Superb spicy Chinese

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Hon’s Kitchen, 228 Union Road, Ascot Vale. Phone: 9041 4680

At first blush it would be easy to conclude the arrival of Hon’s Kitchen on Union Road is merely a case of one nondescript, generic noodle bar replacing another.

But a solo visit by yours truly – during which a rather fine beef noodle soup, a bit like pho but without the more pronounced seasoning in the broth, was enjoyed – has us thinking Hon’s Kitchen has hidden depths and riches.

Specifically, we have hunch that while black bean beef or sweet ‘n’ sour whatever may be the stock in trade here, careful menu selection may result in the sort of wonderful, top-class yet affordable Cantonese tucker we get from Dragon Express.

We love following our hunches – especially when they come good as spectacularly as they do tonight.

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Special combination fried rice ($9) is good. But really, considering the richnes of our other choices, we should have gone with the identically-priced vego version or just plain rice.

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Spicy chicken ($12.90) … truly superb!

Unlike versions we’ve had elsewhere that involve ribbettes and their bones, this dish is built around boneless chicken pieces deep-fried, with the resulting globules being delicious and marvellously crisp and dry.

Of course, the real prize here is the spicy, dry jumble of goodies that accompanies.

This includes three types of onion – crunchy brown fried shallots, green onion discs and slivers of fresh white onion.

It also includes two types of chilli – crunchy crushed numbers and evil-looking black-red bullets.

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Spicy eggplant ($12.90) is every bit as good and equally chilli-hit, albeit in quite a different way.

This number gets there through deep-frying the raw eggplant chunks and then whipping them into a sauce with chilli, vinegar and some tofu bits.

This dish was started from scratch for us – we saw the eggplant being peeled and chopped.

That such a fine dish resulted so quickly is some sort of magic, the eggplant itself displaying a deluxe lusciousness that beats even Japanese-style eggplant with miso or the slippery big pieces found in laksas.

Perhaps there’s been a mono-dimensional aspect to our meal – chillies rampant in both dishes, both of which have been deep-fried.

But the spiciness has been by no means close to our outer limits and both dishes have been ungreasy.

And while we suspect our selections are most likely among the least frequently ordered at Hon’s Kitchen, their outright excellence just adds weight to our belief that when it comes to Chinese food, some smart ordering at a humble suburban eatery can deliver eats every bit as great as anything to be found in your high-priced CBD palaces.

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Mister Nice Guy’s Bake Shop

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Mister Nice Guy’s Bake Shop, 151 Union Rd, Ascot Vale. Phone: 0424 422 878

The are no animal products at all in any of the goodies available at Mister Nice Guy’s Bake Shop – including the beverages.

So I am faced with the usually unpalatable prospect of having my cafe latte made with soy milk or the like.

OK, I’m game.

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My soy latte ($4.30) is pretty good – it’s strong and quite bitter in a good, coffee way. I’ve certainly had much, much worse in more orthodox and high-falutin’ coffee joints.

But there’s another kind of bitterness – just a whiff of something a little off.

Could I get used to it? Could I learn to like it?

Well, I’d certainly like to, because this is undoubtedly a place for which its worth cultivating affection.

My mini-cupcake ($2), for instance, is a delicate flavour bomb, with good chocolatey taste and lovely icing.

I restrict myself to that one small sample of the goodness going on here on account of having just completed a more substantial meal elsewhere.

But there’s much to oggle – a wide range of cupcakes, a pecan pie, brownies that exude serious intensity.

Bad luck if you’re after savoury filling here, though – as close as you’ll get are the cheesy scrolls made with vegan cheese.

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But it’ll be a pleasure to bring Bennie to such a sugary haven – and he’ll for sure dig the artwork that comes into its own once the 3D spectacles are donned.

The rest of the retro-styled decor and vibe are happy and friendly, as are the staff.

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Pete’s Charcoal Stop

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Pete’s Charcoal Stop, 562 Mt Alexander Rd, Ascot Vale. Phone: 9375 1169

Charcoal chicken shops = coleslaw and chips.

That’s the pretty much hard-and-fast rule for at least one half of the Consider The Sauce team.

So what am I doing breaking with such entrenched tradition?

I’d been alerted to the merits of this chicken shop several months previously by someone who knows about such important matters.

I’d stuck my nose in at the weekend for a look-see … and discovered that this particular business has a distinct Mediterranean flavour.

There’s dolmades and dips and more.

The takeaway menu lists mousaka, pastistio and spanakopita.

So I go with the flow …

And order some of scrumptious-seeming potato segments residing in tasty- juices instead of chips to go with my half-chook.

And Greek salad instead of ‘slaw.

The spuds are beautifully cooked, but I confess to expecting more by way of lemon/oregano zing. Still, a nice change.

The salad is good, the vegetables are fresh and there’s quite a lot of dressing but not much seasoning.

The bird itself is tender through and through – something that can’t often be said of such places, especially when it comes to the often-dry breast meat.

My chicken is a good roast half-bird – that is, it’s minus the crinkly, crunchy, blackened and pungent/salty skin.

My meal – including a can of soft drink – clocks in at a fine $14.

I suspect next time here I’ll revert to chips/coleslaw type.

I know that if I lived nearby, this would be a far-too-regular haunt.

It has the vibe that tells me it’s run by people who know exactly what they’re about when it comes to charcoal chicken, kebabs and burgers.

Safari Restaurant

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Safari Restaurant, 159 Union Rd, Ascot Vale. Phone: 9372 7175

It’s been far too long since we’ve sailed in the Safari – certainly at least since our early review of this fine Somalian eatery.

So long, in fact, we’re not even sure if it’ll be functioning as we remember on this Friday night with appetites inspired by some overdue winter outfitting.

The Consider The Sauce boys have been shopping and are hungry.

Happily, as we enter we discover everything is as we remember it. Indeed, the place seems busier than was the case on any of our previous visits.

The menu, however, seems to have been streamlined somewhat, but as we soon learn – to our complete and joyful satisfaction – the food is the same and just as good as ever.

We toy with idea of ordering Big Mandy Rice For Two ($32), but this is described to us in terms of being good for big fellas, very hungry.

So we back off and discover there’s a menu item just made for us – The Regular ($13).

This consists of a plate of Mandy Rice and your choice of lamb, beef, chicken steak or fish.

As on previous visits, our bowls of their incredible meat soup are brought before we’ve even placed our order proper.

This is a broth of lip-smacking sensations – spicy, heady with meatiness yet light on meat itself.

It’s simply wonderful.

Bennie’s chicken steak – hidden under a tasty array of grilled sautéed carrot, capsicum and onion – is more plentiful than it looks. The chicken meat is tending towards dryness but falls short enough of that to pass for tender, and has a wonderful charred-like flavour.

I like his chicken, he digs my lamb.

The sheep meat has form and structure yet is far from chewy and falls easily from the bones.

In both our cases, the rice is splendid – cooked in stock, spiced, every grain glistening.

As ever, our meals are helped along by long, tall glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice clinking with ice cubes.

Killer soup, terrific meat, sensational rice, just the right kind of vegetable accompaniment, freshly squeezed juice … $13.

This is a fantastic bargain.

The service here is friendly but efficient.

We can’t recommend Safari highly enough to anyone hankering for African eating a bit different from Footscray’s mostly Ethiopian fare.

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Yemeni Restaurant revisited

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124 Union Rd, Ascot Vale. Phone: 9372 0854

Yemini Restaurant had been one our earliest outings here on Consider The Sauce, but as the “under new management” sign has been up for some months, we deem it time for a return visit.

The main change seems to be a much tighter and more focused menu – this is no cause for alarm; indeed it may be good news.

The handful of dishes now available all clock in at $12.

A few weeks previous, on my ownsome, I’d had burmah – “Bedouin-style tender lamb on the bone slow-cooked with khubz (traditional Yemeni bread) on rice”. It was pretty good, too, the meal coming to my table in a very hot pot, the cooking liquid then poured into a bowl for soup purposes. It was much like the lamb broth at Safari Restaurant up the road, only much more spicy and piquant.

The meat was eaten separately, with flat bread that looked suspiciously like blandola store-bought roti. Wrong! This was the royalty of  flat bread – flaky and rich and impossible to stop eating.

For our Saturday lunch we tell the staff we are two hungry lads – but not THAT hungry. Would it be possible to enlarge, for a suitable fee, one of the main plates for sharing purposes?

Certainly – and a $5 premium is agreed upon.

As we wait, there arises a certain amount of tension and unease concerning our – OK, my – photographic activities that require quite some minutes of dialogue across and language and cultural barriers.

I succeed, eventually, in assuring them our intentions are only of the highest order, and that, no, we will not be sending them an invoice for a write-up on our website and that, yes, we fully intend to pay for our lunch.

Whew!


I doubt there’s much difference between the standard plate and our deluxe version, but it matters not, for it just right for the pair of us.

Our lamb mandi – “slow-cooked lamb with baharat (mixture of Yemeni spices) served with rice, salad, shitni (green chili sauce) and Khiar bil laban (cucumber dip)” – is similar to meals we’d under the joint’s previous incarnation, with some key differences.

No sign of the green chilli mash – this time the spice hit comes with a much greater kick from red/brown dip that consequently requires much more judicious imbibing.

The rice is minus the sultanas and strands of deep brown fried onion of earlier visits – but it’s even better. In fact, it’s much MUCH better. Rice to inhale, rice to dream about. The mixed jumble of yellow and white grains, obviously cooked in some form of stock, have through them some translucent onion slices and some seasoning that appears to include at the least black peppercorns. It’s very plain but astounding in its effect.

The two pieces of lamb – Bennie is lucky enough to score a four-point rack – are sublimely crusty on the outer and tender on the inner. A piece apiece is more than enough.

After we’d restored goodwill with the staff, we are told that menu changes are afoot, with more and different choices in the offing. We’ll be watching with interest.

Because Yemeni Restaurant, whatever changes have been or are about to be wrought, remains a singular gem  of our western suburbs food scene.

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Safari Restaurant

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159 Union Rd, Ascot Vale. Phone: 9372 7175

Yes, another gem in Union Rd – this one just as tasty, affordable and, in its own mesmerising way, just as exotic as Yemini Restaurant up the road a piece.

Like that joint, Safari Restaurant’s stock in trade is a roll call of meat, veg and carbs.

As such it seems an ideal place for those who find the very idea of tibs, doro wat, injera and other items bought to Melbourne’s inner west by the African diaspora a step too far or just too weird to even contemplate eating.

Describing Safari’s food as “meat and three veg”, though, does it a grave disservice – for this Somalian fare is much, much more delicious than that humble label implies.

Bennie and I have been regular visitors this year, but for my most recent lunch I was joined by my fellow DeadHead Kurt.

There was a little confusion while ordering, so we ended up both getting the $17 meal of lamb (hilib, on the bone, three pieces), rice (barris) and accompaniments.

This was overload for lunch, so it’s helpful to know that there’s a $15 version available, with the rice and meat coming on the same plate, and the same side dishes and vegetables provided.

But even at $17, our lunches fully qualified for a hearty western suburbs cheap eats thumbs up.

You see, at Safari meals come with what, in New Orleans and South Louisiana, is referred to as “lagniappe” – that is, “a little something special”.

In this case, that involves, first up, a long, cool drink – either freshly squeezed orange juice clinking with ice cubes, or a much sweeter and richer milk-based concoction that I personally find too cloying.

Second comes a bowl of soup.

Bowl of soup? That sounds miserable and woefully inaccurate to describe what is clearly the most delicious thing I’ve eaten this year thus far.

It’s a bowl of simple broth, yes – modestly seasoned with a little chili, coriander, lemon pepper and garlic. You may even find a few strands of meat, or the odd slice of carrot.

But at it’s heart this is simply, magnificently Essence Of Lamb As A Work Of Art.

Gosh, it’s good!

On to our main courses – and more magic.

The rice was plain, but brilliant –  seasoned, again with restraint, with garlic and coriander, and cooked in vegetable stock. Worthy of gleeful inhalation.

My three pieces of lamb, one of which was a cutlet, were tender, tasty and wonderfully free of fat and/or gristle  – not always the case with food such as this.

Completing the picture were some good salad greens and a goodly amount of a sensational pan-fried jumble of onion, carrot and capsicum, which was heaven with the rice and generous smears of the tangy chili sauce provided.

As a point of difference, Kurt split his carb order 50/50 between rice and spaghetti. The pasta was OK – but it was just pasta, and certainly not a patch on the divine rice.

After our wonderful lunch, we spent some time chatting to owner Mohamed Shide about his food, the restaurant, its multinational clientele and the story that brought him to Australia and, finally, his own eating shop in Ascot Vale.

It’s a long story that involves war, many years, separation from family and other trials and tribulations – the sort of moving odyssey that is so intrinsic to Australia.

So happy were we with our repast and our conversation with Mohamed that I gaily strolled away without paying. Happily, I also left my wallet on the counter, necessitating my return anyhow.

As I reclaimed my wallet and attempted to pay, Mohamed attempted to wave my money away – unsuccessfully.

Mohamed, my friend, that’s simply not what I’m about.

If by writing this I can can send a few more people through your door, that’ll be all the payment I could wish.

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Crumbs Organic Bakehouse

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170 Union Rd, Ascot Vale. Phone: 9375 4777

Knowing a birthday feast at Ebi beckons in the early evening, the familiar Middle Eastern/African meat ‘n’ rice options on Union Rd seem inadvisable.

I spy some scrumptious looking pizza slices in the window of Crumbs – they are calling to me!

The wholemeal base wages war with my knife and fork, but teeths and hands make easy work of it. The caramelised onion, mushhie and olive topping is sensational – sweet and salty and just right. My pizza is even more delicious than it looks.

And at $4, it’s a contender for the Cheap Lunch Hall Of Fame.

Crumbs is a beaut little bakery, done out in comfy style with formica tables and even lace table cloths. They’re not big on hearty or lunches – other than the ever revolving range of pizzas.

But they do a pretty good range of breads.

We like the sourdough and – especially – the fruit loaf.

Unlike some fruit loaves we know, this one is bread with some fruit in it – rather than the other way ’round.

But we like it.

Besides, it pays to have something on hand for breakfast when Bennie gets rolling eyes tired of porridge!

The range of sweeties is grand, ranging from a variety of cookies to brownies and so on. Mind you, a couple of the slices, packed with seeds and nuts, look more like health food than food … if you follow me.

A fine coffee, a peanut butter and chocolate cookie, fruit loaf to go and I’m out the door for $15.50.

Bargain!

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Yemeni Restaurant

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124 Union Rd, Ascot Vale. Phone: 9372 0854

It seems unlikely there is another Melbourne noshery in which the food is derived from a country as unknown as this one.

If you hear about Yemen on the telly it’ll be on one of those highbrow current affairs programs; and when you read about Yemen in the newspapers (broadsheets only, of course), the news will never be good.

None of which even hints at the country’s history and culture, of course.

No matter – such geopolitical concerns lie outside the realms of our focus here – how simply wonderful and wonderfully Melbourne that we have a slice of Yemeni food culture right here.

It’s a Yemeni restaurant called … Yemeni Restaurant.

It’s been open for 14 months, we discovered it soon after and we’ve been semi-regular visitors since.

As befits a country that sits at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, and adjacent the northern African nations of Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia, the food here will be oddly familiar to anyone who has trawled through any of the African joints gaily spreading through Melbourne’s west or who has partaken of the various longer-established Middle Eastern tucker options.

As well, as the cyber age follows the jet age, even regional food such as this boasts a touch of the cosmopolitan.

Thus the menu features fish and chips and pasta, while for breakfast there’s eggs various ways and the familiar foul.

Mind you, the opening hours are officially never earlier than 11am, so breakfast will be late if that’s the way you want to go.

Our usual order has been what I suspect is the standard Yemeni meal – mundi (meat and rice).

The lamb is on the bone, and has always been flavoursome and tender, although minus sauce or gravy. I love what places such as this do with the, ahem, more affordable meat cuts!

However, on my most recent visit (28/8/10), I was talked into trying the kebsa (chicken and rice, $12).

It was yummy!

A smallish but adequate leg and thigh were coated by and resting in a dark brown sauce/gravy. The multicoloured rice was studded with strands of fried onions and sultanas, while a jumble of salad bits completed the plate. Sitting to the side in little white bowls were creamy yogurt and a piquant salsa-like mash of green chilies.

The food is quite mild and not overly rich, but the chili concoction and yogurt do a fine job of providing zing.

We’ve also had a dish called mugelge – a sort of rich stew served with a flat bread called mullawah.

Others – such as the cous cous, falafel and Yemeni soup – await future visits.

The cutlery is metal and the crockery is real.

The owners tell me business is going well, and that they’re crowded and busy on some nights. For us – dropping in for a weekend lunch or an early mid-week dinner – we’ve mostly had the joint to ourselves.

The service is very friendly and the decor bog standard ethnic noshery – which is pretty much the place in the world where I feel most comfortable, outside my own living room, these days.

There’s a carpeted and cushioned area out back for a more stylish and traditional mode of dining.

Before stumbling upon this place, Union Rd was a thoroughfare we occasionally traversed in the course of going somewhere else.

These days it’s become much more of a destination itself.

There’s a somewhat similar and very good African place and an organic bakery that specialises in sweeties just up the road, along with a greengrocer, deli and butcher. A natty old-school Chinese place awaits exploration. More to come …

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