Monday, March 24, 2008

Meal #75: The United States of America

Captain America's Hamburger Heaven may well be the sort of utopia our former prime minister was striving for through his eleven long years in government; a prime example of Australian- American relations.

Captain America's Hamburger Heaven

38 Forest Rd

Ferntree Gully

This proudly Australian owned burger joint, nestled in the foothills of the Dandenongs, oozes American kitsch and souvenirs. At a closer glance, you notice that many of the hand painted slogans, puns and jokes on roof and wall are actually Australian- not to mention poorly spelled and punctuated! But in the end we're not here to play the grammar police (not this time...). Slotted into a cosy booth, Naomi, Nick, Sai, Caroline and Rami select their meals from a paper place mat menu.

It should be noted that, for some beverage-happy diners, the most exciting discovery of the night was actually drawn not from the place mat, but from a chalk board proudly proclaiming imported American soft drinks. Armed with a beloved Dr Pepper's, Caroline has never seemed so, well... manic! Other diners sipped their Cherry Cokes and lime milkshakes in a calmer fashion.

While not quite brave enough to try the Captain America's challenge (a burger with a kilo of meat and 600g of fries for the gents, 300g for the ladies; if you eat it within the record time, your meal is free), we did manage to sample a good cross section of the extensive menu, including some of the more exotic choices. Caroline's Gourmet Satay Chicken Burger boasted a delicious homemade satay sauce, with enough body to transport a traditional finger food to burger form. Pity this burger, usually dairy free, inexplicably was delivered complete with cheese and had to be sent back. Our only complaint of the night.

Nick, perhaps smarting at how few South American meals we managed to taste, feasted on the Mexicana Burger. Nestled on a bed of corn chips and guacamole (and of course the obligatory fries), this burger was enjoyed with lashings of sour cream and a just-too-sweet salsa sauce.

While he managed to polish off Caroline's burger as well, Rami started off his American meal enthusiastically (and in costume), with a Chilliburger. A sweet chilli sauce was generously heaped onto his beef burger, and also managed to coat the fries in the downpour. Yum!

But all of these burger were really small fry. Sai and Naomi both took it upon themselves to attack the larger burgers...

In her own personal challenge, Naomi was proud to finally manage to finish a Captain America's Celebrated Heavenly Burger. This is what a burger ought to be: beef, bacon, onion, pineapple, lettuce, tomato, dill pickle and the crucial ingredient- a fried egg. While she couldn't quite finish the chips, Nai did manage to admirably unhinge her jaw...

Meanwhile, Sai sunk his claws and teeth into a Wild Thing burger, a heart stopping monster consisting of double beef patties, bacon, onion, mushroom and cheese. The burger was completed with a dollop of the homemade chilli sauce, but general consensus was that the Smokey sauce (available on the smokey burger, and on the pork ribs) would have been a more fitting marriage of flavours.

The double beef burger (and the heartburn) may have slowed Sai to strolling pace, but once he'd finally mopped up the last of his meal, he and Nick were quick to devour a slice of the delicious Key Lime Pie, topped with crunchy meringue. So quick, in fact, we barely managed a photo before the plate was licked clean!

The Verdict:

While not exactly a healthy choice for regular meals, Captain America's is great fun and great value for money. While the prices are higher than your average burger chain (most burgers range between $13 and $17.50), you certainly leave feeling much more satisfied. The cheesy humour is infectious, and the wait staff are quite attentive and work well with a large group. The menu caters to those not so burger inclined (buffalo wings or a steak, anyone?), and while certainly skewed toward the carnivore, there are vegetarian options available, as well as gluten and dairy free. We enjoyed our meal so much, we even tipped the American 10%, although that was partly so we could play Tippslotto, with the chance of winning our meals free! But when all tips are generously donated to the local CFA, it's hard to begrudge the spare change.

Overall, Rami, what did you think?

He's coming back for the Challenge next time...

Monday, March 10, 2008

Meal #74 Creole/ Deep South

North America. A continent we had much feared, images of KFCs and McDonalds clamouring in our minds. Imagine our delighted surprise then, when we discovered that more than one restaurant was advertising creole/ deep south American meals. Mouths a’watering, boots and hats were donned by our crew of culinary cowboys; Sai, Naomi, Nick, Rami, Helen, Caroline, Paul, Deb, Kat, Michael, Gene, Ross and Dom. Sadly, though, we forgot to pack the camera in the saddle bags, so this is an old fashioned story told in words, not pictures.

Highway 61

Hume Highway

The décor of Highway 61 is petrol fueled; motorbikes take pride of place, both in pictures and actual machines. Highway signs and number plates fill in the gaps on the walls, and a live musician strums out rockabilly influenced tunes.

The menu looks promising, divided between a wide array of burgers and a tantalizing selection of deep south stews. With such a big group, we try to cover as many dishes as we can. The burger menu is quickly worked through: the sporty burger comes with fried onion and salad; the ultra burger raises the stakes with the addition of bacon, egg and cheese; the lamb fillet burger bathes in a tomato relish, while the sweet chilli chicken burger has a light glaze of sauce; the vege burger is stacked with spinach, basil capsicum and cheese. Despite the large variety, the burgers were commonly considered to be quite basic, and fine for the price, but nothing special.

The soups were a surprise, featuring names we considered to be thicker stews. The Shrimp and Okra gumbo was tasty, although not as hearty as we would have anticipated, and the Jambalaya, with chicken, shrimp, bacon and rice, was dishearteningly over-peppered. The pumpkin soup was thick and rich, with an interesting aftertaste of maple syrup.

The side dishes proved too intriguing to resist, but didn’t live up to their appeal: chilli fries arrived topped with a surprisingly small serving of chilli con carne; the buffalo wings tasted like KFC, but without the variety of herbs and spices.

The poorness of seasoning was a continuing theme, with the chicken creole served in a basic tomato sauce hailed ‘piquant creole salsa’; it could have come out of a mild salsa jar for the flavour it added, although the chicken was well cooked and tender. With the pound of pork ribs off the menu, Gene tried the swordfish, but was unimpressed and left hungry.

More successful was the huge serving of pork chops in maple syrup glaze, which had Ross quietly and happily munching for quite some time. The chilli con carne featured a delicious sauce, well flavoured and rich, but was fairly light on the carne considering the price.

Also disappointing was the drinks menu. Very little in the way of American beers (although we didn’t really want to drink those anyway), and we’d hoped for a malt or and ice cream soda or two. We later discovered these were available, but for some reason not advertised. One or two diners nursed a Jack to heighten the American authenticity.

Saving grace was discovered in the deserts. The Louisiana Mudcake was dense and delicious, served warm and gooey with cream. The apple crumble disappeared quickly, a perfect balance of fruit and pastry.

Overall, Highway 61 is fun for the atmosphere, but if you’re hoping to be blown away by creole cuisine, you won’t find it here. Come for a drink, some groovy music and some fabulous deserts, but don’t expect too much of the meals. It’s a long way from the deep south.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Meal #70 - Argentinian

El Gaucho 450 Nicholson Street, Fitzroy North.

For our latest culinary adventure, we delved into the mysteries of Argentinian food. With Rami, Paul, Deb, Helen and Sai in tow, we visited El Gaucho, a restaurant located in North Fitzroy. The décor of this place strikes you immediately. Full of deep, rich colours and eye-catching artwork, it creates a warm and inviting atmosphere. Another thing that was instantly apparent was the powerful aroma of sizzling meats. For some in our group, this was very enticing indeed. For the vegetarians in our mufti, this had the opposite effect.

The service was cheerful and informative, which was especially helpful in determining which meals appropriate for those in our group with kosher or vegetarian needs.

The meals we ordered were as follows:


Empanadas Criolla - Traditional oven-baked pastry filled with minced meat, chopped olives, eggs and capsicum.


Pinchos - Chicken, beef, chorizo pieces with capsicum and onions and a serve of potato salad.

Asado Completo - An all-you-can-(m)eat meal, consisting of servings of asado, matambre, morcilla, and chorizo, served with potato salad.

Nachos - Similar to most traditional nachos, with corn chips, cheese, guacamole, sour cream and taco sauce.

Blue Chicken - Chicken breast filled and coated with blue cheese sauce, served with season vegetables and rice.

Side Dish:

Repello - South American style coleslaw with lemon dressing.

The response to the meals was very favourable. Sai, who along with Helen, threw himself into the Asado Completo, described it as having some of the best beef he'd had in a long time. The Blue Chicken, enjoyed by Paul was especially impressive, with a wonderfully rich sauce. Whilst the nachos were perhaps too cheese-laden for Deb's taste, she nonetheless found them remarkably filling for what appeared to be a small serving. Rami praised the tenderness of the meat, and regarded the vegetables as "magnificent".

Argentinan wines such as Trivento and Malbec were also enjoyed by members of our group. Whilst the meals were a tad pricey for their size, their quality was very high indeed. With boisterous atmosphere and friendly service, this was an excellent stop on our 80 Meals odyssey.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Meal #66 – South Africa

South Africa is famous for its legendary rugby and cricket teams, and for the fact that in 2010 it will be the first African, and first Southern Hemisphere, country to host the football (soccer) World Cup. With this in mind, we assumed we were in for a very healthy meal…oh, how wrong we were…

Shebeen Café
The South African Shop
461 Hawthorn Rd, South Caulfield

The Shebeen Café is located within The South African Shop, a specialised grocery store focusing on South African and kosher products – aiming at the local South African Jewish population. As such, this restaurant is only open during business hours, offering breakfast and lunch meals – hence instead of a Saturday dinner, this week we treated ourselves to a Sunday lunch.

The eatery is located to the side of the store, overlooked by an expansive and colourful mural depicting native Africans dancing to a jazz musican. Owned by South African immigrants of Portuguese heritage, the menu of the Shebeen Café is an interesting mixture of dishes from these two countries. Although we attempted to focus our meal on the South African dishes, the lure of a traditional Portuguese prego was too much for some diners. This week’s special assortment of stunningly able South African supper assessors were Sai, Nick, Naomi, Susie, Nyk, Caroline and Rami.

The Meal:

Boerewors Roll – Traditional South African beef sausage in a roll with chips

This meal was quite bland, with the sausage being served in a plain roll that had only been buttered. The sausage itself was extremely dry and had a strong flavouring of cloves. In order to counteract the dryness it was necessary to add sauce to roll, which subsequently masked the flavour of the meat. The chips were thin, French-fries style covered with a moderately spicy peri peri powder.

Kruger Salad – Sliced biltong, tomato, onion & cucumber served on a bed of crisp lettuce

It was difficult to locate the vegetables on this dish with the biltong being, by a large margin, the main ingredient to this “salad.” The biltong was salty and very fatty, with flavour reminiscent of corned beef. Like all beef jerky it was also incredibly tough.

Full Springbok Breakfast – Fried eggs, facon (cured beef), tomato, mushrooms, boerewors & toast

The main comment we can make about this breakfast, named after the South African rugby team, is that facon is in no way reminiscent of bacon! Otherwise, this meal is similar to many café-style breakfast dishes.

Vegetarian Burger – Vegetarian patty with lettuce, tomato, onion & mayonnaise on a bagel

Keeping with the meaty theme of this meal, the vegetarian patty was a fake meat patty; and just as the facon was nothing like the real thing, neither was this. The patty was slightly chewy, with a sweet “meat”-like flavour. The mayonnaise on the bagel was also very sweet, in fact neither diner that ordered this meal was able to finish it due to the sweetness of the mayonnaise.

Traditional Prego Aged Porterhouse steak marinated in garlic, paprika and white wine served on a crispy Portuguese roll with chips

This dish was very authentic compared to what you would find in Portugal, with the meat being fatty, but tender. One diner chose the hot sauce option, while another chose a more moderate sauce. Put into perspective, the latter appeared to be the wiser option, as the first diner could not finish her meal!


This South African dessert is basically a piece of twisted white bread drenched in a sugar syrup – simple but sweet.


The Shebeen Café is a specialised eatery with a specialised clientele, and appears to be frequented by many regulars looking for a taste of home. However, as far as local café-style food goes there are many better places to go. Nevertheless, with several meals costing less than $10, this is a cheap option for anyone interested in trying South African cuisine. Alternatively, if you’re adventurous, you could buy some interesting ingredients from the grocery store and have a go at cooking your own South African meal at home.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Meal #65 – Somalia

Although Somalia is not usually associated with the African Safari, the name of this restaurant is quite apt as, for most of us, it was a long and fascinating journey into the Western Suburbs.

Safari Cafe
Somali Restaurant
159 Union Rd. Ascot Vale
9372 7175

The central client base for this restaurant appears to be Somali taxi drivers, with a steady stream making their way through this establishment during the evening. Usually if an ethnic restaurant is frequented by people of that ethnic group it is a good indicator that the food will be traditional and authentic. Safari Cafe is no exception to this rule. The food is excellent and plentiful, and, considering there was only one waiter, the service was warm and personable.

This week’s selection of Somali safari-ers were Philip, Helen, Nick, Rami and Caroline.

At the beginning of the evening, as we began to browse the menu, we were treated to complementary jugs of rose water and sweet milk. Both drinks were refreshing and were just a taste of the hospitality offered at Safari.

Next, we were treated to complementary soups, which the waiter described as vegetarian…with meat… The soup had a sour and slightly spicy flavour; in fact, it was reminiscent of an Italian minestrone soup, which is probably due to the Italian colonisation of Somalia.

When we finally got to choose dishes for ourselves, we decided on sharing large plates of rice, pasta, our selection of meats, all cooked with special herbs and vegetables. These plates were called Federations, and we ordered two Big Federations for 2. They were so big that we had enough leftovers for two large lunches! On one of the Big Federations we had lamb chops (hilib) and steak; and on the other we had boneless fish and diced lamb (suqar). All the meat was tender (the chops were literally falling off the bone) with a sweet flavouring, most likely due to the limejuice that was all pervasive, but not overwhelming.

The rice on the Big Federations was flavoured with cinnamon and was similar to the rice we tried at the Persian restaurant. The pasta, on the other hand, was a thin spaghetti with a tomato-based sauce – definitely influenced by the Italian colonists. Further, these dishes had a fair sprinkling of dates. These three aspects of the meal really highlighted the history of Somali cuisine and its location as a trade hub on the Horn of Africa.

The other dish that we ordered was a stir-fried bread dish called cheppti. This surprising dish was definitely a highlight in a meal that had many highlights. It was hard to pinpoint the exact flavours, with all diners feeling that this dish tasted familiar yet unique at the same time. The tender, but firm, texture of the cooked bread strips only added to the experience.

Our meal ended just as it had begun, with complementary drinks. The Somali tea was probably the sweetest, most sugary drink we had ever drunk – EVER! At first, you taste a pleasant mix of honey and tea. This is quickly overwhelmed by a warm rose water flavour. Not to be out done, the aftertaste is of pure sugar. So sugary was this drink that only one diner managed to finish it all; and all of us felt that we needed to brush our teeth afterwards.

Somali food is an interesting mix of African, Italian and Arabic cuisines, which makes for a unique dining experience that is definitely worth a trip out to the Western Suburbs; and with a meal costing about $15 each, including complimentary drinks and soup, you can’t even use the excuse of petrol being too expensive.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Meal #63 – Sudan

With the current tragic situation in the Sudan, and the recent discission by the Federal Government to decrease the refugee intake from that region of the world, it was heartening to be so warmly greeted by a restaurant that proudly presents both the Australian and Sudanese flags on the menu and its logo.

Taste of Africa
34 Walker St. Dandenong

Taste of Africa is a quiet little shop, which has a tile map of Africa on the floor, some African paintings on the wall next to photos of a selection of the dishes served, and whose owner/chef is a Sudanese refugee – and probably the coolest proprietor we have met on our journey to date. We had just started examining the menu, when he came to us and told us that he would personally chose our meal for us – and we gladly succumbed to his will.

This week’s succulent selection of seductive Sudanese samplers were Sai, Rami, Caroline, Nick and Naomi.


Green chilli paste and soft bread


Mincemeat and vegetables
Kofta – Mince, onion, garlic, pepper, cumin, coriander
Shiah – Fried lamb, garlic, pepper, lemon, onion
Mahshee – Vegetables stuffed with grape leaves, tomato, rice, garlic, cumin, pepper, coriander


Steam rice with vegetables
Selection of garden vegetables – lettuce, cucumber, tomato and lemon


Hilba (Fenugreek) – Milk. flower & hilba
Custard – Milk, custard, sultana & sugar

The Meal:

We let the owner/chef chose our meal and we weren’t disappointed! The first plate brought out was a mixed mincemeat and vegetable dish that isn’t yet on the menu, but deserves to be there! The main characteristic of this dish was its dryness, which gave it a unique texture compared with similar dishes from other cultures.

The meatballs (kofta) were moist with a delicate sauce that had just a hint of spice. A highlight of the meal and the best meatballs we’ve encountered on our journey so far.

The fried lamb was sweet, due to the caramelisation of the onions it was cooked with, and had a hint of cinnamon. Squeezing the lemon juice onto the meat made this dish come to life.

The Mahshee consisted of a stuffed capsicum, a stuffed Lebanese eggplant, and a stuffed zucchini. Each of these vegetables added its own emphasis to the dish – the bitterness of the capsicum and zucchini contrasted with the sweetness of the eggplant, however the stuffing was subtle enough that these flavours enhanced the dish.

The desserts were quiet similar, both of them being light and not overly sweet. However, the unique fenugreek flavour, which could have so easily overpowered the Hilba, really gave this dessert a classic twist.


Not surprisingly given Sudan’s location, its food is a mix of Arabic (Egyptian) and African (Ethiopian) cuisine – and if Taste of Africa is any indication, it takes the best of both to produce a delicious fusion. Unfortunately, the dinner crowd in Dandenong doesn’t seem so enthralled by this cuisine; we were their only customers all night! If this restaurant was located on Brunswick Street you would need to book a table a week in advance just to get in the front door. The individual dishes are either $10 or $12, and for their quality and flavours, it is definitely worth the petrol money to schlep all the way to Dandenong!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Meal # 62 - Egypt

Having been the home of the Pyramids since the 27th Century BCE, Egypt can legitimately claim to have invented the tourist attraction. It has been a popular destination for travellers ever since, a melting pot of different cultures and the gateway to Africa. May our journey into the "Dark Continent" commence!

Bedouin Kitchen

103 Grey Street

Saint Kilda

If you can’t find your way to the Bedouin Kitchen, you can always look it up in your Lonely Planet guide to Melbourne, where it is listed as an attraction. Or you can go the website (, which at the time of writing is charmingly unfinished and contains such gems of information as “The Bedouin Kitchen has a reputation for providing the highest quality service and etc etc.....” and “Stuff about functions goes here”.

The actual restaurant is a striking location. With intricate metalwork lamps hanging from the ceiling, rich red walls and wood furniture, it is both cosy and exotic. A caravan of diners came this week, including Flick, Dale, Rami, Caroline, Sai, Paul, Deb, Nick and Naomi. The mood was celebratory, with several big announcements (a baby, an engagement, a new digital set top box) warranting good cheer and champagne.

With its warm atmosphere and live entertainment in the form of belly dancing, this was a great venue to celebrate in. (Just as well no one got engaged the week we went to Sumatra…)

The Meal

The menu was divided into two sections: mezze (entrée-size snacking plates) and claypots, which were larger meals. The food was best suited for sharing, with a combination of claypot and mezze dishes providing a varied meal.

Several Middle Eastern favourites, like meatballs (here called kibbeh) were to be found on the mezze menu. Kibbeh’s main point of distinction from your regular meatball is that the lamb mince (spiced, naturally) is rolled in burghul wheat and then chargrilled. They were served with yogurt.

By contrast, the whitebait was more similar to a Greek dish. Dusted in flour and zahtar, the fish were lightly fried and served whole, heads and all. This wasn’t for everybody. Zahtar itself is worth sampling though. Based on a blend of thyme, sesame and salt, and occasionally including other spices like sumac or cumin, it is one of the most distinctive flavours of the Middle East. It featured in several dishes at Bedouin Kitchen, so you it is possible to try it here without fish heads.

The mezze menu also included a number of vegetarian options, from basic salads to more exotic dishes like the pumpkin drizzled in tahini and honey. We had the artichoke and pea salad which was a simple but surprisingly effective dish. Using just artichoke hearts and baby peas, its light dressing of olive oil and dill allowed the natural flavour of the vegetables to be expressed beautifully.

It would be possible to have a whole meal of mezze, but the claypot is a staple of North African cooking so we of course we had to try them. Pride of place among those offered on the menu was Ful Medames, sometimes referred to as Egypt’s national dish. It’s a fairly basic kind of meal actually, consisting of semi-mashed fava beans spiced with coriander, garlic and zahtar. In Egypt ful gets served in a variety of ways, including with an egg for breakfast or in sandwiches as fast food, but here it came in a pot with rice.

Another distinctly Egyptian dish was the Melokhia. Described on the menu as an “Egyptian desert weed”, melokhia is actually made from the edible leaves of the same plant that produces jute fibres. It was served as a kind of dark sludgy soup, made from the desert weed in question and lamb stock, and was served poured over rice. Apparently, the Fatimids (former sultans of Egypt, back in the day) once made melokhia their signature dish and banned anyone else from having it. What people were missing out on as a result of this decree was an earthy flavour fairly similar to silverbeet.

We also had the Bamia with Lamb. Bamia is the Arabic word for okra (also somewhat gruesomely called “ladies fingers”), a popular vegetable throughout Africa and the Middle East. Combined with slow cooked lamb and rice it made not only for a distinctively Middle Eastern meal but also one of the tastiest we had. It would be hard to imagine anything more comforting on a cold night, unless that were the Middle Eastern mash. This hearty treat comprised coarsely mashed potato, flavoured with potato, butter, garlic and coriander.

After all this food, we didn’t have room for dessert, although the menu did have some tempting options, using flavours like cinnamon and orange blossom, along with some uniquely Egyptian drinks. We hadn’t eaten too much to get up and dance though!

The Verdict

This was an interesting stop. The venue had real atmosphere and the menu was distinctive. We had some concern that any Egyptian restaurant we found would end up serving generic Middle Eastern food – kebabs etc – but this certainly wasn’t the case. Not only did the menu include many Egyptian signature dishes, like the melokhia and the ful medames, but even the more generic meals seemed to represent the melting pot that is Egypt, equally reminiscent of Morocco as Arabia. In all, it was a convincingly authentic North African experience, right down to the belly dancing. While that did of course include the compulsory get-a-patron-up-to-dance theatre of embarrassment, it was also a good performance in its own right, executed with flair and energy.

Also in the positive was the range of vegetarian options on the menu and, of course, being back in the Middle East, kosher diets were no problem. However, it must be said that some of our diners were a bit nonplussed by their meals. All the dishes were decent but a lot of them were just that, decent, without flavours that really jumped out at you. Whether that’s because dishes were modulated for Western tastes, or if it’s just an aspect of Egyptian cookery we can’t say.

Nonetheless we had an entertaining night here. The prices varied, with most mezze under $10 and claypots between $15 - $20 if vegetarian and $25 + for those with meat. While the service could be a bit haphazard, the staff were friendly and generally attentive. Bedouin Kitchen is certainly worth a visit, and in breaking from the generic mould of pan-Middle Eastern cuisine and serving genuine Egyptian-style dishes, it is doing something fairly unique.