eating out

Back to food trucks

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Today I'm dipping back into an old, semi-regular kind of post I used to do: a celebration of food trucks. If you're interested, here are all the food trucks I visited back then.

For me it all started when we moved here from Interstate four years ago. It was late summer, I was about two-thirds through my first pregnancy, and it was the sixth interstate or international move we'd made in 18 months. When you move to a completely new city that many times, you get pretty good at learning how to turn "a place" into "a home." I'm not just talking about your house or apartment here, I'm talking about your neighbourhood. I have worked from home for the past 15 years, so I don't have the opportunity to make friends and learn about my city through co-workers. I've got to do the legwork myself and, since we only have one car and Mr B needs that for work, it is literally legwork.

A friend told us, "I've heard that if you walk all the way to the end of your street, there's a taco truck that parks up there at night." I became a little obsessed with this promise. I mean I like tacos (who doesn't?), but I fixated on the mysterious taco truck to a probably overly-excessive degree. To me it represented the first entry in my mental collection of "Stuff I Like About My Neighbourhood," which is a very important collection to start when you move somewhere new.

I think my daughter was about six weeks old when I finally caught up with the taco truck, although it wasn't at the end of our street (those darned things have wheels, and it's harder than you think to track them down in the right place at the right time). I had made a new friend and she and I pushed our prams (her son was about two) north along Lygon Street for several kilometres. The traffic was loud and there were all kinds of building works going on so we walked single file and couldn't chat. The truck location was a lot further than I'd anticipated. Scout started crying for a feed, my friend's son was wiggling and fidgeting and decidedly over being strapped into a pram, and still we were walking.

But when finally, finally we made it to the dingy little park outside of which the truck was parked, there were pockets of people milling around. Eating, chatting, lining up for more. Picnic rugs covering dubious patches of grass. Plastic wine glasses and soda bottles with striped straws. People in suits perched on a low wall, bending over their little cardboard plates so that taco juice wouldn't drip onto their nice clothes. Someone somewhere was playing a guitar. Oh and the tacos were really good (especially the fish ones).

It was the sense of "instant community" that got me hooked on food trucks that day, even more than the food itself. The fact that they can roll up there somewhere not particularly pretty, most often a car park or the side of a nondescript street, and can, by way of a colourful awning and a great-smelling kitchen-on-wheels, create community. And so it started for me.

My food truck hunt slowed down somewhat (alright it pretty much stopped) after I had Ralph. It gets a whole lot harder to schlep around town when you have not only a newborn, but also an 18-month-old who only recently started walking. Double prams are not the most mobile of beasts, and timing long outings around competing nap times and feed times and little legs wanting to run just got too hard. This also coincided with Yarra Council (the area where I live) making it increasingly difficult for food trucks to operate in our area, so I tended to have to travel further afield to find them. I visited a few food truck parks, and even the street food festival last year, and it's kind of great having all the trucks gathered together, but that's a) a different kind of community, and b) even I can only sample just so many types of foods in the one meal (especially if I have to individually line up for each one).

But then a few months ago we ducked into a shopping centre to visit the Apple store and, lo and behold, there was a veritable food truck bonanza parked out behind the supermarkets and greengrocers. I left my family waiting inside with the air conditioning (it was 39 degrees that day) and temporarily dipped back into Food Truck Land just for that one afternoon.

What we ate:

* From Wingster's Grilled Chicken: a burger with buttermilk chicken (because the wings weren't ready yet) and a spicy sauce I can't remember (but it was good), and fries * From the Real Burgers: a classic weiner (because I am a rebel and also it looked and tasted so good) and fries * From the Refresher Truck: a (virgin) piña colada, and a "green power"

Ah, I'd missed the smoky deliciousness in the air, and the comforting rumble of those generators.

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Home delivery coffee

coffee Dear entrepreneurs and cafe-owners of Melbourne, here is a business idea. Consider it a gift from me to you.

Home delivery coffee.

Allow me to put my case.

Imagine, if you will, the thousands upon thousands of parents, grandparents, friends and nannies in Melbourne right now who have spent all day chasing after babies and toddlers. Anyone who has done this knows how BEHOND EXHAUSTING it is to do. And now imagine this occurring on the back of a night of little or at best broken sleep. Make that THREE AND A HALF YEARS of little or at best broken sleep, night after night.

And now imagine that at around two o’clock in the afternoon, by some happy confluence of hard work, planning, and sheer dumb luck, those babies and toddlers actually fall asleep for a nap. In their own beds. At the same time.

And so all those thousands upon thousands of parents, grandparents, friends and nannies who have spent all day chasing after all those babies and toddlers FINALLY get a chance to sit down. They know they should be cleaning, or working, or folding washing, or calling their mothers. But they are just so mind-numbingly exhausted that all they can do is sit and stare at that stain on the lounge-room rug left over from the Great Banana Mush Incident of ’13.

Do you know what they would love right now? Coffee. They would really, really love a nap-time coffee. Some might even kill for it, and most would probably pay through the nose for it.

But - and here’s the kicker - even if they had the energy to walk, they couldn't leave the house to buy it. The babies and toddlers are asleep, remember?

Now if someone was to develop an app via which all those people could ORDER a coffee, and have a barista with a coffee cart rock up at their home a few minutes later... Well, that person may well be in line to make their first million.

Just a suggestion.

Image credit: Lesly Juarez, licensed for unlimited use under Creative Commons

Meals on Wheels - Treat Yo Self

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA A couple of weeks ago we headed over to the new Batman Market at Coburg and let me tell you one thing for free: it was street food heaven.

We were there quite early, at about 9.30am, but already a string of food trucks had formed a wonky kind of circle at one end of the market, and the air was filled with wood smoke and coal smoke and the scent of things cooking. Delicious things. Mr B inhaled as though he was just coming up from a long dive and said, "It smells like South America here." Which is one of his highest compliments.

We spent a bit of time exploring to try and build up an appetite, then gave it up for a lost cause and stopped for a ridiculously early lunch. I'm talking 11am or something. Maybe even earlier. But we have babies who need naps and I wasn't going to miss out on tasting at least one of those truck menus before we had to head for home.

So we chose the Treat Yo Self Quesadilla Cart, run by two super-friendly ladies who served their quesadillas in toasted tortillas from an adorable, tiny, old-school caravan with (joy of opera-singing choirs) a coffee machine.

I ordered a blueberry and custard dessert quesadilla for a certain hungry two-year-old, and a latte for me. She all but inhaled that quesadilla, so I went back to buy another filled with nutella and banana, at which point Mr B and I were all "what the hey, let's do this," so we bit the bullet and called it lunch.

My quesadilla was made with black beans, tomato, onion, cheese and green salsa and yes, it was every bit as good as it sounds.

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ps. More food trucks of Melbourne

Gundagai dispatch – the Niagara Café

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(I tried to resist the cliché. I failed. Play this song in the background)

There is a little country town about half way between Sydney and Melbourne, called Gundagai. It has a population of about 1500. It was made famous by a folk song called The Road to Gundagai, which was written in 1922 by Jack O’Hagan (who lived, incidentally, just around the corner from me in Fitzroy). I think the song is about a soldier returning to his home town after the Great War. In my head, that's what I imagine when I hear it.

We pulled into Gundagai on our way home from Canberra last week, because Harry had just woken from his nap and we needed somewhere to sit and feed him his breakfast. Purely by chance, we chose the Niagara Café.

The Niagara is 112 years old and has been owned by Greek immigrants the entire time (not the SAME Greek immigrants, clearly). It opened in 1902 as an Oyster Saloon, and took the name Niagara in 1928 because apparently American names were considered en vogue at the time.

The décor had a snazzy new update in 1938 that made it THE super-cool and happening night-spot in all the bustling metropolis of Gundagai. And, apart from some beautiful lights lost to a fire in the '70s, it HAS NOT CHANGED SINCE THAT TIME.

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I’m talking scalloped booths, gloriously narrow and uncomfortable bench seats, and lime-green table-tops. Art deco mirrors, doors and windows. And a century’s worth of newspaper clippings framed on the walls, celebrating celebrity (mostly political) visitors and other events in the café’s history.

Events overlap events and nothing is removed. A banner proudly boasting the 50th anniversary (in 1992) of a Prime Minister’s visit still graces the back wall.

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The Niagara Café is SO COOL. It is the best kind of kitsch. The most authentic kind of nostalgia.

But everything looks worn and tired. It is clean, it is friendly, but it is tired. The mirrored counter is cracked and tired. The scalloped, lime-green booths are chipped and tired. The owners look tired. I’m sorry to say it, but even our food looked a little tired. [Update 7 Oct 2014: I just want to clarify that the food was neither old nor bad, and I recommend you eat here. This comment was meant to reflect a sense of weariness in presentation that I totally understand, having experienced first-hand how exhausting cafe work is.] I can hardly blame the Niagara, I reckon I’d be tired after 112 years, too.

Despite this, we fell hard for the Niagara. Mr B and I spent the next 200 kilometres (in between numerous rousing renditions of The Road to Gundagai on Madeleine’s request) discussing how we’d like to move to Gundagai and take over the Niagara Café and restore it to its former glory. Celebrating history and attracting the tourist dollar, you know?

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Homemade childhood food memories

food-memories This is a new thing. It's something quite fun and I hope you want to play along. Mr B and I have decided to revisit some of the meals and dishes of our childhoods, and the memories that go with the meals. We are going to cook them up and photograph them and blog about them and share our recipes. The meals we hated and the meals we loved, and the meals our families seemed to eat over and over and over again.

We had a little brainstorm the other night and the list above contains some of our most potent food memories. There's nothing sophisticated in there, it's just childhood. Chilli con carne? Oh, how I hated it, served up with sides of coconut and banana and sultanas (why? WHY?). Chocolate eclairs? You should hear Mr B go on about his grandmother's "famous" eclairs.

Taste is an extraordinarily powerful sense, wouldn’t you agree? Even more so as it is combined with smell. Just one little taste of something can instantly transport you in time and space. There is a cake shop on Rathdowne Street that, until recently, sold cupcakes that tasted a lot – a LOT – like the vanilla cupcakes at Magnolia Bakery in the West Village in New York. I would go there and get a coffee and cake to go, pushing then-baby Madeleine in her pram while she slept. And as I took that first bite Rathdowne Street would melt away and I’d be crossing the road with my dog into a little park just over the way from Magnolia and checking the bench seats for pigeon poo and fishing my notebook out of my bag and writing poetry in the last little pockets of autumn sun before the evening closed in.

What about you? Tell me your most powerful food memories. I'd love you to join in with me, if you want to. There are two ways we can do this:

1. Cook up your own food memories, and use the hashtag #naomilovesfoodmemories around the social media traps so we can all see what you've been cooking and what you remember, and share the love

2. Another way you can join in, if you prefer, is to tell ME about a dish that brings back special memories for you. Mr B and I will add your dish to our list and cook it up on your behalf. Now THAT could be fun

Let's do this!

Melbourne dispatch - Cafe Bu

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Around about the Christmas / New Year period, Mr B returned from a walk around the block bouncing with excitement because a new coffee window had opened up just around the corner from our house. It is by these small milestones that we measure out life's joys.

We love a good coffee window around these parts. When you push a double pram weighed down by more than 20 kilograms of children (and probably an afternoon's worth of grocery shopping) around town and you're desperate for a coffee, not having to navigate doors and steps and tables and chairs and other diners to purchase said coffee is pretty appealing.

Cafe Bü is narrow and tiny and utterly charming. The owners have made clever use of every inch of space. The coffee window is a place for my friends on the pram-brigade get their caffeine fix, along with a host of cyclists and joggers and other coffee-loving passers by. For those who want to stop, a handful of converted crates offer limited seating outside the window and, inside, stools line a second window where punters can sip their 5 Senses coffee from the warmth of the tiny cafe.

But the best part of this cafe is its little rooftop courtyard. Stairs through the back of the shop lead up to a narrow rooftop with a bar that looks out over the street, and cleverly-designed tables set against the rear-facing wall, that can fold up and down to suit groups of different sizes.

Yesterday while the children were in care, I took my computer and notes up to the sunny Cafe Bü rooftop for a working lunch, with a side of bird's-eye view of Carlton North. After a bitterly-cold morning, the day had turned mild, windless and sunny. Perfect rooftop dining weather. A black and white stretched awning kept the worst of the glare out of my eyes, and heaters lined the back wall, although we didn't need them.

Like the fit-out, the menu at Cafe Bü is minimalist, elegant, and lovely. I had a simple avocado toast, chai, and later a lamington and a coffee because it felt so luxurious to be able to eat my food and drink my tea while it was still hot, and it just felt so good to see blue skies and sun again.

What's your favourite coffee spot?

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Melbourne dispatch - Kinfolk Cafe

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There is a hand-drawn sign just inside the door of Kinfolk, a little social enterprise cafe on Bourke Street in Melbourne, and this is what it says.

rules of kinfolk

allow yourself to BE you...open up to receiving generously and giving generously...

teach others with your smile, learn to let your heart sing, your soul

dance... savour every mouthful. give thanks. Take praise. DO

what you do best and enjoy it. Share. Care... sit a while... and come again...

I've been wanting to share Kinfolk with you for literally years. It was one of my favourite places to go eat and read a book when we first moved to Melbourne, before I had kids and had to factor pram-parking into my eateries of choice. You'll find it right down the bottom of Bourke Street, near Southern Cross Station, so it's also where I used to meet friends visiting from interstate or overseas, giving them somewhere lovely to relax after they stepped off the airport bus and before we had to board the tram.

Run with the help of up to 30 volunteers, Kinfolk is a not-for-profit space, directing its income between development projects for communities in need in Rwanda, Ghana, Palm Island and Melbourne. Customers can choose where they would like the profit from their meal to go by popping a coffee bean into a jar, or trust Kinfolk to distribute it where it's most needed.

As you'd expect, the food is seasonal and wherever possible organic, biodynamic, locally-sourced and fair-trade managed. Oh and delicious. What you see on my plate is a chicken tagine with seasonal vegetables, but there are always vegetarian and vegan options on the menu too.

Last year they ran a crowd-funding campaign and successfully raised enough money to lease the space behind the cafe, enabling them to install a commercial kitchen, build on the catering side of the business, expand the menu, add 30 percent more table seating, and increase trading hours. Through all of this, they are now able to raise more profits for their project partners.

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Melbourne dispatch - local burger picnic

burger1Reason #17 why I love living in Melbourne's Inner North: our burger shop doesn't just do take-aways, it does take-away picnics! Next time you're wandering past The Local Burger Co on Rathdowne Street and the weather is just right, ask them to pack you a picnic. You don't need to bring a thing. They'll pop your order into a big wicker basket along with a water-proof blanket and some lovely bamboo cutlery.* All you need to do is amble across the road to the park and crack open those famous sweet potato fries.

burger2 burger5 burger10 burger8 burger9 burger7 burger6 burger3 burger4This post was brought to you by my very hungry family, and the Live North Facebook page, who sponsored our outdoor dining adventure. Photos brought to you by my trusty iPhone because I was too busy stuffing my face to pull out the camera

* For a $20 deposit, refunded when you return the basket and blanket

ps. I'm pleased to announce the winner of last week's competition for family passes to the Melbourne Museum and IMAX, also thanks to Live North. Congratulations Tawhi, I hope you have a great time!

This is where I live

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Inner-North6 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Inner-North3 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Inner-North7 Inner-North5What do you love about where you live? I've lived in a lot of places around Australia and the world, but I've said it before and I'll say it again: Melbourne is the first place I've felt "at home" since I left New York. I live in a really great part of Melbourne, known as the "Inner North." What do I love about it?

It's a 20 minute walk from my place into the heart of the city, yet everywhere around us is quiet and peaceful. We're in a historically-protected area, so most of the homes in our street are more than 100 years old, with their beautiful Victorian facades preserved. A walk to the park today is barely changed from the same walk a century ago.

Buildings in our area are peppered with wonderful vintage advertising painted onto their brickwork. There are cobblestoned laneways behind the homes. And the main streets are choc full of amazing food: cafes, restaurants, bars, food trucks and organic produce; as well as shops that boast beautiful homewares, vintage finds, fashion and art.

Are you ready to visit me yet?

If you are, I may have the perfect travel guide for you. Jauntful is a new (free) digital tool that makes it incredibly easy to design attractive online guides that are also printable (with maps). Pretty nifty, huh?

I've just designed my very first guide, focusing on great places to eat and visit in Melbourne's Inner North, with babies or toddlers in tow. I'm not talking about places that deliberately bill themselves as family-friendly, necessarily: all too often those places are noisy and grotty and garish and the coffee is appalling. Instead, I'm talking about the sorts of places you'd want to visit even without kids (and you totally should!), which just so happen to be super supportive of those of us sporting miniature humans, and frequently include some special extras that keep the kids happy and make our lives easier.

So, here is my guide (scroll down through it too see all the places I recommend). What do you think? Do you want to come visit my neighbourhood (with or without kids)?

The toddler-and-baby friendly Inner North

And now for the competition

To celebrate the launch of a new Facebook page called "Live North" that celebrates all the great things about Melbourne's Inner North, sponsored by Hockingstuart, I've been invited to give you guys a gift: a family pass to Melbourne Museum (two adults and two children), PLUS a family pass (two adults and two children) to see Unseen World at IMAX Melbourne. The total value of this prize is $75.

To enter, simply send me an email (nabulger AT gmail DOT com) with "Live North" in the subject line. I'll select the winner at random so making your message funny or cute won't win you any extra points, but it WILL make it fun for me to read, so don't hold back if you're so inclined! The competition closes at 3pm this Friday 11 April (Melbourne time, of course). Only one entry per person, but you can enter other members of your family (or your friends), as long as they are over 18.

UPDATE: This competition is now closed. Congratulations Tawhi!

ps. The Live North Facebook page has also launched a HUGE competition to win dining and shopping in the Inner North, worth more than $4000! Enter here.

Melbourne dispatch - La Condesa

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is super handy to live across the road from Madeleine's daycare. No busy drop-offs or battles to find parking; we walk there hand in hand of a morning, Madeleine proudly dragging her green bag (emblazoned with "SMILE" in multi-coloured sequins) along the foot path behind her. But one of the down-sides of living (and working) so close to your child's daycare is that every time a little one cries, you hear it and think, "Is my child in distress?" It can be quite distracting and upsetting, especially when you're on a deadline.

Last Friday when I thought my nerves just couldn't take it any longer, I packed the computer into a shoulder bag and took a walk down Johnston Street in Fitzroy for a spot of "business lunch," freelance-writer-style.

I'm so glad I did, because I stumbled upon this urban garden oasis that had only been open a couple of weeks: La Condesa, a taqueria serving tacos and aguas frescas from a window to a tiny little garden courtyard in a graffiti-covered side street.

Three tacos for ten bucks? You can't beat that. Let's face it, you can barely cook at home for that! I chose the arrachera (steak), pescado (fish) and hongo (mushroom) tacos. They were all delicious, especially with the range of mild-to-spicy salsas and toppings on offer at the window, but I seriously could have eaten a dozen of those mushroom babies. The flavour was unbelievably good.

I washed them down with a refreshing basil-infused pineapple juice and, later, a hibiscus and something-else-I-can't-remember drink for good measure.

In the end I stayed for more than an hour, it was just so restful. The weather was Mary Poppins: sunny, warm but not hot, lightly breezy.

They were pretty busy when I arrived but later when things got quiet, I had a lovely chat with the owner. She has a little girl just a few months older than Madeleine, and we bonded over stories of their funny antics as well as the trials and tribulations of finding good childcare. She was so warm and smart and lovely, I was all "BE MY BEST FRIEND," although thankfully for my dignity, only in my head.

La Condesa is open from 11.30 in the morning until late at night and they're about to open a 70-seat indoor dining area, so if you're around Fitzroy I recommend getting down there for a relaxing bite before word gets out and the inevitable lines start to form.

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