Sweet Rice, 102 Millers Rd, Altona North. Phone: 9315 3691
We arrive for our early and long-awaited dinner at Sweet Rice to find a rather dowdy cheap eats cafe.
The atmosphere seems a little gloomy, perhaps because the place is empty except for us and is barely warm on a very cold evening. And even though the lighting glare is soon to play havoc with photography.
Happily, by the time we are well into our meal the room has filled considerably, presenting a much more merry impression.
We are delighted about being joined by Consider The Sauce regular Keri – for the fine company, for the extra breadth three folks confer on the ordering process and the fact she gets into the swing of things by reminding me on a couple of occasions to take photos.
I get that way sometimes when I’m hungry and excited about eating in a new place!
The food here is cheap by any standards – by the standards of Thai restaurants in Melbourne, it seems exceptionally cheap.
Making us more excited is the fact there are quite a few novel items on the menu.
Some things we want to order – spicy lamb roti, beef noodle soup (whatever that is in a Thai context) – are unavailable.
The vegetable curry puffs ($4.50) are nice enough. But they’re so tiny that they seem almost all pastry and the filling gets lost in the jostle.
Keri’s no big of fish cakes; neither am I, to tell you the truth.
But these ($5.90), in my experience, are as good as we’ve had.
In this case, the rubbery effect is rather pleasing and it’s obvious by the internal greenery of sliced spring onion that these are house-generated.
The chicken satay skewers ($6.90) are ordered by command of Bennie; the rest of the team is happy to go along.
He loves them; his dad finds the chicken meat OK but a little fibrous.
But it’s the sauce that impresses – not so much peanutty, but with a lovely flavour that has a tang of curry about it.
Soft shell crab (top photo, $12.90) is Keri’s choice and it’s an outright winner.
The tiny crabs are tender and a little crunchy at the same time, while the batter and seasoning seem very much along the same lines of those found on salt-and-pepper calamari and chicken ribs in Malaysian joints.
Chu chee curry fish ($9.50) is, I’m later told, like a cross between a red curry and a panang curry.
Some rudimentary online sleuthing indicates that is very much the case, while I find one reference that maintains that it “is based on a red curry sauce and distinguished by the use of kaffir lime leaves and basil – it is a thick spicy sauce that is different from other Thai curries because of the texture“.
In any case, it’s delightful that in our dish the battered fish (we forget to forget to ask the species) is both crispy and covered in the gravy.
The accompanying vegetables are both vibrant of colour and lovely to eat.
Only problem is the parsimonious quantity of sauce.
When I’d earlier asked about the pork shank ($12.90), I’d been told it is deep fried.
We thought: Why not?
Still, we are surprised by the sheer size and imposing presence of our dish. Definitely a first for all of us!
The whole thing has been rubbed with five-spice and cinnamon.
There’s quite a lot of meat, which is pleasantly tasty and chewy in a nice way but a long way short of fall-off-the-bone tender.
The crackling is dry but actually quite tough, but yours truly gobbles a fair amount of it anyway.
Just as well there’s three of us – this dish would be ludicrous for a single diner and a bit on the over-the-top side for a couple. It’s made, we suggest, for group dining.
The presence of some unusual items on the Sweet Rice menu may have led us – oh, OK, me! – astray.
Had we stuck with a more orthodox order that included, say, a tangy salad, a regular curry and a vegetable-heavy vegetable wok dish, we may have enjoyed a more well-rounded dinner.
However, despite some oddities along the way, we’ve seen and tasted enough to reckon Sweet Rice may provide not only some of Melbourne’s cheapest Thai food but also some of its very best. There’s a home-cooked vibe here that defies any expectations of sauce-out-of-a-bottle.
The service was obliging and our food arrived in good time.
It’ll be interesting to see what the experts at krapow think about the place when they get around to it.
Ms Baklover at Footscray Food Blog is certainly a fan.
Thanks to Keri for being part of the team!