We look forward to this time of year, not because of all the pretty spring blossom but because it's time for Viva's annual Gourmet Takeout Awards of the best of Auckland.
That means we get to work our way round the takeout places searching for the best and following up all the tips we've had about places doing great fresh food. You may recognise a previous winner or two in this line-up, but these aren't the US presidential elections with a two-terms-and-you're-out limit. Here are this year's Auckland winners.
455 New North Rd, Kingsland, ph (09) 849 4590
Finally, some competition for Burger Fuel in the fancy burger market. Burger Fuel may have gone public and have far better coverage with its many outlets, but Handmade Burgers in Kingsland wins where it counts - in the tummy.
The secret? Keeping it simple, light, and fresh, which is a nice change from Burger Fuel's tasty but aioli-heavy burgers.
You can't go past the Moe (chargrilled chicken breast, chargrilled vege relish, brie, a handmade salad that's used in all the burgers, and mustard), and the Falafel Med - with a falafel pattie even hardened meat lovers will want some of - is only one of the vegetarian options. And Handmade's fries are well-cooked and nicely salted.
Unusually for Kingsland, parking is not a problem as the premises used to be a petrol station so there's a drive-through lane right outside the door for a quick pick up.
17 Great North Rd, ph (09) 361 3612
Where to start on the Satya menu? That's easy: Dahi Puri, please.
This delicious entree doesn't have "must try" next to it on the menu for nothing. It has six pieces, and the mix of yoghurt, boiled potato and chick peas with tamarind chutney and ground spices doesn't only stimulate the taste buds, it makes you greedy - you won't want to share.
For mains, you can't really go wrong. Browse the menu and see what bites.
For the little princes, it could be the decadent Prawn Maharaja Curry; or perhaps the hearty fruit, nut and vege Navratan Koorma.
Or keep it simple with the Rogan Josh or Chicken Tikka Masala.
One thing's for sure, while some Indian takeaways have that mass-produced taste, Satya's food makes you feel they've lovingly prepared it just for you. Just don't scrap over the Dahi Puri, you hear.
5 Pah Rd, Greenwoods Corner, Epsom, ph (09) 630 3059
A great fish'n'chip shop stands out from the rest and is a place you'll go out of your way to head back to. Fish is such as place. You can have melt-in-the-mouth fresh snapper, hapuka or gurnard fried, crumbed or grilled as part of a meal box, with a choice of chips, rice or potato gratin and a variety of sauces. Prices range from $9 to $13.50. We'd happily make the trek to Epsom to eat here again.
Viva also recommends the Mt Eden Village Fish Shop, 438 Mt Eden Rd.
2/175 Ponsonby Rd, ph (09) 376 3090; also Renkon City and Renkon Parnell
Renkon's Japanese food is packed with fresh veges and bursting with deliciousness. Around $10 dollars gets you any main meal with rice or udon noodles, which comes in a nifty carton. The $4 sides are also worth a try, especially the divine kumara tempura. Yum. Gives new meaning to cheap eats - and such express service.
Viva also recommends Kiraku on Elliott St, Otto Woo, 47 Ponsonby Rd and Nuffield St, and K.K. Malaysian, 463 Manukau Rd (authentic and fresh and oh so popular with those who know best - but about as far removed from Otto Woo as you can get: don't expect any pleasantries from staff and be prepared to wait outside).
Ground Floor Forsyth Barr Tower, 55-65 Shortland St, ph (09) 358 1255
There's a reason the queue to Bien trails well out of the shop - sushi doesn't come much better than this. The combinations are imaginative if not strictly Japanese. Who cares about tradition when you can have the fried pumpkin and red pepper combination, the marvel that is fried oyster sushi or the Italian version which manages to get sun-dried tomato and pesto into the roll? They also does a mean udon and are well set up to do them to go.
Viva also recommends Victoria Sushi, Victoria St, 142 Victoria St; does the freshest sushi we've ever had the pleasure of eating.
Zap 2 Thai Cafe & Bar
639 Dominion Rd, ph (09) 638 6393
On a wintry Tuesday evening, the place is packed with genuine Thai-speaking, Thai-eating, Thai people.
That may be a a bit of a cliche, but it's also a good sign. Next good sign comes through the nose. This place smells spicy, but it's fresh spicy - the way coriander smells, the way those funny little soup kitchens in Bangkok smell.
But the best of all signs is the food. We order traditional dishes - a curry, a spicy coconut soup and the most difficult of all to do perfectly outside Thailand, a Pad Thai (that fried noodle dish). Take it home, eat it all and feel very happy. The curry and soup are as authentic as you can reasonably expect this side of Khao San Rd. At Zap 2 they're not making things too New Zealand-creamy and there's an excellent balance of sweet, spicy and fresh again. Apparently they'll make it as hot as you like too.
We're especially overjoyed with the simple Pad Thai. We've been hunting for a Pad Thai like the polystyrene platefuls you get at the roadside stalls in Thailand. And now we can spend the money we usually spend on a stopover in Thailand on several months worth of takeaways from a cute little BYO in Dominion Rd.
Nuffield St, ph (09) 522 0990; Prince's Wharf, ph (09) 307 2419
Auckland doesn't have a long tradition of Mexican food the way the US does. Okay, we know what nacho chips are and most hostesses can whip up a guacamole, but that's about the extent of it. This could be about to change.
All it took was one of these burritos full of black beans, rice, sour cream, guacamole, cheese, tomato, onions and some mighty hot sauce for us to succumb to the charms of Mexican food. But if you don't like onions, you don't have to have them, because you're the boss and can put whatever you want in your burrito, taco or quesadilla.
And because it was Taco Tuesday, when you can have two tacos for $5, we did and washed them down with a Coke. If we were tempted to eat in, we would have gone for a Mexican beer, margarita or tequila.
The place is run by an American family, the Buell-Kerlins, who know a thing or two about Mexican food, having run one of Oregon's finest eateries. And if you go light on the sour cream and cheese, it's starting to look like one healthy dinner.
113 Ponsonby Rd, ph (09) 360 4414
These genial guys almost always win, and we make no apologies for giving them the best pizza award again this year. When you've had the best ... why try the rest? The space may be hole-in-the-wall size but it's one cool place to whip in for a slice of pizza ($4.50). We can't go past the funghi (tomato, mushroom, parsley), the divine ortolana (tomato, potato, courgette, onion, capsicum, oregano) and don't even mention the irresistible gamberi (tomato, mayonnaise, rocket, shrimp, lemon). Good coffee, amazing stuffed mushrooms and great magazines for while you're waiting.
Viva also recommends That's Amore, Ponsonby Food Hall, ph (09) 361 6398 for an authentic experience.
172 Richmond Rd, Grey Lynn, ph (09) 360 6159
Even when we get all virtuous and think we'll just do a snatch'n'grab salad, the bread and butter pudding and Turkish delight at the counter sidetrack us so much sometimes that we forget to eat our greens. Which is a shame, because Ripe's salads are legend. Owner Angela Redfern changes them from day to day, but the last time we visited there was a mighty fine beetroot salad, a tasty cous cous salad with currants and much more, and an even better baby potato and smoked fish number. Small salads are $8 and large (practically a week's vegetable quota) are $12.50.
Viva also recommends Ima's, 67 Shortland St, ph (09) 373 3787. It is best enjoyed when you eat in, but owner Yael Shochat does a mean ready-to-go Caesar salad and salad nicoise.
BEST MIDDLE EASTERN
240 Ponsonby Rd, Ponsonby, ph (09) 376 9303
You can't say we didn't try to solve the Middle Eastern problem. We drove around Auckland city's suburban streets for weeks looking for great kebab shops or gourmet Middle Eastern goodies. We revisited the scene of some tragic dates in the 80s when the Middle Eastern Cafe on Victoria St was the coolest place to hang out. We even got drunk during the weekend in order to sample the delights of several of Queen St's slightly dubious kebab shops. All in the name of duty.
So what's our Middle Eastern problem? Not the looming oil crisis. It's that Auckland has so many Middle Eastern-style takeaway places, yet Fatima's on Ponsonby Rd wins every time.
So while the Kebab Stop in Mt Eden came closest to challenging Fatima's, we can still safely say this gourmet diner wins for all the right reasons. Elsewhere, one kebab shop didn't cook its falafels right through, another didn't grill the bread properly, others didn't give enough sauce and some were using salad after three long, hot days on the shelf. But Fatima's sticks to its tried and true mixtures and gets everything just right. Plus, where else can you get those heinously tempting potato koftas?
Food for thought
When you're picking up your gourmet takeaways, probably the last thing you think about is the environment. After all, that's why you're getting takeaways - they're fast, easy, convenient and require no effort.
But wait a moment people. Did you know that 80 per cent of everything we make is made to be used only once? In terms of takeaways, this means coffee cups, plates, plastic containers, tins, boxes and so forth. All used only once, then chucked away.
So, takeaways can be something of an environmental evil. But they can be made greener.
* Eat vegetarian. Beef cows make methane, it's part of the reason New Zealand has such a large carbon footprint.
* Consider where the ingredients for your takeaways come from. Are a lot of food miles involved? Or is a lot of the stuff fresh, and therefore obtained from relatively nearby? Does the menu have an organic option? It might seem a bit excessive when all you really want is a quick burger and chips, but there's no harm in asking where the beef or chicken come from. If you spend hours at the supermarket reading the labels and trying to find free-range eggs, why would you put all that effort to waste just for the sake of convenience tonight?
* Try to get takeaways with as little packaging as possible, or with biodegradable packaging. A burger in a paper bag or a pizza in a cardboard box is better than a bunch of plastic containers.
* If you do get a pile of plastic containers, recycle them. Don't just chuck them in the bin.
* It might seem drastic to some, but you could provide your own containers. You could bring in those tin Chinese lunchboxes that stack together. After all, they were invented to carry noodles, rice and soup to Chinese workers. If you like that idea and want to go all out, Nest sells a modern version in cool retro colours. Another option might simply be to bring your own bag to the takeaways shop - one of those insulated numbers from Foodtown would be great and will keep stuff warm on the way home - so you can reduce your resource usage a little bit.
* If you do have time and no one is waiting at home, consider eating in. This way, you'll probably eat from plates, rather than using yet another plastic container.