Flemington soul food

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Deli Afro Restaurant, 331 Racecourse Road, Kensington.   Phone: 9994 7229

The Racecourse Road strip – already happily packed with a plethora of food choices – is these days home to seven African eateries.

That’s right – seven.

But Consider The Sauce aside, you won’t be seeing this celebrated elsewhere.

This is for the simple reason that, with a couple of exceptions, these mostly Somalian cafes lack – sometimes rather spectacularly – the sort of photogenic vibe and high degree of chic and/or hipster ambience that would make them of interest to the greater part of Melbourne’s foodie media.

Ranging from the metro newspapers through to the likes of Broadsheet and Timeout through to most of our city’s bloggers, that a place being covered has some sort of “look” seems as important – and often even more important – than terrific food made by beautiful people.

 

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Look, CTS is not at all averse to eating and dining in pleasant, attractive, sexy surrounds.

But that comes a poor third in our world when compared with that sort of food and those sorts of people.

As it is, Deli Afro is rather more restaurant-like than some of its near neighbours.

Over several visits now, I have been welcomed, had food questions happily answered and generally had an all-round great time.

And the food is tremendous and very cheap.

No matter what you order here (see menu below), you will be served soup – one of the benchmarks of such places.

 

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The Deli Afro version is a veritable nectar of the gods.

Unlike most, this has no vegetable pieces or strands of stock meat – it’s simply a lip-smackingly awesome, tangy, lemony, spicy broth.

The other benchmark, for me, of such fine cafes is the rice.

The rice that comes with my lamb ($15, top photo) is likewise perfect.

Every grain glistens, with just the right amount of diced veg, onion and sultanas included.

With this kind of cooked-in-stock rice, one word automatically comes to my mind – inhale.

The generous serve of lamb is very good, too, and I continue to be wowed how north-east African cooks do so much, albeit very simply, with humble barbecue chops.

I am also provided a side plate of greens and stewed, finely diced beef, along with a zippy chilli sauce.

The overcooked greens are the sort of thing I reckon warrants comparison with the side dishes associated with the “soul food” of the US. 

 

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On another visit to Deli Afro, it is CTS pal Marnes who goes the meat-and-rice route while I happily explore another aspect of Somalian food – pasta.

These noodles are so much fun and beaut to eat, especially with liberal dosings of the chilli condiment.

There’s minced beef in there, but it is a very dry dish – it’s like a dry, jumbly bolognese.

 

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I normally steer away from fish in your more humble-but-friendly ethnic cafes, fearing a serve of bony and/or trashy fish such as tilapia or basa.

At Deli Afro, by contrast, I get a handsome chunk of salmon – how about that, and also at $15 with the pasta?

It looks like it’s been blackened in the New Orelans tradition, but – no – it is as simply cooked as our lamb.

It is way overcooked by the norms most of us associate with this fish, but not ruinously so.

I enjoy it a lot.

Our Friday night dinner gets the full Somalian treatment through provision of a banana each to eat with our meal and then milky chai-style tea spiced with ginger and other spices.

 

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CTS: HSP virgin no more

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Flemington Kebab House, 301 Racecourse Road, Flemington. Phone: 9376 2767

As has been amply illustrated through its six-year history, Consider The Sauce is VERY partial to food with its origins in the Middle East or eastern Mediterranean.

But halal snack packs?

That’s something new, for me – I could even correctly be called a Johnny-come-lately.

It’s time to fix that.

In the course of asking a few people who I figure might know about such things, one name that came up was that of Flemington Kebab House – and I’m only too happy to return to this old favourite to break my HSP duck.

So … HSPs.

I love the idea. Most particularly, I love what a mate refers to as the “positivity” surrounding them and the noble concept of sticking it to Pauline Hanson and her ilk while eating top-notch, multicultural food.

But there’s things about HSPs that are definitely turn-offs.

The polystyrene trays?

Ugh.

The cheese?

Nope.

So while I know I really should, for the sake of journalism and realism, eat a straight-up, orthodox HSP, I am determined to do some customising.

For starters, I recoil with horror when the Flemington Kebab House staff member reaches for the polystyrene and my dinner is subsequently brought to me on one of metal platters on which all their other eat-in meals are served.

(In my half hour or so in the joint, I see quite a few Menulog orders departing …)

Hold the cheese.

 

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Finally, Flemington Kebab House, being a significant step up from  your basic kebab shack, I get to choose from three different kinds of meat – lamb, chicken or the composite/mince brew that is doner kebab.

 

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I go for the regular shaved lamb – on chips, of course, and with the regular yogurt and chilli sauces – for $16.

It’s good.

And the chips retain at least some of their crispness right down to the very last one.

But I remain unconvinced.

It’s a simple truth that a plate of meat – with dips, salads and maybe rice on the side, and with a stack of fresh, warm Turkish attending – is, to my mind, a much superior meal.

Especially at a very fine kebab establishment such as this one.

New taco joint? Sweet!

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Sugar Skulls, 185 Mount Alexander Road, Flemington.

Sugar Skulls is located on lower Mount Alexander Road, right opposite the fine cafe that is Phat Milk and in a premises that was formerly occupied by a beauty shop.

It’s been open about five weeks.

We arrive early and hopeful on a Friday night.

 

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At first there’s a little confusion about whether, upon being directed to wait our turn at the serving counter, we’re in the house for takeaway or eat-in.

That’s quickly sorted and we’re shown to a window table with the proviso we must be gone in 45 minutes.

No probs!

 

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Sugar Skulls is a compact and classy operation, with a concise menu (see below) that encompasses food and beer, wine and mixed drinks.

But there is a fast-food element to proceedings, so I’m not sure why they’re bothering with bookings – especially as there is no phone number provided on either their website or Facebook page (the website has a bookings facility through OpenTable).

And certainly we make the 45-minute deadline with time to spare – this is some of the quickest food delivery we’ve ever experienced.

That’s entirely appropriate for what is pretty much street food and we’re happy because we’re hungry.

We order about half the menu.

 

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From the list of “little things” – potato gems ($4), guacamole ($4) and corn chips and salsa ($6).

They’re all fine and very keenly priced – though I’m left wishing for a bit more spice and zing from the rather bland salsa.

 

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Much the same could be said of our tacos – we order two each of the chicken, pork and prawn at $6 a pop.

They’re lovely and fresh, and each has its own distinctive dressing and adornments.

We especially like the tempura-like vibe of the prawn outings.

But, yep, I wish for a bit more ooomph in the chilli/lime/lemon/salt department.

Mind you, there is a nice range of hot sauces on hand if that’s your wont.

We use a couple of them to slather on the extra serve of corn chips we order – both the chips and the tortillas come from nearby La Tortilleria.

That takes our bill for a satisfying, drinkless meal to a fine $54.

 

 

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A BBQ dinner of two halves

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Chinese BBQ, 301 Racecourse Road, Flemington. Phone: 9376 6929

With I Love Dumplings having successfully transported itself down the road to the old bank building on Racecourse Road, its old premises have duly become Chinese BBQ – though they are both run by the same management, going by the receipt I receive for our meal.

Its is, clearly, dedicated to Asian-style BBQ – though this is more strictly in the Chinese tradition … as opposed to the Viet vibe of the superb meal Bennie and I recently enjoyed at Phi Phi 2 in St Albans.

I am looking forward to a good mid-week feed in which I can ponder the differences!

For company I have CTS trooper Marns, a woman of robust appetite and great sparkle.

 

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The menu (see below) is roughly divided into two parts – skewers and BBQ.

We’re told the minimum for skewers is $20 so we order freely – shrimp, calamari, lamb, chicken, Chinese cabbage, enokis, broccoli, lotus root.

They cost per skewer ranges from 50 cents to $2.50.

From the regular BBQ we order ox tongue ($15), corn ($6) and potato ($6).

 

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The latter follow the arrival of the glowing coals for our BBQ set-up and very sesame dipping sauce, kimchi and marinated sprouts.

Then we’re off …

It’s heaps of fun.

 

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The ox tongue, frozen so it can be thinly sliced, cooks the fastest, and is a treat.

The vegetables take quite a bit longer and I am a little dismayed to that some of the spud slices initially turn black.

But it all comes good in the end, the potato browning up nicely and the corn being delicious.

In fact these humble husk discs turn out to be one of the highlights of our meal – so good to have barbecued corn that is also juicy.

Such is not always the case!

Then it’s on to our skewers … and it’s at this point that our meal and evening goes a bit nutty, maybe even a bit haywire.

 

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The skewers are brought to our table all dunked in a bucket of what we take to be some sort of marinade.

We quickly make happy by throwing some on the grill.

Only to be immediately told – no, no – that’s not how you do it.

The skewers, we’re told, have already been cooked out back – steamed, apparently – and are ready to go.

Oh.

That would explain, perhaps, the flare-up when Marns puts some of the meat skewers on the grill.

We’re a bit non-plussed but soldier on.

Some of what we have – the Chinese cabbage, the lotus root – is far from impressive.

Some – the easily-peeled shrimp, the broccoli – is good.

The broth/soup/marinade in which the skewers have been bathing has oil, chilli (mild by request) and no doubt many other ingredients, the nature of which I am unable to learn from the staff because of language issues on my part.

The lusty, musty and only (for me) partially attractive seasoning recalls in large part some of the flavours much earlier enjoyed – again without being much the wiser – at a Moonee Ponds hot pot joint.

 

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Look, the confusion can be largely attributed to us – it says plainly on the menu (if in rather small type) that the skewers are “hot & spicy pot” food.

On the other hand, it seems very natural that customers only a little familiar with this kind of food, such as we two, would grab a table at an eatery with “BBQ” in its title and “skewers” on its menu … and put the two together in our minds.

No harm done and we have an otherwise enjoyable meal.

But the dunked skewers haven’t provided the sort of charred, smoky tastes for which we came here.

Perhaps a bit more explaining of the place’s food and ordering routines by the staff to new customers is needed here.

Our meal, including two cans of soft drink, comes in at a very reasonable $60.

 

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Meal of the week No.30: Hem 27

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The nice folks at Hem 27 in Flemington (shop 27, 320-380 Epsom Road) have let me know they are sporting a revamped menu.

So I’m here to check it out.

Actually, I’m here mostly for lunch, new menu or not, and certainly have no ideas about doing a story.

Until this fabulous dish happens to me.

Com ga Kam Ty ($12.80), is, I’m told, named after a mid-Vietnam city of the same name.

It has shredded chicken, onion and ginger fish sauce.

Sounds like a Viet version of Hainan chicken rice, hey?

Nope – not even close, apart from the main ingredients.

Looks like a rice-accompanied Viet version of a Thai salad?

Yep – that’s a good deal closer.

The sauce, for draping over both poultry and rice, is a gingery chilli delight of which I use every last drop.

The rice is half regular and half sticky, so is sticky – and it, too, is ginger infused.

The chook?

Ah, the chook.

This is NOT chicken – this is your old, big, gnarly stewing hen.

It’s boiled and then the meat is shredded and marinated overnight with Vietnamese coriander, pepper, lemon juice and onion slices, the latter of which take on a translucent, al-dente texture, all the bitterness gone.

As for the shredded hen pieces, there’s no namby-pamby white breast or thigh meat here.

Some of the hen pieces are light or dark grey. There’s gristle and skin.

Some if it as tough as an old boot.

But that’s precisely how this particularly zesty and awesome take on chicken ‘n’ rice is meant to be.

Because every shred and morsel is fabulously chewy, life-enhancing and packed with flavour.

This is chook for which the word rustic was invented.

Call me an easily pleased fool, but this dish makes me ridiculously happy.

Vietnamese cool with many twists

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Hem 27, shop 27, 320-380 Epsom Road, Flemington. Phone: 9376 2961

Hem is Vietnamese for alley.

The new Vietnamese restaurant at the showground shopping centre is in shop 27.

Hence Hem 27.

But that simple explanation tells only part of the story.

There has been a lot of thought and time put into the renovation of this space to provide a zippy, cheap eatery with some of the ambience of a Saigon alleyway.

 

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It certainly looks very different from the business it replaces!

But that, too, tells only part of the story.

Like just about all the westies we know, we eat a lot of Vietnamese food.

So when a new place opens – Hem 27 has been doing business for about a month – the scanning of the menu for new, different and interesting dishes is of the reflex variety.

At Hem 27, we strike it deliciously rich.

Sure, the longish menu (see below) has such stalwart Viatnamese regulars as pho and rice paper roles.

But there so much more!

The chef’s special list has two different soup noodles with crab.

And there’s another crab soup-noodle elsewhere on the menu – in the section that has Hanoi trio combo soup.

Consider The Sauce has visited three times – twice solo and once with a couple of buddies – and we’ve loved the food and everything about the place.

Here’s what we’ve tried:

 

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Chicken spare ribs (suon ga chien, six for $6.80) are every bit as good as we expect.

Excellent, in fact – crisp, superbly fried with no residue oil and tasty.

And surely the chicken wings are every bit as good.

 

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We expect our trio of fish cakes (cha ca thac lac chien, $7.80) to be superior to the usual, rubbery versions served up in routine Thai places.

And they are.

But there’s not much in it.

Yes, they’re rubbery but also quite tasty, with the grey colouring stimulating comparisons with pork.

 

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Nui xo bao bit ten trung ($15.80) is a version of diced beef – but with pan-fried macaroni instead of tomato rice.

The pasta is a rolled-gold kick – perhaps cooked with the same tomatoey sauce as the rice in the more familar version, it comes with a hefty quotient of wok hei.

Oh, splendid yumminess – I could eat this pasta all by itself.

For breakfast.

The gooey fried egg fits right in and the beef is so good – full of tender and flavour.

 

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Bun ra gi ca ($11.80) is coconut curry chicken noodle soup.

It’s a bit more spicy and richer in colour and flavour than most Vietnamese chicken curries I’ve tried.

The chicken bits are OK but play second fiddle to the wonderful chunks of sweet potato, so well cooked they are on the verge of becoming part of the sauce.

A Vietnamese version of laksa?

Kind of.

 

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Chosen from a list of four salads, goi xa xiu chay ($14.80) is topped with fried, almost-crisp tofu strips and vegetarian “barbecued pork”.

I’ve never been one for mock meat but as one of my companions points out, this works with its barbecue-style sauce and when gobbled with the salad components.

And they are excellent, fresh and zingy – with lots of roasted peanuts.

 

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Ca kho to ($18) is Vietnamese caramelised braised fish in a clay pot – and it’s a killer.

When this dish arrives at our table, I find the rising aromas a little confronting.

But the eating and tasting dispels all doubt – this is a lusty, rich stunner.

The fish – basa (a sort-of Vietnamese catfish also know as swai) – is extremely well cooked and falling apart at the first touch of eating implements.

But it’s all good and the dish’s consumption elicits much ooh-ing and aah-ing.

 

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Our obvious choices for dessert – the flan and the creme caramel – are sold out for the day.

Darn!

But coconut ice-cream – ken dua ($5.80) – does us just fine.

It’s a white delight that comes with more of those peanuts.

 

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Sweet steamed rice cake – banh bo hap nuoc cot duot ($5.80)-  is rice cake dipped using toothpicks in coconut cream.

I find it to be intriguing but fail to be won over.

The rice cake patties have a similar, spongy texture to hoppers or injera and are plain in terms of taste.

Dipping them in the beaut cream and then swallowing feels a bit like downing an oyster!

As all of the above makes clear, not everything tried by CTS at Hem 27 was found to be totally persuasive.

But we dig the whole place and what it’s about without inhibition.

The service has been fine – thanks, Mindy!

And there’s a whole lot more on that menu to try.

Sticking my neck out: This place is destined to be a smash hit.

And maybe even to attain the same sort of cult-like status as, say 8bit?

 

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Mr, where are our dumplings?

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Mr Pan Fry, 268 Racecourse Road, Flemington. Phone: 0455 452 119

Consider The Sauce and pals – quite a number of them – have gathered for a sort-of informal Chinese New Year celebration.

The venue for our eating is a brand new Chinese place called Mr Pan Fry.

As previously noted, we love the intense diversity of Racecourse Road.

But we rarely venture down this end, so I have no recall of what sort of business was formerly in these premises.

Mr Pan Fry is done out crisp but basic furnishings and colours.

The front window space is dedicated to on-view dumpling production, though by the time I think to photograph some of that action, the work has ceased for the night.

There’s a heaping variety of those dumplings listed on the menu, which also extends to a variety of meat and vegetable main dishes and some rudimentary rice and noodle offerings.

We order with abandon, doubling up on some dishes to make sure there’s enough to keep all nine of our mouths happy.

 

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Shanghai fried noodles ($10.80) are a good, basic dish.

 

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The broth-laden “baowie steamed juicy pork buns” ($10.80) are very excellent.

 

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Pot stickers (pan-fried chicken and prawn dumplings, $12.80) are served like a crispy upside-down pie.

They, too, are very good.

 

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Stir-fried tofu with vegetables ($13.80) and …

 

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… fried tofu with pork mince and Sichaun sauce ($13.80) steer us away from dumplings with some aplomb.

The latter’s tofu is a silky smooth treat in a dish that is our most spicy of the night by quite a distance.

 

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Stir-fried salted pepper ribs ($18) are nice but not quite what we – well, what I – have been expecting.

The tangy batter is rather like that most of tonight’s group had across the road at Pacific Seafood BBQ House on a night of rampant crabiness. In that case, the batter coated chicken ribs.

With the pork ribs? Hmmm, interesting … chewy but not quite a bullseye.

In addition to all of the above, at Mr Pan Fry we also enjoy spring onion pancake and another variety of dumpling, the precise nature of which now escapes me as a result of re-ordering due to unavailability of one species in our initial choices.

And we had a delicious, unctuous dish labelled stewed pork belly with chef special sauce ($20.80), which for some reason escapes scrutiny by my camera but which is, perhaps, the hit of the night.

We find the food at Mr Pan Fry to be mostly very good, with the dumplings rating a notch higher.

The menu isn’t as long but the approach is somewhat similar to the adjacent I Love Dumplings.

I suspect, somehow, that Mr Pan Fry has a good chance of becoming a regular haunt as it’s a lovely, cosy place and the service we are provided is warm, smiling and obliging.

We’ve eaten well and having such a big group seems to have helped keep the price per head at most admirable $22.

 

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