Phone: (09) 854 1631
Rating out of 10: Food: 8.5, Service: 6.5, Value: 7, Ambience: 6.5
In 1988, there were no letterboxes in Punakaiki. Residents of the blink-and-you'll-miss-it West Coast town, most famous for its pancake rocks and blowholes, had to pick up their mail from behind the counter at the tearooms.
At the tearooms they did dreadful instant coffee but great local gossip. Every congratulation and commiseration crossed that counter. Power bills, postcards and, one day, a dripping, greasy package, bright with stamps from Canada.
Bless my high school friends who I had recently farewelled in heaving sobs at Winnipeg airport. They had sent me a burger. Specifically, an A&W cheeseburger from the fast-food chain where my host sister worked as a car-hop and I first tasted onion rings, chips with gravy and root beer.
All of this Canadian deliciousness — and more — features at Al's Deli, which has just opened its third iteration in Kingsland. The interior was almost as cold as a Manitoban winter, but you can avoid the through-draft by grabbing a banquette seat against the wall.
The $15 "Vootbeer" read like my student exchange year made liquid: A&W root beer, vodka and icecream. The key ingredient was actually housemade (they've promised to change the menu descriptor and they do sell the branded stuff by the can for $5) but one sip of that medicine-meets-cola flavour and I was transported.
I'd approached Al's with low expectations. Sure, they make their own bagels, cure their own brisket and sell poutine fries, but haven't you already read that on someone else's menu?
Is there anybody who isn't doing something slowly to ribs and mixing milkshakes for maximum Instagram appeal?
Oh, how I'm eating those words. Oh, how I can't wait to go back and eat all the things we couldn't fit in the first time. Things like the $15.50 "Main" (brisket on sourdough rye) and the $13 "Saint" (maple smoked salmon, cream cheese, onions and capers) from the deli sandwich list. On the night we visited, there were pulled pork and lamb burger specials. Vegans get a roasted red pepper and falafel burger ($13); vegetarians, smashed avocado and feta ($13.50); and there's a mixed grill ($36) if you want to eat a week's worth of meat protein in one sitting.
The serves are big. We'd started with hot sauce-soaked buffalo wings, not realising you get 10 for your $15. Delicious, but we were sated before we'd even started.
A $19 Holy Tabarnak burger was monstrously good — two angus beef patties, smoked bacon and onion rings, skewered with a giant knife that was necessary for hacking hunks to pass across the table. We had definitely over-ordered. Fried pickles ($7.50) were cute, albeit more batter than gherkin; the $8.50 poutine — the Canadian classic featuring chips, gravy and cheese curd — was salty-smooth-crisp. Hickory-smoked ribs ($24 for a half rack; $32 for full) melted in the mouth, but a side slaw was ordinary.
It wasn't a perfect evening. There were three rapid-fire attempts to take our order before we were ready and then our enormous pile of food sat forlornly in the serving hatch while various waitpeople wafted past, looking confused.
Possibly they were searching for a table with more people.
We spent: $113.50 for two.