Chinese, or even Tibetan, restaurant. Don’t expect  to have rice with your meal – the breads and noodles are more interesting anyway.

Alex commented that the grilled meat skewers we ordered were pretty much like the ones his Russian father makes. He claims his father’s are better, in which case they’d be pretty amazing, because these lamb skewers were well spiced, and perfectly cooked. I’d tried this sort of skewer as street food in Yunnan years ago, but the meat was never this tender and juicy. It could have something to do with the quality of our meat produce here, as opposed to rural China?

We then got the fried noodles with beef – they were good, but not that memorable. I liked the abundance of sesame seeds which coat the noodles. I remember adding chilli oil to this. By the way, their chilli oil paste there is three kinds of WOW.
They were out of lamb tripe for the night (which was a little disappointing, because no-one could remember having tried lamb tripe before, so we were excited) so we ordered the beef tripe instead. Again, the flavouring was a little bit boring, but the texture was great. This dish was quite oily, which quickly became apparent as it cooled, and became less and less appetising.
We ordered ‘eggs with leeks’ which came out as ‘eggs with chives’. These were not that exciting, and I wish we’d ordered something else. Oh well, we’ll know better for next time.
Amazingly, with all of this food – we all left sated, but not quite satisfied (cue ice cream at Trampoline, then drinks at Der Raum) – the bill ended up working out at about $13 each! Offal is such good value. 😛

Tarim Uighur Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Olmecs Bakery Bar Cafe

410 Bridge Road, Richmond
Phone: 9428 5995

I used to watch this cartoon when I was growing up, called the Mysterious Cities of Gold. It was about these three kids who were searching for El Dorado, and involved Spanish conquistadors, and flying around in a golden condor. I’m sure you can see why I used to love it.

Anyway, one of the civilisations the kids ran into a couple of times in the series were the Olmecs. They were depicted as strange guys with funny heads and point ears and were generally mean-spirited. They were the bad guys. Now I know this was a cartoon depiction, but I’ve always thought of them as the bad guys when it comes to Central American civilisations because of this. So I was surprised someone would name a cafe after them.

I stopped in with Mr D for a quick dinner one Friday evening. It wasn’t too busy, which should have tipped us off, because the rest of the Bridge Rd strip was buzzing with the post-work/dinner/football crowd. But Mr D had been there recently for lunch, and said it was OK. I was in one of my trademark indecisive moods, so we settled on Olmecs. If we hadn’t, I’m fairly sure I would have made us wander Bridge Rd for another half hour, and finally have settled on something along the same lines anyway. I get like that.

Having been on a flesh-fest diet for the previous two days, I felt it was necessary to omit meat from this meal, so I had the vegie burger. Yeah, I know, not such a healthy option, really, with those chips. Oh, and FYI, it says french fries on the menu, but they’re definitely chips, not french fries. The burger itself was not bad; it was tasty, though it had a tendency (like a lot of vegie burgers) to fall apart too easily. And I get that Turkish bread is great, but it bothers me when I order a burger and the bread comes out rectangular. Just saying.

Mr D had the vegetarian pizza, which was a decent size, but rather underwhelming. Stuck in the no-man’s land between thin and thick crust, it was neither crispy nor doughy in that good way. The toppings weren’t anything to write about either, so I won’t write any more about them.
Apparently the bakery part of Olmecs is really good – there were a couple of people who came in for take away cake while we were eating – and I’m assuming it’s the sort of place that churns out a decent breakfast. It’s pretty family friendly as well (read there was a screaming child up the back, and three little tykes running around the front). I’m not sure I’d go back – they’re not evil and they don’t have pointy ears, but there are better options on Bridge Rd.

Olmecs Bakery Bar Cafe on Urbanspoon