Even before we left to travel, I knew we were missing out on good Mexican food here. Mexican Cafe and Mexicali Fresh? Blah. Mexican Specialities also underwhelmed us. Ahsi Itzcali closed down awhile ago. There are plenty of trendy new-ish Mexican restaurants in town, many of which I’ve tried and been impressed by, but they’re all at the gourmet end of the market. I just want a simple big plate of rice, refried beans, salad and a burrito. That ain’t gonna happen here, though. (Those closest we’ve gotten to scratching that itch, if you’re interested, is with the burritos at new chain Mad Mex.)
Seriously, if anyone is keen to move to Auckland and start a humble Mexican neighbourhood joint (nothing fancy; a beans’n’rice type place, as a worldly acquaintance of mine puts it) you would have no competition. Would the margins work? I dunno; the hospitality business is a lean, tough one. But T and I would be your most loyal customers and I’d take it upon myself to spread the gospel and convert newbies.
Anyway, in the meantime I’ve been forced to try to learn to make good Mexican at home. I’ve found pinto beans at East West Organics, around the corner from my house (they also sell other interesting things I’ve read about online but never seen in shops here, like steel cut oats). Alas, they are permanently out of stock of dried pinto beans, though at least they always have canned ones.
But try as I may to make my own refried beans I can’t seem to get the flavour right (we’ve been experimenting with the likes of garlic, lemon, chili, cumin). The best version we had included copious amounts of salt and three grated cloves of garlic. How do I season them properly? What spices do you use?
(I could just buy premade refried beans but simply refuse to pay $4.50/$5 for a can of refried beans when plain pinto beans are at least $1 cheaper.)
I’ve had the pleasure of some pretty mouthwatering meals over the past few weeks. That got me thinking – where would I take you out to eat if you were visiting me (assuming, of course, we share similar tastes)?
The frugal food tour
Breakfast: Muzza’s Pies – because pies are awesome and Muzza’s is the real deal.
Lunch: Dominion Rd for delicious Asian food – whether it’s silken noodles at Shaolin Kung Fu, spicy pork mince dan dan noodles at Eden Noodle, dumplings at Barilla/New Flavour, or something else. There is no shortage of mouthwatering choice.
Dinner: Burger Burger – the best damn burgers I’ve ever had in my life. Bun, patty, vegetables, cheese, sauce – every ingredient is pitch-perfect and together create a completely scrumptious symphony in your mouth.
We have SO many good Chinese restaurants in Auckland, it’s hard to pick. So I figured I’d zero right in specifically on noodle houses. Shaolin Kung Fu Noodle House and its handpulled noodles are where it’s at right now. Bonus points for being open through January, when most of the other Asian eateries along that stretch of Dominion Rd are still closed.
I’m also going to put in a quiet plug for my new local dumpling house, Mr Zhou in New Lynn. Quietly, because it’s already getting popular and I don’t want it to become overrun 🙂
But the best of all, IMO, is KK Malaysianin Epsom. There’s a reason it’s always packed, and usually with a pretty good mix of nationalities. Book ahead.
Oh, and if anyone can recommend a place to get GREAT assam laksa in Auckland? I’ll be forever in your debt. That dish is getting harder and harder to find.
Favourite Indian restaurant in Auckland
Again, so many choices, but I’ll throw my hat in the ring with Satya. They have a few different branches but I’ve only ever been to the Sandringham one. Satya gets an extra gold star because they put on a free Christmas meal every year and offer to send out vouchers to anyone in need.
For vegetarians, Jai Jalaram Khaman across the road is hard to beat. And for a meal on the go, the Pakistani takeaway down at the Mt Albert Rd/Sandringham Rd intersection is fiery and intense.
Favourite Thai restaurant in Auckland
A local food writer once bemoaned the fact that there’s nowhere to get really good Thai food in Auckland. Now that I’ve been to Thailand, I am inclined to agree. There are still people who’ll happily eat at Mai Thai and rave about it because they don’t know any better. Heck, I used to be one of them.
But if you want better than bland and overpriced, try a food court – or head to Narm Thongin Roskill South. Delightful.
Breakfast is one meal in which I just cannot embrace the healthy option.
I can do muesli / oats for a while but eventually get sick of it after a few days/weeks and need to change it up.
I love cereal – but it’s expensive, as is milk. And too often I wake up at the end of the week, only to find we’re out of milk because T drinks the stuff like it’s the elixir of life.
Toast doesn’t fill me up.
My main problem with breakfast is I get hungry an hour or two later, so I guess I need protein. Now I’m back at work focusing and using my brain 8-plus hours a day, I’m also back to being constantly hungry, unlike while we were travelling.
Maybe eggs are the solution? The big trays are reasonably cost effective, and while I refuse to cook on weekday mornings, eggs are fast.
was not an expensive meal out at a fancy restaurant or some outlandish delicacy in an exotic country.
No, it was a span of three weeks at a country farmhouse just north of Rome.
I loved almost all the meals we had in Italy. Dining out in Italy is a delight. One to be savoured.
But more impactful than all those amazing restaurant meals was the Italian home cooking we enjoyed while volunteering through HelpX. In that way, volunteering was priceless – truly an experience not to be bought. There, we had some of the best food we had in all of Italy – homemade, simple and free (well, in exchange for our labour, I suppose. If you want to get all technical about it).
My tastebuds were introduced to the joy of tomatoes and string beans plucked straight from the vine only hours before. The simple indulgence afforded by a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, a squirt of balsamic vinegar – a sunshower of cheese, on occasion. Baked eggplant. Grilled courgettes. Salmon swirled through spaghetti. Slippery cushions of ravioli, slick with flavourful goodness. Fresh bread to mop up the remaining oils and sauces. The wonder of burrata.
This, my friends, sums up the one thing that is wrong with American food.
(Well, there’s also the misspelling of ‘mayonnaise’, but that’s less egregious. Also, I dearly wish T hadn’t kept insisting on getting coleslaw so often, let alone in Disneyland, since it was always a disappointment – and of course, I usually felt compelled to taste it as well.)
But let’s not dwell on that for TOO long. See, we also had plenty of good eats in America – mostly Mexican, BBQ, and hole-in-the-wall diners, the kind of stuff we gravitated to since we don’t get it at home. Here’s a few of our favourites:
This is kind of a hipster diner, tucked away in Phoenix, where we were served by a dead ringer for Seth Rogen, who wrote the comics that you’ll find tucked into the shelf. For more old-school, downmarket dining, I tip my hat to Mike and Ronda’s The Place along Route 66 in Flagstaff.
Really dug the relleno plate at Fat’s, but beware, it’s tricky to find (it’s moved a few times – don’t be fooled by the mural/building that catches your eye on the way in! Keep driving till you hit the actual street number.) And Garcia’s breakfast tacos can’t be missed.
Until we got to the Mediterranean, I was unexcited about the cuisine through middle Europe. I gorged on potato salad for weeks, but otherwise, the meats and such weren’t terribly enticing. Perfectly serviceable food, and filling too – just not the kind that would get me out of bed in a hurry.
For example, bread bowl soup in Prague was cute in a gimmicky way, though overpriced, as was all the other (albeit tasty) street stall food we bought during our brief visit.
Things started to come right in Greece. Succulent lamb. Dolmades. Salad with feta.
But Italy? Italy blew my tastebuds out of the water. Stopping to take photos before devouring food proved too difficult in many cases, but here are a few meals I did capture.
One of our first pizzas (if not the first) in Italy – in Bologna, to be precise
A lunch stop in Orvieto – Umbrian wild boar with pasta!
A simple bolognese in Rome
Tiramisu at an all-you-can-eat Roman lunch buffet
‘Squid ring’ pasta at La Buca di san Fastino, Viterbo
Followed by sausaged stuffed eggplant
My kinda salad…
Splurging on seafood in Amalfi town
And again, in Naples
Naples was a bit of a bust, much as I wanted to love it. Like Bologna, it’s meant to be a city of great food, but I found it somewhat underwhelming. Many places were shut down, being early/mid August when locals go away on holiday (timing couldn’t be helped in this instance) and while we had a LOT of great meals (including countless excellent pizzas) we also had one terribly underwhelming one. Never mind – Pasticceria Mazzaro more than made up for that.
After eating our way through the country, I can only say that it has totally changed my outlook on food. Particularly after our HelpX stint, where we ate veggies and fruit fresh from the garden almost every day, I am committed to shaking up how we eat when we get home. Simple, GREAT ingredients. No more quick and dirty pasta dinners, with a $1 packet of pasta, $3 jar of sauce, maybe some minced meat and a handful of veggies. Nope. Just some top-notch EVOO, tomatoes, cheese, and maybe some courgettes, eggplant, or string beans. For example:
Not only do I want to change my diet, I think I need to change how I eat overall. I’m not going to give up sugar or fried food, but my body definitely knows what it likes. I was almost constantly hungry on the farm in Italy while HelpXing, but hunger aside, I felt great. Even though we rarely had dessert and didn’t snack, I didn’t have any cravings at all. On days that I did ingest meat or sugar, I definitely felt an immediate difference, digestively speaking. It was like a second, more complete detox post-Asia.
Steamboat style lunch in Hat Yai (restaurant in the Robinson’s mall). SO MANY KINDS OF MUSHROOMS!
Larb gai (minced meat salad) from a roadside stall in Phra Ae, Koh Lanta.
Thai stirfry and green curry at The Tavern, Koh Lanta.
As it turns out, we were stationed in a pretty good spot at Phra Ae. Palm Beach is down a driveway with about four other resorts, and emerges onto the street among some street stalls and very close to some good eateries. I enjoyed rice and noodles at 50 baht a pop (about $2), for example. Credit also to:
the very good Indian restaurant, which I THINK was called Little Indra, advertising 15% off while we were there
The Tavern, a restaurant/bar that serves good western AND Thai food at reasonable prices (T thrived on the big breakfast – 180 baht) and I can recommend – surprisingly – the nachos and stuffed potatoes. Take advantage of their specials, too – we feasted on a banquet of spring rolls, fish cakes, stir fry and curry for 299 baht on our last night.
Tom yum kung hotpot on Soi Rambuttri, Khao San Rd area, Bangkok.
Spring rolls at The Blue Pumpkin, Siem Reap.
Noodles with barbecued pork in Hue.
Fried wontons at Trang Buc in Hoi An.
Hoi An, surprisingly, captured my foodie heart. From the cao lau to my quang (both traditional local noodle dishes) to com ga (chicken rice) and white rose (shrimp dumplings), good eats were to be found everywhere in this tiny town. I could have easily gotten used to wandering over to the street stalls every morning for a bowl of noodles, followed by a spicy banh mi around the corner. I rarely carried my DSLR on these outings.
That said, I don’t think any cuisine will ever surpass Malaysian for me. Laksa. Nasi lemak. Sugarcane. Ais kacang. Soya milk. Sometimes the stuff of childhood will simply never be usurped.
Eep. I didn’t want to jinx it by saying anything, but I hadn’t had any tummy troubles up to that point.
Sure enough, though, before I’d even finished my first bowl of noodles in Ho Chi Minh, I felt my guts start to roil. I was up off my stool in a flash, ready to seek out the nearest toilet. Luckily, the first stab of indigestion passed quickly, as did the momentary sweats and dizziness.
I didn’t even pause to consider it at the time, but I believe I had a pretty good detox after arriving in Asia. Existing solely on fresh, simple, real food was a treat for my tastebuds – and it also did wonders for my innards. It wasn’t until I had my first bar of chocolate or pastries that I started to experience stomach pains or gas again (TMI? Sorry). I didn’t crave sugar ONCE during this time; amazingly, I didn’t miss the absence of ice cream, cake, and cookies.
Honestly, Ho Chi Minh/Saigon was not wonderful for us. I spent a lot of it lying in bed feeling pretty crappy. It’s fairly international, so T took the chance to get in a lot of Western food. I’m pretty sure this didn’t sit too well with me, and I quickly swore to get back to noodles and rice, which seemed to help.
I wonder how the changes in diet once we hit Europe will affect me … and whether processed foods are going to be totally off limits.