All posts by Bill Bennett

About Bill Bennett

Bill Bennett is an award winning film producer and director. He's also author of The Way, My Way - a memoir of his Camino walk. Bill travels extensively all over the world, he drives a lot, and he loves the experience of food on the road.

Ashfield – Shanghai dumpling joint…

Ashfield is an inner western suburb of Sydney that, when you walk around, you feel like you’re in another country. Wonderfully so.

It’s about 9kms SW of the Sydney CBD, and is largely centred on Liverpool Road. It’s a fascinating part of the city.

fish market signage

acquarium sign

There’s a large multicultural population in Ashfield – 15% are Chinese and 8% are Indian – way above Australia’s average of 1.8% and 1.9% respectively.

Bollywood hairdresser

Ashfield is on my way home from Sydney to Mudgee, so I stopped in to take a look. Some great signage, and some really interesting shops –

Suntronic dummy sheepskins sign

I was hungry though, and wanted a meal before the 4hr drive back home, so I stopped in at a Shanghai dumpling joint, called Shanghai Nights.

I’m not sure why a place selling breakfast food would be called Shanghai Nights, but I was starving and so I didn’t take it up with management.

Shanghai Nights WS ext

outside menu

Management was Wendy, standing in a glass cage at the entrance, making the dumplings by hand. I got the immediate sense that this was going to be a good meal. She put such care into the making of each pork dumpling.

Wendy workinghands on dumpling.2 hands on dumpling

dumplings raw

I sat down, impressed by the cleanliness of the table and the way everything was laid out in such an ordered manner.  There were two small jugs by the tissues – one jug was soy sauce, the other was Chinese vinegar.

Table setting jars & tissues

Sitting at a table opposite were a gaggle of young Chinese boys with outrageous hair and cool attire. They were showing each other the Nike runners they’d just bought.

cool dudes.1

It took a while for the meal to come – the pork dumplings, chicken dumpling soup, and spring rolls. I’m sorry that I don’t have any photos of the spring rolls for you. I am a weak man. They looked so damn good I ate every one of them before I realized I hadn’t taken a photo.

I really should have ordered another serving just for the photo, but I’m a tight arse.

Here are the photos I did take. And the only reason I took these shots is because the food was too hot to eat – and I was bored – so I photographed them instead…

dumplings tv chicken dumpling soup

The dumplings were super hot. I later went into the kitchen and discovered why – they boil them in stock.

boiling dumplings

Tony is Wendy’s husband. Or perhaps he’s her brother. Or he might be her uncle. Or he could be her nephew, or even her father. I couldn’t figure out which. And I think Wendy was confused too. Maybe he’s all of the above.

I did notice a striking resemblance…

But then again I get confused between Chinese and Koreans. Or between Japanese and Scandinavians.

Tony

I then went to the bathroom. I judge a restaurant on their bathroom. The bathroom in the Shanghai Nights was immaculate. Except I noticed that the toilet roll was not on a hanger-hook, but in a take-away container on the top of the loo.

toilet closer

On close inspection I noticed that the paper was kind of wrinkled, and hanging loosely off the cardboard core – as though someone had dropped it into the toilet bowl.

I am here to inform you delicately, because this is a food blog after all, that my toiletry business didn’t involve using the wrinkled toilet paper. And so the cause of it’s disheveled appearance will remain a mystery.

toilet roll

I went back out to the table – the cool young dudes were preparing to leave. They posed for a photo for me. They were 17 years old – students studying English. I could imagine them in 10 or 15 years running banks and giving financial advice to retirees like me.

cool dudes.2

I’ll never retire. Too many restaurants on the road to blog about…

(I can’t believe I’m calling myself a blogger… what’s become of me?? I left school wanting to be like John Steinbeck. Or that guy out of MAD magazine…)

Newman

As I walked out I noticed that Wendy had been joined by another young lady, and it turned out to be her sister, Lisa.

Lisa

Lisa and Wendy

I asked Lisa about the marital status of Wendy and Tony, in the kitchen. She was confused too. She wasn’t sure. I wondered if they thought I was from the Immigration Department. I do have a business card now – Bill’s Road Food. It’s very impressive. But it still doesn’t get me free meals.

Damn.

The bill came to $21.40. Good value, I thought. I have to go back soon and photograph the spring rolls for you. They did look good… too good.

I walked out, and began looking for the store that sold the cool Nikes…

crazy sale

The Mudgee Show – a touch of Nepal…

This week’s Road Food blog comes to you from the Mudgee Show.

showgrounds

The Mudgee Show happens this time each year. There’s a rodeo and livestock judging and competitions for scones and fruit cake and flowers and intriguing artistic use of vegetables.

preserves

flowers

Fay.2 veggies

I noticed that Fay Spargo was a big winner in the cake section. Fay ripped. She’ll need a trailer to carry home all her ribbons. I should find out where Fay lives and invite myself over for afternoon tea. I want Fay Spargo to be my aunt or grandma.

Fay.3 Fay.4 Fay.6 Fay.5

Fay probably now has a lot of enemies around Mudgee.

There’ll be a lot of bakers and cake decorators around town – let’s call them collectively “The Losers” – who’d want to take her out. I’d be worried if I were Fay Spargo. I’d check the underside of my car of a morning before I turned on the ignition. Walking down Church Street I’d keep an eye on the rooftops for snipers. I’ve heard there’s some roo shooters around town looking for extra work.

If Fay Spargo were to come to an untimely death in the next few months, I’d suggest the cops first question those little old ladies that came second or third in the Mudgee Show Cake competition. Damn sure they’d find their killer amongst that aggrieved lot.

It was raining during the show, which was great for the farmers and graziers because the Mudgee district has been drought affected – however for the show people who make their living following the carnival circuit, it was bad news. Attendances were well down.

Cappucino van stand in rain

The side show folk follow a circuit that takes them all over the country. It’s a hard nomadic life. Mr. Brown, from Brown’s Dagwood Dogs food stand, says he only spends six weeks at home each year. The rest of the time he and his family are on the road, from Darwin down to southern Victoria.

Mr. brown

Dagwood Dogs sign

I love side-show alley, as it was called in my day. There’s something wonderfully dark and tacky about it. Very Ray Bradbury. Something Wicked This Way Comes is one of my favourite books – the story of a haunted carnival that comes to a small country town. That story still creeps me out. Very scary.

I walked through the side-show area and took photos of odd things that caught my interest.

croc pay here tilt winning numbers dolls clowns this shelf winning numbers

If you want something to eat at the show – (and who doesn’t?) – the choice comes down to what particular sort of fast food do you want to ingest: Dagwood Dogs (hot dogs deep fried), Chiko Rolls (we know all about Chiko Rolls now, don’t we..) hamburgers and of course hot chips.

And for desert, there’s  fairy floss. What’s a trip down side-show alley without a bag of fairy floss? A bag of fairy floss sets you back $4, however you can buy a bucket for $10.

A bucket of fairy floss – how good is that?

Buckets $10

I wandered out of side-show alley and got chatting to Miss Mudgee Showgirl – Tanya Wiseby, aged 24. She’s an economic agronomist who’s hoping to represent Mudgee at the Sydney Show at Easter. Tanya’s folks run a property out of town, and Tanya is knowledgeable about issues to do with farming and agriculture.

Tanya Wiseby

I don’t know whether Tanya had to do a swimsuit parade to get the title – that would seem kind of obscene in a drought. But needless to say she was charming and beautiful and very knowledgeable about agronomy. If she goes on to win Miss Universe then you can tell your friends you discovered her first in Bill’s Road Food blog.

At the back of the show, beside the Animal Nursery, was a stall standing all by itself. A stall selling Nepalese food. It was called Nepali Khana. I walked over.

Nepali Kahana

I’ve never been to Nepal, and I don’t even know that I’d ever had Nepalese food before, so I was intrigued. I was also very hungry because I couldn’t bring myself to eat a Dagwood Dog. And last week I’d had to eat a Chiko Roll for the Road Food blog and that ill-fated decision stayed in my intestines for several days. So the thought of having some “proper” food appealed to me – especially a cuisine I’d never tasted before.

Running the stall was a very pleasant and happy young lady named Dayna. She didn’t look Nepalese, and when I spoke to her, she didn’t sound Nepalese. She sounded Australian. But the two fellows toiling away in the kitchen behind her did have a distinct Nepalese appearance – although I have been known to confuse Vietnamese with Arabs.

Suren & Milan

I ordered the Nepalese Chicken with Rice, for $10. While Dayna was putting it in a takeaway container, she told me that she’d met her husband, Suren, on a trekking holiday in Nepal several years earlier. She worked in a bank, and it had been her first holiday out of the country.

working in stall

chicken

She ended up living for a year in Nepal with Suren and his family – including his son Milan –  before they came back to Australia, where they got married. They now have full time jobs, but they run the market on weekends, driving out of the city to do country gigs.

dumplings

Dayna said the Sydney-siders seem a bit suspicious of Nepalese food, whereas the country folk are more prepared to give it a try.

My chicken was delicious. Not quite Indian, not quite Moroccan. A spicy flavour all its own. The meat so tender it melted in my mouth.

I then tried the flatbread, with spinach and pine nuts. Again, $10. I watched how Suren prepared the bread, then grilled it up like a Mexican quesadilla. Cut up into portions on a plate and served with yoghurt, it was scrumptious.

making flatbread.1 flatbread.2 flatbread.3

I noticed that the stall was lining up with customers. The fast food stalls were doing slow business, but the Nepali Khana was doing a brisk trade. It was the only food stall at the show selling food that wouldn’t kill you.

From a holiday in Nepal, falling in love with her Sherpa, living in a remote Himalayan village for a year, to now serving strange exotic foods at the Mudgee Show – what a great story Dayna told me.

I hope she and Suren and their son Milan make a real go of it. They deserve to.

Dayna Suren & Milan

The Chiko Roll – an Australian food icon.

America has the hotdog, France has the baguette, India has the dosa, and Australia has the Chiko Roll.

Chiko roll ad

The Chiko Roll was invented by a boilermaker, and that makes a whole lot of sense.

Frank McEnroe believed that Aussie Rules footy patrons required a hardy warming food that was robust enough to hold in one hand, with a beer in the other. The Chiko Roll was thus invented, and premiered at the Wagga Wagga Agricultural Show in 1951.

Roll on plate.2

The concept of the Chiko Roll was simple – Mr. McEnroe took the Chinese Chop Suey roll, which was popular in Australia at the time, and put his boilermaker skills into adapting it to Aussie football ground conditions.

He used egg and flour dough to make a thick outside tube,  which was then deep fried. Inside was a combination of meat, cabbage, celery, barley, rice, carrot, onion, green beans and spices. It gave the semblance of being nutritious.

More importantly, it was delicious. Especially at the footy on a cold winter’s afternoon.

bite taken.2

The Chiko Roll took off immediately.

By the end of the 1950s Chiko Rolls were sold in most fish-and-chip shops, takeaway joints, milk bars, and at sporting events all around the country. In 1963 the Frank McEnroe’s company went public, and in the 70s at their height of their popularity, there were 40 million Chiko Rolls sold each year in Australia.

Strangely, there was an export market to Japan. They probably used them for karate practice – instead of breaking bricks in half, they broke Chiko Rolls.

Part of the Chiko Roll phenomenon came down to marketing – and the sexy Chiko Chick.

The Chiko Chicks were flagrantly displayed on billboards and in magazines, wearing scanty bikinis and low cut tops – at the time very racy and salacious.

Chicks in surf   Chicko chick on bike

can't knock the roll chiko chick on car

Suggestive and double entrendre catchlines were also used, such as: Couldn’t you go a Chiko Roll? and HIt the Hot Spot and Grab a Chiko.

images  chiko-chicks copy

You didn’t need an overly active imagination to realize that the iconic Chiko Roll looked like a deep fried phallus.

roll as phallus

And when it was sold in its own bag it looked like it was wearing a loose and fallible condom –

roll in condom

Why is the Chiko Roll making a featured appearance in this celebrated Road Food blog? Not because it gives me the opportunity to make cheap and grubby jokes – although that certainly  does appeal.

No, there’s a deeper cultural reason.

In the new millennium, other fast foods have penetrated the market deeper, and the Chiko Roll sales numbers have become somewhat flaccid. However, it’s still very popular with truckers and traveling reps and anyone wanting to have a quick meal on the road.

The boilerplate nature of the Chiko Roll makes it easy to hold while you’re driving – plus in between bites you can put it in various places around your vehicle.

You can put it in your beverage holder –

In drinks holder

You can rest it on the steering wheel –

Driving with roll

You can put it under your sunvisor –

Under visor

You can nestle it in beside the rearview mirror –

Rearview mirror

And you can put it into other places too –

Chicko roll in car.1

All you need is a bit of sauce and you’ve got the complete driving experience…

Ilfracombe Sunday brunch – in the rain…

When you drive into Ilfracombe, in Queensland’s Central West, you see a sign proudly stating: Winner of Tidy Towns Competition, 2003.

I’m not sure about you, but I find that really scary.

Any town that displays a sign boasting that it won a Tidy Town competition eleven years ago is either stuck in a time warp, or is comfortable with the notion that it’s already peaked, and will never reach those exalted heights again.

Both are perfectly legitimate reasons for you to put your foot on the gas.

Ilfracombe welcome

I stopped in Ilfracombe however not to see if I could recognize some faded grandeur of times past – vestiges of the glory year of 2003 – but because I’d heard they have a great Sunday brunch.

I’m a sucker for a Sunday brunch, especially if it’s in a town that won a Tidy Town competition eleven years ago, and still has a sign declaring as such.

Most probably there are now tidier towns than Ilfracombe, but in the whole scheme of things, if you were to assign one word to the town other than “blinkandyou’llmissit,” you would still veer towards “tidy.”

Ilfracombe_Logo

Ilfracombe was once the “Hub of the West.”

In the late 1800’s, it was a thriving bustling commercial centre, a junction for the shipment of wool to the rest of the world. In those days the town was part of Wellshot station, a huge sheep property (what Americans call a ranch) which was the biggest in the world – not because of its land area, but because it had nearly 500,000 head of sheep.

Wellshot St copy

If you’re not put off by the Tidy Town sign, and you stop and walk around Ilfracombe, you start to get a sense of the history of the place. You see it hidden in the old railway station, and the post office. The pride that the town displays is not in its tidiness, but in its contribution to the growth of Australia.

Railway Stn

Post office

There’s a saying that Australia was built off the sheep’s back. Ilfracombe was at the epicentre of that period where we became rich from what we sheared off an animal, not from what we pulled from the ground.

Wool cart.3

On the Friday before the Sunday brunch, it began to rain. It hadn’t rained in the district for nearly eighteen months. The area had been suffering through a crippling drought, and some graziers were paying up to $10,000 a week to have feed shipped in to keep their stock alive.

The rain that started on that Friday was a huge relief to the local property owners – in fact to everyone in the district – because they all depend on the trickle-down wealth that flows from the land.

I drove the 27kms from Longreach to Ilfracombe on the Sunday morning with my windshield wipers swishing from side to side. It was surreal driving through severely drought affected country in the rain. Luckily I was on tar – because if the road had been dirt, like it was only a few years ago, I wouldn’t have made it. I’d have got bogged.

A small amount of rain on those parched lands ironically turns the ground to mush very fast, and the dirt tracks leading in and out of the properties become impassable.

What that meant was that when I walked into the cafe, it was empty. I was expecting a crowd. In fact I’d wondered whether I should make a reservation. I’d been told that the brunch usually attracted between 60-70 people.

But none of the locals from the surrounding homesteads could make it into town, even in their four wheel drives.

Interior.ws

The buffet consisted of tinned baked beans, sausages, bacon, fried mushrooms and potato patties, cereals, instant coffee in urns.

baked beans

eggs Snags etc

On the surrounding walls were huge photos of the early pioneers, and the hey days of the wool boom.

sheep on wall Man on wall.1 coffee table

The Ilfracombe Cafe and General Store has been servicing the local district for more than 100 years.

Man on wall.1

It’s now run by Tim and Judi Johnson, who over the past eight years have built the Sunday brunch up to legendary status within the district.

owners

And really, when I looked at the spread they were offering, I marveled at their skill.

I imagined what it would be like on a normal Sunday – the dining room full of cockies (ranchers) and their wives and families, chatting about wool prices and the sheep markets and what the useless politicians were doing in Canberra, none of them having any understanding what it was like out in the bush.

Around them on the walls were remembrances of a glorious past.

wool cart

I finished my snags and beans, and then made sure that I took my plates back to the kitchen. I didn’t want to leave a mess in this historic tidy town.

Cafe ext.ws

Longreach RSL Australia Day dinner

During the week it was Australia Day – January 26th.

It’s a national holiday  – the day we celebrate the “founding” of Australia – when British ships entered Sydney Cove in 1788 and hoisted a flag and laid claim to the country.

founding of Australia

The aboriginal community, and those that support their views, regard the day as “Invasion Day.” A famous aboriginal footballer, Adam Goodes, was named Australian of the Year.

Adam Goodes kicking

Goodesy is not only an amazing Aussie Rules footballer – he plays for my team, the Sydney Swans – but he’s also done a huge amount to battle racism in this country. Here’s a piece from the Sydney Morning Herald reporting on the announcement of his appointment –

Goodes grew up believing Australia was founded on a summer’s day in January 1788 when Governor Arthur Phillip staked the flag of the British kingdom in the sand of Sydney Cove.
”I’ve obviously learnt different since then,” he says. Nevertheless, he finds cause for optimism. ”We are still here, we’ve got a lot to celebrate about being here and that we have one of the longest-serving cultures still alive and kicking.”

January 26th is the height of summer in our country. Traditionally we watch the cricket, we have barbies, we drink beer and eat seafood (prawns & oysters mainly) and snags (sausages).

By the way, we don’t call prawns “shrimp.” We call them prawns. So Paul Hogan’s “put a shrimp on the barbie” was a total falsehood. No-one in Australia ever says that. But hey, it was a great marketing line…

Shrimp on barbie

This year I found myself in Longreach, working. Longreach is a small country town in the Central West of Queensland. In January the temps climb to 45-47 Celcius. That’s 113-117 Fahrenheit .

Because Australia Day is a holiday, all the restaurants in Longreach were closed. And by all the restaurants, I mean all four of them. Even the Chinese – the Happy Valley restaurant. The only place open was the RSL Bistro.

Digger memorabilia Bistro

RSL stands for the Returned and Services League, and there’s an RSL club in most towns in Australia. In an RSL you can get a beer, have a feed, and bet on the pokies or horses.

What could be more Australian?

The Longreach RSL Bistro had an Australia Day special on – Roast of the Day (lamb, of course) and Vegemite and cheese snags. Vegemite is a dark salty paste that we usually put on toast at breakfast. It’s a bit like Marmite in the UK, except it’s edible.

Aussie Aussie Aussie

Many overseas visitors try Vegemite and think it’s disgusting. Our immigration department can usually find a way to shorten their visa. I have to state that I love Vegemite, and I carry a small jar of it with me when I travel overseas. However, the thought of having Vegemite and cheese snags for dinner did not particularly appeal.

But feeling suitably jingoistic, I gave it a go. I liked that each had a little cocktail flag of Australia stuck in it.

Aus Day snags.1 snags demolished

While I tucked into my Aussie Day special, I noticed that there were several tellys catering for the various national obsessions – a cricket match between Australia and England, the final of the Australian Tennis Open, featuring Raphael Nadal, and screens for betting on the horses. All needs were covered.

Nadal lying down Cricket on tv Races on tv

I asked about the snags – they were made especially for the RSL for Australia Day by a local butcher, Savages, and cooked to perfection by the Bistro’s head chef, Andrew.

Justin & Andrew

I thought sausages filled with Vegemite and cheese would be truly putrid, but they were actually quite nice. They are though a delicacy that I would keep strictly for Australia Day, and only when I happened to be in Longreach.

The evening came to a logical conclusion when Nadal lost the championship, and Australia beat the Poms.

Aussies won

It was a great day to be an Aussie!

Purrina.wider

Porto – Pedro’s Frangos

Alimentation cropped

I have a nose.

Well, if it’s not a nose, then it’s a stick – like a divining rod.

Viana do Castelo maid

I can find a restaurant in the most unlikely of places. And by “restaurant,” I mean “unique cultural food experience.” It could be a hole in the wall, it could be a street stall, it could be a nameless signless eatery known only to the locals. I can find these places.

REstaurant graffiti

I don’t ever read guidebooks, or check websites to see what other people say are the best joints. I don’t want to eat where everyone else eats. I don’t want to sit down at a table with a bunch of tourists clutching their Lonely Planets or their Rough Guides or their iPhones with their Yelp apps. I want to eat at the places that would never get to Trip Advisor. I want to discover places.

For me, that’s part of the road food experience.

Two restaurants

I have a knack for it. It’s like a radar. And my radar spins at revolutions that are in direct proportion to however hungry I am. So if I’m starving, I’m highly attuned. I’m like a truffle dog in a forest of oaks. I’m like a great white shark sniffing blood in the water. I’m a heat seeking missile zig-zagging a jet. I’m relentless, because I know the perfect place is there, somewhere nearby, if only I can find it. And when I find it I will have a profound food experience that will be remembered for decades.

Or at least until I’m hungry again.

Restaurante sign

You should not be with me when I’m like this. I’m not much fun to be around. Because like a sniffer dog in an airport checking a flight from Columbia, I go nuts. I know there’s booty to be found, I just don’t quite know where to look first.

So what happens is I walk down lanes and I cross streets oblivious to traffic and to my health and safety, I hurry into cul de sacs, only to retreat when I haven’t found my anticipated restaurant, then I walk down more lanes and I get more and more agitated the more I look, because I just know the perfect food experience is somewhere close by – I just have to find it. And invariably I do.

Boulangerie copy

I operate by certain rules. Here are my top 20 –

  1. You do not find a good restaurant on a main road. Period.
  2. You do not find a good restaurant in the main plaza or square. Don’t waste your time even looking.
  3. You do not find a good restaurant anywhere near a tourist attraction.
  4. Any restaurant that displays a menu outside with pictures of its food should be avoided at all costs.
  5. Any restaurant that accepts Diners Club should be avoided at all costs.
  6. Any restaurant that has a menu with a calorie count should be avoided at all costs. In fact, you should run from the premises screaming.
  7. Any restaurant that has a tout outside should be avoided at all costs. A restaurant is not a strip show.
  8. Any restaurant that has a brochure at the local Tourist Information Office, or is featured in the free guide booklet, should be firebombed.
  9. Avoid seafood restaurants in the desert.
  10. Avoid steakhouses by the beach.
  11. Do not eat in restaurants that have good views.
  12. Do not eat in restaurants that revolve.
  13. Do not eat in restaurants that offer high chairs for kiddies.
  14. Do not eat in restaurants that offer discounts to Senior Citizens.
  15. Do not eat in restaurants that offer you a bib.
  16. Do not eat in restaurants where the other diners look like you.
  17. Do not eat In a restaurant where you can see the food alive before you eat it.
  18. Do not eat in a restaurant that is empty.
  19. Sorry – NEVER eat in a restaurant that is empty.
  20. And never eat in a restaurant that offers you a menu in English, unless you’re in England.

Menu on wall

Here’s what I do. If I lob into a town or village where I’ve never been before, I first go to the main square, then I radiate out from there. I explore all the back alleys and lanes. I look for those dingy little joints that barely have any signage. The good restaurants don’t have to advertise. The locals know where they are.

Back Alley

If it’s lunchtime I look out for people obviously heading to lunch. I follow them. This has taken me to some spectacular places I never would have found any other way. It’s also got me into some heated confrontations with folk who thought I was stalking them.

If I’m driving, I always look for a place that has trucks parked out front. Truckers always know the best places to eat. I judge a restaurant not by its online reviews, but by its carpark. If its carpark is full, that’s recommendation enough for me.

Another thing I do is I ask at the reception desk at my hotel. I ask: Where’s a good place to eat? And they tell me. And then I say – No, I don’t want to go there – because they’ll want to send me to some safe tourist place that everyone goes to. I ask: Where do YOU eat when you want a good feed?

Ah, they say, you wouldn’t want to eat there… And then I know I’m onto something special! I find out where they eat, and that’s where I go. Sometimes I have to really prise this information out of them, because they’re too frightened or shy to tell me.

Oh no, they say – you wouldn’t like it. It’s too rough and noisy. Or… You wouldn’t like the food. It’s very particular to this this area.

Ah, I say, my eyes lighting up… tell me where this place is. And invariably I have a great meal in a restaurant that’s not in any of the guide books.

That’s how I found Pedro’s Frangos.

Frangos

Pedro’s Frangos was recommended to me by the lass on the front desk of Porto’s Grande Hotel de Paris. As an aside, I love the delicious anomaly of a hotel in Porto, in Portugal, being called The Grande Hotel de Paris.

Bar Paris

There’s something wickedly skewed and brazenly geographically challenged about that, which I find attractive. It’s like the hotel somehow got lost during construction. It took a wrong turn at the Arc de Triomphe.

Here is the public phone booth in the Grande Hotel de Paris –

Phone and Rose

Here’s another tip about finding a good restaurant – if you ask at the reception desk of your hotel, as I’ve suggested, don’t ask the Concierge, if your hotel has a Concierge that is. And don’t ask the manager. Ask the lowliest desk clerk or porter. The Concierge and the Manager will always point you towards the fancy tourist joints. If they’re not getting a kickback, it’s professional pride. They’ll always want you to have the best eating experience in their town or city.

That’s not what you’re after. You’re after a genuine cultural experience.

So I asked the porter at the Grande Hotel de Paris, in Porto, and he directed me to Pedro’s Frangos. Actually it’s Pedro dos Frangos. Frangos in Portuguese is “chicken,” and this is one of the best grilled chicken places in Porto.

I liked Pedros as soon as I walked up. Firstly, it was in the backblocks up a small alley. Tick. Then I saw it was full of locals, at 5:30pm. Tick. They grilled their chicken by the shopfront window. Tick. When I walked in I was ignored. Tick. It was so crowded downstairs I had to walk upstairs. Tick. There was no-one who spoke English. Tick.

Ext Pedros

Int griller

This was getting too good to be true.

I sat down upstairs and all I saw was frango on the menu. That’s all I wanted. I could get a full frango, grilled Pedro’s special way, with chips and salad for €8.50. Tick Tick Tick. This place was getting so many ticks it was like a clock on speed.

Salt and vinegar plate of chicken

Pedro dos Frangos was a wonderful road food experience. It was great finding the place, it was great knowing that I was connected with the real people of Porto eating what they ate, oh and yes, the chicken was fabulous.

The restaurant was full of families – parents who’d taken their children out to dinner. And workers who were having a quick meal before heading home. There were a couple of student looking types, in the early stages of a romance it seemed. Everyone was enjoying their meal. Their Pedros Frangos.

It was the kind of cultural food experience I’d been searching for in Porto.

I got up to walk downstairs to pay the bill. And as I was walking down the stairs, I noticed a bunch of people coming up. They were obviously tourists, they were chatting excitedly, and there must have been a dozen of them. I stood to the side to let them go by – and I noticed that several were clutching a copy of the Lonely Planet Guide to Portugal.

Oh noooooooooooooo.

If you want to know where Pedro dos Frangos is in Porto, look it up on Trip Advisor. It’s #51 of top restaurants there, evidently…

Pedros dos Frangos.2

Toowoomba – Weis’s Restaurant – Buffet pig out

smorgasbord 028

I’ve always had a conflicted relationship with buffets.

When I grew up, they were called “smorgasbords.” An exotic name when you’re young and hungry and living in Brisbane in the early 60’s. Then again, “spaghetti bolognaise” was also exotic in Brisbane in those days, as was “french fries.”

There’s something deliciously gluttonous about the name: smorg-as-bord. Just the sound of it rolling off your tongue gives you the anticipation of gagging excess. It sounds like it should be a verb rather than a noun. “I’m going to smorgasbord these desserts until I’m sick.”

Perhaps that’s why, somewhere between 1964 and now, the word transmogrified from “smorgasbord” into “buffet.” The word “buffet” is more restrained. It’s more dignified. The word “buffet” can be used in polite company. The word “smorgasbord” somehow has a touch of Nordic pornography about it. It’s as though a smorgasbord should have an R rating, whereas a buffet is a G rating – like a Disney movie.

A smorgasbord is like a Lars von Trier movie.

food porn

For me, when I was young, going to an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord was a challenge. A challenge to my manhood. Okay, I was a kid, but it was still a challenge. In fact it was a dare. A shot across my bows. A gauntlet slapped across my pimpled face by the smug restauranteur. It was a duel at lunchtime. Him versus me. His tables of gloriously prepared food versus my rabid rapacious hunger.

The rules of engagement were clear: Let’s say the smorgasbord cost $12.50. Then the challenge was – could I eat more than $12.50 worth of food? Could I be a loss-leader for the restaurant?

In fact, it went deeper than that. The challenge was greater. How much food could I eat before I puked? Before the sight of one more chocolate mouse sent me scrambling to the bathroom, or hurling into a potplant.

Implicit in the challenge for me was: Could I send this restaurant broke? Could I eat so much food, and would the restaurant take such a big hit from me, that it would have trouble paying next month’s power bill?

It was life and death. Survival of the thinnest. I used to go into training when I knew I was going to a smorgasbord. I wouldn’t eat for days beforehand. That’s how seriously I took the challenge.

By the time the doors opened for lunch or dinner on the appointed day, I’d be wild eyed and ravenous. I’d be delirious with hunger. I’d barge in, pushing other patrons out of my way, and head straight for the seafood.

You see, I was like a CIA operative taking out the high value targets first. Seafood were high value targets. Prawns? Tick. Oysters? Tick. Crab claws and Moreton Bay bugs? Tick tick. The seafood table was the Bin Laden of smorgasbords.

I knew the cost of each prawn, each oyster, all the seafood. From my first frenzied mouthful I was adding up how much I was taking the restaurant down. I had to blow that twelve buck fifty threshold out of the water. I was aiming for twenty five bucks minimum. Maybe fifty bucks…

After the seafood came the pork chops, the roast beef, the racks of lamb. I left the salads. They weren’t high value enough. Same with the pastas. Who eats salads and pasta at a smorgasbord?

Only girls.

Then came the desserts. Yes, the desserts! I had no shame. I was not one of those people who delicately placed a few things on their plate, took it back to their table, ate leisurely, then returned graciously for a second plate.

Nup, waste of time. Pile everything on high. Who cares if people stare at you? I stared back, while wolfing down my lemon meringue pie as I walked back to my table, juggling a plate carrying a small hillock of sugared treats.

At this stage I should say that when I ate at smorgasbords, I used to place one stipulation on myself – I had to be able to walk out on my own two legs.

On one occasion I was helped out by a couple of mates who half carried me like a wounded soldier, wiping my brow and talking to me soothingly to keep me lucid. Afterwards I couldn’t eat for a week. I begrudgingly marked that one down as a win for the restaurant.

From the restaurant’s perspective, they wanted to make money out of me. Fair enough. It’s a free market economy. However, I regarded this as a mark of disrespect. Did they seriously think I couldn’t eat more than $12.50 worth of food? Were they questioning the magnificence of my testicular sac? Did I not look malnourished? Had they not seen me eat?

Some had, and they barred me from entry. Or they tried to charge me double. One threatened to call the police. They evidently had my photo up on the wall of their office. I’d started a food fight there several months earlier, and they’d asked me to leave. I recall they had no sense of humour.

Here’s my rationale – in an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord, you get to a point where that’s all you can eat. You can’t eat anything more. You’re stuffed full. But there’s still food on the table, which you’ve paid for, and it’s going to waste. It’s YOUR food. So why not put it to good use? Why not throw it around?

Some people like coffee at the end of a meal. Some people like a glass of port. I like throwing food.

I’ve had some memorable food fights over the years in smorgasbords – I still retain images of my brother peeling off a slice of smoked salmon from his nose. And a surfing mate trying to get three-bean salad out of his blonde hair.

One of the most vigorous food fights I ever had was at Weis’s Restaurant, at Toowoomba. My mum had driven us up from Brisbane to have lunch. She loved Weis’s.

It was a while ago now, and I don’t remember the lunch as vividly as my mother, who recalls it regularly with mock wide-eyed horror. What I remember is a crab claw imbedding into a wall. I remember a cone of Weis ice cream sticking out of my sister’s forehead, like a unicorn. I remember laughing so hard I emitted sounds from my rear end, which made me laugh even harder. And I remember my mother trying to slap me, while trying to stop from laughing herself. Thank God she didn’t fart!

Cut to quite a few decades later –

I was driving up to Brisbane from Mudgee (about 8hrs drive) and I suggested to my mum that we meet at Weis’s for lunch. Toowoomba is about 90 minute’s drive from Brisbane, where my mum lives. I knew she still loved Weis’s. She loved the seafood buffet. And if she was totally honest with herself, she’d admit that like me, she relished the prospect of food larceny. That after all these years we could smash a loss on them. That we could win.

But I was concerned. Would they remember me? And refuse me entry?

Toowoomba is a small city,  sitting up high at the top of a range, about 130km to the west of Brisbane, capital of Queensland. It’s nicknamed The Garden City, and has a large flower festival each year. It caters for the rural district further west on the Darling Downs. It’s rich productive land, and the city reflects the relative prosperity of its surrounding population.

Toowoomba flowers

Toowoomba made world news in 2011 when it was hit by massive floods. Several people died, and the cost to the local economy was estimated at tens of millions of dollars.

Towwoomba flooding Toowoomba flood car Floods.2

Weis Restaurant, perched on high ground at the top of the range, was spared flood damage. It’s been an institution in the city since the family established a frozen ice-cream company in 1957. Weis bars – frozen fruit with a band of icecream – are favourites in southern Queensland.

Weis barIf you look up the Weis Seafood Smorgasbord Restaurant on Trip Advisor, you get headlines like:

Awful. Don’t go there.
Never again.
Left with bad taste.
Overpriced and scabby smorgasbord
Dreadful
Don’t waste your money.

Out of five stars it struggles to get two and a half.

I couldn’t wait to get back!

Weis ext

Hot food area

The seafood was as fresh and delicious as I remembered it.

prawns mini lobstersCrab

The hot foods were pub standard.

hot food.1 fish and chips

The desserts were home made, and yummy.

Desserts Lollies

There were two soups, a machine which dispensed molten chocolate onto marshmallows on sticks, and some desultory cheeses. All in the ambiance of faded rural grandeur.

chocolate machine

marshmellow

Int. Weis Rest

At $49.50 a head, I’d say it was a no-contest. Weis won, absolutely.

As the meal came to an end, my mother looked at me quizzically. “What, no food fight?” she asked, teasingly.

My mother is 86 years old. She’s archly conservative, a former dentist, now a published author specializing in solving true crime murders that were committed in Queensland in the 1800s. Recently the ABC’s prestigious documentary series  Australian Stories did a half hour documentary on her. She’s a highly intelligent woman.

And now she wanted me to throw a lemon meringue pie at her?

I’d always thought my behavioural problems were a consequence of my misspent youth. It suddenly hit me that it’s genetic.