The delights of ethnic eateries

By Diana Clement

Discover some culinary delights with Diana Clement.

For fine Lebanese food, head to Shefco Cedar Bakery. Photo / Jason Dorday
For fine Lebanese food, head to Shefco Cedar Bakery. Photo / Jason Dorday

I love being the only pakeha in an eatery. It makes me think that I've found a new secret. As a family we eat in all sorts of weird and wonderful ethnic cafes and restaurants right across Auckland.

Some are a bit a bit dodgy looking, which often keeps Kiwis away. And each comes with a great story of how we discovered it. If you can look beyond the Formica tables, poor lighting, and sometimes unintelligible menus, there's a culinary treat in store.

Bikanervala
2 White Swan Rd, Mt Roskill or 23 Eric Baker Pl, Papatoetoe

I never thought I'd rave about the delights of a vegetarian restaurant. But Bikanervala in Mt Roskill is our latest obsession. Our first visit was for a birthday celebration. It was a completely random choice. I'd spotted the shop front while driving down White Swan Rd and thought "that looks interesting".

Bikanervala has opened a whole new culinary universe to us. It turns out that this is a branch of a chain of restaurants in India that started business in 1950. I've done a bit of research and the menu in Mt Roskill is identical to the ones in places like Delhi, Agra, and Hyderabad. You can't get more authentic than that.

The food at Bikanervala is good enough to impress the most hardened meat eater. The Punjabi Platter, a combination plate with starter, breads, curries, and a sweet, is great for people who don't like spicy. The Shahi Paneer has a flavour very similar to butter chicken, which the kids will like. The other great thing at Bikanervala is the Indian sweets such as burfi and kaju can be bought by the kilogram for $35 to take away.

There is another chain of Indian vegetarian restaurants in Auckland worth mentioning. That's the Dhosa Plaza. I don't personally like dhosa, a type of pancake, although the children do. There are, however, other very tasty options on the menu.

I need to make a special mention of the Dhosa Plaza's mango lassi drink, which is concocted perfectly. And the last time we visited, the young Indian women at the next table spoke very highly of the Masala tea.

Jiale Bun Shop
27 Pearn Place, Northcote

The horror that overcame me the day I discovered that the Jiale Bun Shop had run out of buns was palpable. My eyes bulged out. "Is there somewhere else here (in Northcote) we can buy buns?" I asked. A Chinese customer, not the owner replied: "You can't buy buns as good as these anywhere else." She's right. Never have I eaten steamed buns with such light, fluffy, dough, and tasty pork and beef. They ooze flavour.

When I first discovered this restaurant, I'd buy two or three buns as a snack for the kids. These days I buy at least 10 of them, or even more if I'm visiting my mother, who can't believe how tasty they are.

The buns, which cost $1.20 each are best eaten along with a bowl of soup, which costs from $3 to $10. The restaurant itself lacks character, even though it has been redecorated since we first started visiting.

Momo Tea
930 New North Rd, Mt Albert

This may be an article about ethnic eateries. But the main reason to visit the Momo Tea house in Mt Albert is for its non-alcoholic drinks. There are 147 different drinks on the menu, many of which are available hot or cold. Officially these drinks come under the heading of "Taiwanese Teas" and became hugely popular in east Asia in the 1980s. Unlike "tea" as we know it, "bubble teas" are milk- or fruit-based and have bubbles of starch such as tapioca or sago pearls in the bottom of the glass.

Some of these drinks almost defy description in English. My favourite is the "Litchi Popping". It's made up of shaved frozen lychee juice with a mound of yoghurt "popping" balls on top. These balls look like oversized fish eggs, but pop in your mouth and release yoghurt. This drink, quite honestly, needs to be on everyone's culinary bucket list.

Under the "Milk Tea" heading on the menu is a series of drink flavours called "spraticals". For example, you can have a Pineapple Spractical or an Ume Spractical. I haven't yet tried one of these, but I love the name.

Momo Tea is best visited in the evening after 6pm. That's because it offers freshly barbecued food on sticks to eat with your tea. The place is a hangout for young Chinese people in the evenings who sit around playing cards or catching up.

Chinese Dumpling King
949 New North Rd, Mt Albert

The very first true Chinese eatery I visited in Auckland was the Dumpling King in Mt Albert. I'd not long been back from my OE and had just 1½ hours of child-free time. We'd been shopping at Lim's Supermarket in Mt Albert and I was intrigued with the carbohydrate heaven next door.

A mini dumpling obsession eschewed. First it was takeaways. Then watching one of the Chinese customers one day I realised it was possible to buy frozen dumplings, for steaming and frying at our leisure. Warning. Of all the restaurants in this article, the Dumpling King would be first equal in having the absolutely worst decor. It has no ambience whatsoever. Sadly it is next door to a fish shop which pongs a little.

Sam Woo
15 Princes St, Otahuhu

Downtown Otahuhu is turning into a bit of a culinary Mecca. Good enough to encourage our family over the bridge and down the Southern Motorway for a bite to eat. Sam Woo Vietnamese Restaurant is popular with the Auckland Vietnamese community and local Pasifika people. It's housed in a cavernous building with no personality, which looks like it was a nightclub in a previous life.

The food is to die for, however, especially the spring rolls, which are without a doubt the best I've eaten in my life. Even arch tofu haters might like the spicy deep fried tofu. If Sam Woo doesn't appeal, just round the corner in Atkinson Rd is the Try It Out restaurant, which despite being a prime candidate for the worst named restaurant in Auckland, has a fabulous reputation for great food.

We finished our last meal at Sam Woo's with dessert at Chaska Punjab Da, a block further south on Atkinson Rd. The Indian sweets cost $1 a piece.

Star Cafe
17C Link Drive, Wairau Park

If you asked my children what some of their favourite foods are, Chinese dumplings come high on the list. Chinese dumpling lovers are in their element at Yum Cha (morning tea) and we often "do Yum Cha" for family celebrations.

For several years our favourite was Sunny Town in Khyber Pass Rd. The first time we went we failed to gain any semblance of information from the waiter about the price and were astounded to be charged only $68 to sate the appetites of four adults and two children.

Sunny Town is no more, sadly, and we now eat at two others: the Star Cafe in Wairau Park and HKD Seafood Restaurant at 928 Dominion Rd.

I've decided to recommend the Star Cafe because it's on the North Shore. This is a loud and popular place. The waiters and waitresses arrive at the table every few minutes with baskets of freshly cooked steamed buns, assorted dumplings, rice noodle rolls, egg tarts, congee and more. There are usually three or four pieces in each basket. It's a matter of choosing what you like the look of and trying it.

Shefco Cedar Bakery
827 Dominion Rd, Mt Roskill

A few years back an Iraqi member of Belmont Toastmasters Club gave an entire speech about the Shefco Cedar Bakery in Mt Roskill. It shamed him to say that the Lebanese could make better baklava than his own countrymen did. This bakery was so good, however, that he would drive from the North Shore to pick up a kilogram of baklava at a time. Said Iraqi blamed his growing puku on the owners of that shop. So frequent were his visits that fellow North Shore Iraqis started referring to it as: "Maher's Baklava Shop".

Needless to say that we ate there the next time we were over Dominion Rd way and the baklava was just as fresh, light, and sugary as reported. Although called a "bakery" Shefco does have tables and it's arguably the best place in Auckland to eat Lebanese food, with breakfast, lunch and dinner on offer. The meze is worth recommending as is the lamb shawarma. And you know the greasy kebabs at regular kebab shops? Shefco's are in a whole different league.

- Herald on Sunday

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