Monday, May 30, 2011

Little Tripoli in Altona

When I first moved to Footscray, I had been working in Thornbury and had spent many a lunchtime stuffing myself full of Lebanese pizza from nearby High Street and beyond.  One of my first tasks was to find the local Lebanese bakery, if there was indeed one.  Much fruitless Googling ensued until I finally came across a promising link on Google Maps to "The Circle" in Altona.

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So one morning I navigated hesitantly under the West Gate and down Blackshaws Road until I came across this little oasis in the backstreets, a hub of the Lebanese community and a treasure trove of good food.

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Starting at one end, Al Ameena butcher for lamb cutlets (the nice rack-of-lamb sort) for $20/kg.  Other butchers, TAKE NOTE!  It is bloody outrageous the $50/kg I have seen charged elsewhere.  Kenny also gives Al Ameena's halal hot dogs a big thumbs up.

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International Foods is a simply fantastic Lebanese and continental supermarket.  One half of the shop is fruit and veg, the other is a very well-stocked and well-organised dry goods section, complete with aisles.

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I could quite happily spend a good hour in here.  Tahini in all grades and sizes, kitsch Eastern European chocolates, obscure Polish jams.  I even used to buy bargain pomegranate juice here from Azerbaijan.

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Love this - just as "regular" supermarkets have a choice between Tip Top, Sunblest, Helga's etc, here you can choose your favourite Lebanese bread.  I personally like Kadamani or A1.

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The chiller cabinets have all sorts of Middle Eastern cheeses including shanklish, a kind of aged feta rolled in herbs, haloumi and bargain yoghurt.  Behind the counter the pine nuts are great value (or as good value as pine nuts can be).  Recently International Foods have started selling pastries from the venerable Balha's of Sydney Road but the day I went they looked a bit tired.  Stay tuned for a great local baklava shop.

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Yes yes yes, the Holy Grail, the Lebanese pizza shop!  I actually haven't been back to this one that much after discovering Amanie's in St Albans and they have evidently undergone some changes.  There used to be a fish and chips/hamburger station in here too but that has been removed.

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I have to say, I prefer it gone.  Who needs a floppy hamburger when you have all this goodness to choose from?  A good Lebanese pizza shop should have a small range of its offerings out, which are pies or flat "pizzas" folded into various shapes.  These are then tossed into the long, flat oven which is absolutely searing in temperature, as evidenced by the mere 60 seconds it takes to have your choice heated up.

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I highly recommend the kaak here, which is an almost bagel-like, sesame-seed encrusted roll filled with grated haloumi (you can see them in the picture above, at the front, in a little stack).  A no less tasty but much less decadent option is the plain spinach, which this bakery do a great version of.  The spinach is fresh and cooked with onion, allspice and perhaps sumac to make a fabulously tangy and healthy snack.

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Last stop is Fruit Fiesta for gorgeous fruit and veg and a range of continental dry goods.  There's a little cafe in the strip too called "Inner Circle" which I think is cute.  It's the kind of place where everyone knows everybody and you feel compelled to take your empty cup back to the counter, just as everyone else does.

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The coffee is unspectacular - get one from Spotswood on the way home, but first pull into Victoria Sweets which is just on Blackshaws Road.

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When the Lebanese do something, they do it 110%.  More glitz!  More tulle!  I love it - it's so OTT.  Balha's in Sydney Road is the same, all glinty gold and the sweets displayed on enormous pedastals.

Everything is sold by weight, so start by asking for the type of container you wish to fill, whether a small box or a huge circular plastic plate to keep.  Finding which type of baklava you like is trial and error.  Greek baklava is very syrupy and almost soggy, whereas Lebanese can veer towards being too dry depending on the shop and the variety.

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Phwoar, check out the chocolate baklava on the right side of the photo!  One of my favourite Lebanese sweets is znoud.  They are fat spring rolls filled with clotted cream, deep fried, soaked in sugar syrup and dolloped with more cream.  Holy heart attack!

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Here we have my favourite variety of baklava - triangular in shape and filled with a pine nut/cashew mixture (not sure but that is what it tastes like).  On the left is harisa which is a dense cake of semolina.  These were not up to Victoria Sweets' normal standards - the syrup had far too much rosewater for my taste.

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Top marks though to this freebie shortbread I scored, stuffed with date paste.  It had that perfect shortbready moist/dry thing going on with sweet, thick date paste in the middle.  Does anyone (yasmeen?) know if this is maamoul or not?  If so, I might be a convert as I normally dislike the more traditional date-stuffed pastries that I associate with this name.

I hope you enjoy exploring The Circle.  Rayna recently lamented the lack of independent shops in the newer outer suburbs.  I agree; nothing depresses me more than row after row of franchises.  I love these unique shopping strips which have developed autonomously over time.  Most of the shoppers here are older people - I hope that the young people in the area continue to keep The Circle alive.

Find a map to The Circle here.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Classic Curry Sunshine

I was once told of life with small children that a day can seem like a year while the years seem like days.  It is so true.  Now that my kids are getting older, all those endless, boring days trying to entertain tiny babies seem a distant memory.  What time is there to be bored now with the endless merry-go-round of kinder, swimming, playdates and so on?  Stressed, perhaps, but not bored.

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Time for a peaceful lunch to read the paper and take a deep breath.  Classic Curry in Sunshine got the thumbs up from Kenny a while ago.  Gotta love Sunshine - you can get a park right out the front in a free car park, which is more than I can say for Footscray at the moment.

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It's surprisingly spacious inside.  I was expecting an Indi Hots style fit out but it's much more restaurant like, albeit with plastic tablecloths.  There's a full menu which you can peruse here.  Prices are pretty unreal - all veg curries are $9 and all meat $10 with free basmati rice.

I'm a sucker for a good thali - this is a traditional Indian "mini-buffet" meal where you get rice, bread and three curries for a ridiculously low price.  They always come on these silver trays which, as Matt Preston said, are reminiscent of prison riots.

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A traditional Indian meal always has one wet and one dry element.  Here was dal makhani which was satisfying and earthy - slow-cooked whole lentils, quite thick and with a good helping of chilli.  Traditionally this dal would be left in the dying heat of the tandoor oven overnight to emerge thick and rich.  Complementing this was a dry sabzi-style dish of perfectly-cooked potato and cauliflower, deliciously chilli-hot and spiced with turmeric, cumin seeds and dried fenugreek leaves.

The chicken was so flat, though.  The meat was tender and of good quality - three slices of breast meat - but the gravy was, I hate to say it, reminiscent of condensed tomato soup mixed with cream.  This is perhaps not inauthentic in a sense - Lizzie Collingham writes in "Curry:  An Autobiography" that Chicken Tikka Masala, Britain's national dish, was created when a customer complained that his chicken tikka was too dry so the chef whipped up a gravy of tinned soup, cream and a few mild spices.  Still, its lack of spice and personality was so incongruent with the other two quality vegetarian dishes.


In Indian restaurants, you will often see next to the till a little glass bowl of coloured things and seeds with a spoon in it.  This is a traditional breath freshener and often incorporates fennel.  Here at Classic Curry, there were sugar-coated fennel seeds on offer which are quite delicious, tasting a lot like liquorice.

I reckon Classic Curry deserve another chance.  They have a few good meal deals like $35 for a "family pack" with mountains of food.  A good stress reliever for a mid-week dinner, perhaps!

Classic Curry (Sunshine) on Urbanspoon

Classic Curry
Shop 3, Clarke Street, Sunshine (map)
Phone:  9312 6766
Hours:  7 days, 11 am til late

Can you help?
Oscar went missing on Saturday 21/5/11 from Adelaide Street in Footscray. He is 5 years old. He has black fur with white nose, paws, chest and belly. He was last seen wearing a purple collar with a bell, but no tags. He is desexed and microchipped. Any information greatly appreciated! We are offering a reward for his safe return.
Alice 0466 303 177 / 0466 408 032

Monday, May 23, 2011

Hot dogs at Costco

People are very sensitive about grocery shopping.  Allegiances can be as fiercely defended as those to football teams.  Costco seems to inspire everything from ardour to disgust to benign curiosity.  I have been a member since it first opened and truthfully was not sure if I would keep my membership at first.  As time has gone on, the management has evidently responded to Australian buying habits and the product range keeps getting better and better.  So, trolley loaded with free range chicken, organic milk and antioxidant-rich blueberries, what better for lunch than a Costco hot dog?

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Yes, I know what you are thinking - how could you??  I blame nostalgia.  Hot dogs are a huge part of the American summer experience.  Just as you wander the backstreets of suburban Melbourne in summer and the unmistakable, sinfully-delicious waft of barbecuing el-cheapo breakfast sausages fills the air, the lure of an American hot dog is just as wrong and just as strong.  The meat is highly processed and the bun that cakey, aerated McDonalds bread, but they put me straight back in Wrigley Field in Chicago, organ pipes playing between the commentator's snappy calls, the ivy rustling gently in the lakeshore breeze as a baseball game plays on.

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Mmmm, $2.49 worth of memories.  They are not quite the hot dogs I recall (Chicago is famous for its 100% beef hot dogs) but they are damn close.

I am ashamed to say I have partaken of other Costco food court delights.  The pizza slices are gargantuan and I found them far too oily and (in the case of the cheese pizza) somewhat bland.  The "Korean" "beef bulgogi bake" (yes, HOW CAN I CALL MYSELF A FOODIE) is far, far too rich - a kind of greasy calzone stuffed with beef, cheese and onion.

So what's in the trolley?  Costco is really about discounting premium brands rather than beating generic prices, although in some cases it does manage to do that.  This does mean that you have to buy a lot, ie, 24 muesli bars at a time, three-packs of shampoo or 1 kg frozen berries.  It works for us but if you were a smaller household, you would need to weigh up the initial outlay, the expiry date and the boredom factor to consider if it would work for you.

Costco have always sold packs of Steggles or Baiada chicken pieces, plus whole Lilydale free range chooks.  I have regularly left feedback asking them to stock free range fillets and one day received a phone call telling me that they would indeed do that.  Unreal!  Indeed, they are stocking more and more free range and organic lines which I think is reflective of the variety of people who shop at Costco - some come for the buckets of Maltesers, others for the wild Alaskan salmon.  But everyone stays for the hot dogs.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Barbie Kitchen

barbie kitchen

My new favourite - Barbie Kitchen!!!

Yes, I am KIDDING!  It's not that type of Barbie Kitchen I'm talking about, it's this kind:

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Chinese Spicy & Barbie Kitchen is a new Szechuan eatery that has opened in Flemington/Kensington (I get so confused which side of the street is which) and is already one of my all-time favourite restaurants.

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Firstly the menus are gorgeous - big shiny pages with droolworthy pics and not so drool-y names like "saliva chicken" (better translated as "mouthwatering chicken").  So many non-Anglo restaurants have very perfunctory menu descriptions - you know, "chicken on rice" or "spicy fish" - that if you want to branch out and try something new, you're never sure if your dish will be big, small, swimming in chilli or full of offal.  Barbie Kitchen's pics mean it's easy and exciting to try things you might not otherwise place a bet on.

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The fitout is simple but it works - big, satisfying, hand hewn-look wooden tables with low, cushy chairs, perfect for adults and kids alike. 

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Themed tissue boxes, aesthetically-pleasing tableware and decor and the cleanest high chair this side of Chengdu.  With all this relative luxury, it would be easy to assume that Barbie Kitchen is not authentic, too expensive or both, but far from it.

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A complimentary appetiser - thick kelp-like seaweed dressed with chilli, garlic and a hint of sesame.  Gorgeous!  The menu here features traditional Szechuan dishes, what I think of as Northern-Chinese style fat white dumplings, as well as a whole selection of BBQ-grilled meats and vegies (the latter only available at dinner time).
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Dry fried string beans, $14.80

This is a classic - well-fried green beans and pork mince with XO sauce, which is an umami-rich blend of dried seafood, Chinese prosciutto-like ham and chilli.  This was a truly awesome version - sweet mince, fresh beans and lots of rich, satisfying, lipsmacking hum from the XO.  It wasn't too hot for the kids who loved it (this is very easy to make at home although I don't deep-fry the beans!  Fry garlic, brown pork, add beans, add couple spoons XO, season with soy and perhaps a little white sugar, done!)

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Spicy eggplant, $12.80

This is a first for me and I am a total convert.  The eggplant has been peeled and I suspect fried, to emerge velvety-soft, sweet, slippery and luscious.  The sauce is pleasantly oily, sweet, with a hint of vinegar.  If you want to know how good it was, my 3-year-old could not stop eating it.  We had these with bowls of rice for $1 each.

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Leeks, $3 per "string"

The first of our BBQ dishes - these were delish.  I'm not sure what sort of leek they were as they seemed like a cross between a sping onion and a chive, but they were fabulous.

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Lily mushroom pork, $2.50 each and squid, $2 each

These were both lovely - the "lily mushroom pork" (which I wouldn't have ordered but for the photo, which showed it as pork wrapped around enoki mushrooms) was a delicious contrast of textures and flavours, while the squid was tender and tasty.

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Chilli, $1.50

All the BBQ dishes were dusted with a rustic chilli-and-cumin blend which was delicious and seemingly very un-Chinese, but it did get a bit same-same over time.  In my opinion, just order a few select BBQ dishes and round out your meal with selections from other parts of the menu to get the most flavour variety.  Perhaps the BBQ'd chicken skin next time?  Take that, KFC Double Down "burger"!

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Pork dumplings, $7 for 15!!!

LURVED these dumplings.  They are really a huge step up from the likes of Camy - the meat inside is luscious and juicy, like Hu Tong's dumplings - no hard meaty nuggets.  The pastry is just feather-light, not at all leaden or chewy as these can sometimes be.  There's also a vegetarian option (which I always think are best pan-fried).

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Steamed buns, $9.8 for 6

These are somewhat like xiao long bao but are juicy rather than soupy.  The same sweet, tasty filling of pork and spring onion/leek-y vegetable.  Apparently these differ in that they are made with self-raising flour, giving them a more bun-like consistency.  I prefer the former simpler version.  Still, these were delicious!

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Laoshan Haisheng Pie, $2

Yum yum yum - again, the pork and vegetable filling, this time in a large pupusa-like parcel panfried and squished down.  Super juicy, crispy - fabulous!

At the risk of being disloyal to my local non-Cantonese Chinese restaurants, 1+1 and Dumplings and More, Barbie Kitchen is, I have to say, far superior.  I haven't had Szechuan food this good in years - I normally prefer Cantonese as it seems less oily and lighter/more complex in flavour, but this was unreal.  I honestly can't wait to go back.  Even if it had wonky chairs and greasy chopsticks I would love it, so the decor is the icing on the cake.

This is definitely my kind of Barbie Kitchen - although I do like that the Barbie has a glass of champagne on the counter - that much is realistic!

See Billy and Bryan for more thumbs up.  Billy has a new address and look - check it out!

Chinese Spicy and Barbie Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Chinese Spicy & Barbie Kitchen
311 Racecourse Rd, Kensington (map)
Phone:  9372 5218
Hours:  7 days, 11:30am-3:00pm, 5:30pm-11.00pm

Wheelchair Access
Level entry 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Happy belated Mothers' Day

The kids at my daughter's kindy had to write something about their mum and find a picture of her in a magazine:

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Awww!  I do hope though that this blog will be something for my kids to remember me by, so that they can know what their mother was like at their age some day (not 13, incidentally).  I have a page now called "My Scrapbook" where I am keeping scans of various articles about the blog - you can see it above the date of this post, next to the word "Home".

I want to say sorry that I have been a really useless blog reader and commenter lately.  I'm also sorry I haven't been replying to comments promptly - various family logistical issues mean that I have had to cut down on my "me" time.  I appreciate you all still visiting and commenting so much though!

In other news, Footscray Food Blog has been selected to be archived in perpetuity by the National Library of Australia's web archive, Pandora.  The archive "aims to build a comprehensive collection of Australian publications to ensure that Australians have access to their documentary heritage now and in the future".  I am very flattered to be part of it - if only to be remembered as being obviously as hot as Venus Williams.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Pho Hien

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I reckon Sunshine rocks.  Heaps of parking, lots of interesting restaurants and bargains galore in the various fresh food centres around.  Sunday was quiet, at least until we worked out where everyone was - at Pho Hien.

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Miss J had not only tipped me off about Pho Hien's Sunday special, banh xeo or Vietnamese pancake, but set a date for us to go there.  Perfect!  It took some wrangling to organise a table to fit us all but we were persistent.  Behind us, the entranceway filled up with hungry would-be customers gazing balefully at others' bowls.

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Banh xeo, $12

We had come for one thing - banh xeo or Vietnamese pancake, a huge crepe made with eggs, coconut milk and rice flour.  It comes with a very impressive jungle of greens, from classic iceberg to bitey mustard leaves, European mint to "fish mint" which actually smells exactly like stinky fish.

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Inside is so much textural and flavour variation, from soft cooked pork and white radish to slightly crunchy, shell-on baby prawns; the contrast of long, crisp mung bean sprouts and sweet, mashy cooked mung beans themselves.  Take a lettuce leave, section a piece of pancake, roll it up and dip in seasoned fish sauce.  Delicious!  Now Luke Nguyen has been telling me for years not personally although I wish :p---- that you can eat the prawns with their shell on.  Honestly, they are pretty good like this!  The shell is not over-the-top hard or crunchy but gives textural variation to the soft meat inside.

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Grilled chicken, $9.50

People ask, "How do you get your kids to eat in those restaurants?"  Behold my secret, ye olde grilled chicken on rice complete with token vegetables.  This chicken was yummo, very juicy, great drizzled with more seasoned fish sauce.

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Sliced beef pho, $6.50 (baby size)

Persistence will pay off, though, and now my eldest loves "beef soup".  The broth here is really sweet and mellow with perfect al dente noodles of irregular width.  The beef is top quality, nice round slices.  Each table has sweet pickled onions on it in a little jar - be sure to add some!

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Spring rolls, $7.50

I read on a blog somewhere once that pho is just meant to go with spring rolls while bun bo hue with rice paper rolls.  That is all the excuse I need, really.  These were very good, almost rectangular in shape and ticking all the boxes for crispy, generously-filled and above all, tasty.

As we ate I saw people going out with huge silver roasting trays containing a banh xeo, along with a bag full of greens.  I love that it's their Sunday special only - it makes me think they've put a lot of care into it.

Kenny highly recommends the bun noodle salads at Pho Hien too.

Pho Hien Saigon on Urbanspoon

Pho Hien
3/284 Hampshire Rd, Sunshine (map)
Phone:  9311 9532
Hours:  Mon-Sat 9am-8pm, Sun 10am-8pm

Friday, May 6, 2011

Wok Noodle

Melbourne seems to be going through a Malaysian restaurant explosion!  Flemington is turning into a downright little KL and there are new places popping up in the city all the time.  Bring it on, I say!  Seddon even has its own slice of the Malaysian carrot cake now with Wok Noodle.

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Dumplings, $7.50

"Try the dumplings", insisted one loyal customer, so we did.  Unfortunately these were somewhat overcooked so the pastry had become flaccid.  The filling had decent flavour but I did not like the coarse texture.  They were quite lovingly presented though on nice Japanese-style ceramic with a little garnish.

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Roti with potato curry, $7

This was quite a tasty sauce, thick and rich.  I was a bit spoilt after Chillipadi Mamak Kopitiam's unreal homemade roti and superb curries though, I have to say.  The roti was a little doughy but quite nice.

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Hainan chicken rice, $11.50

We were very excited to learn that this house special which is normally on weekends only was available, apparently due to a large dinner the previous night.  Although the rice was tasty with rich ginger and chicken flavour, the chicken itself was somewhat lacking.

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Char hor fun, $10.50

I have been so curious about this dish - lots and lots of really thick, lightly-coloured gravy on noodles.  See the wonderful 3 Hungry Tummies for a recipe.  This did have great flavour - tasty gravy, very thick but not gluey, with very, very fresh seafood and vegies.  The wide rice noodles underneath though were really soggy - I would have expected them to still have some bite?  Nevertheless I am new to this dish and not sure of the most authentic cooking method.

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I so wanted to love Wok Noodle - it's close by and the proprietors are very personable.  The thing is, everything is presented with care and flourish, the place is spic and span, the tables are set with flair and it is obvious that they really care about their food.  It just didn't hit the spot for me.  Perhaps I'm missing something, ordered badly or it was an off night.  Have you been here?  What do you think?

Wok Noodle
1/92 Charles Street, Seddon (map)
Phone:  9689 9882
Hours:  Tues-Fri 10:30 am-10pm, Sat & Sun 11am-10pm, closed Mon

Wheelchair Access
Call to confirm (street seating available)
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