In the territory formerly occupied by dumplings, Kim Knight discovers skewers are making inroads.
The ligament that allows cows to hold up their heads is called a paddywhack. It is pale yellow and high in protein. I don't know what it tastes like because ligaments are outside my comfort zone and I didn't want to look like one of those idiot people who treat Chinese restaurants like an episode of Fear Factor.
Chicken feet are not funny; ordering aorta (unless you really like it) doesn't make you a hero. Decent humans don't label each other's food weird or wrong. Besides, one woman's chicken frame is literally another's chicken nugget. The legal definition of "meat flesh" in this country is actually quite broad. It includes nerves, blood, skin and other squeam-inducing bits that don't sound nearly as pretty as words like "pie" or "nugget".
Dominion Rd's barbecue skewer restaurants serve pig kidney and beef tendon. They also do chicken wings and some seriously great lamb but the point I'm making is the menus tell it like it is - even if you do have to google "paddywhack".
In the territory formerly occupied by dumplings, skewers are making inroads. Gogo Music Cafe is the stalwart and there are two newish kids on the block - Maya BBQ and Mr Hao. My plan was to compare and contrast; to eat a kind of progressive dinner on sticks.
Start with the original. Up the stairs and through the flappy plastic curtains to Gogo's cavernous dining hall with the decor leftover from a Western-themed bar. Decor includes (in no particular order) cowboy murals, blue fairy lights, feathered dreamcatchers, a small canoe and a medium-sized stage.
It's bright and fun. Big beers and even bigger bundles of grilled meat, seafood and vegetables prepared by chefs who work in a smoky, steamy, glass-walled box that, in summer, must be akin to the inner circle of hell. Everything tastes like chilli and cumin. Waitstaff carry fistfuls of skewers delivered as and when they're ready. Just when you think you're done, the mushrooms ($2.20) you forgot you ordered arrive and so do the Chinese buns ($2) - puffy, slightly-toasted white bread, two to a skewer and essential for sopping the savoury stock that the delicately rolled lettuce skewers ($2.20) were bathed in.
Pork belly ($2) is cut bacon-thin and rendered crisp; the beef brisket ($1) is quite a jaw workout. The best lamb is the big chunks on the rose willow skewers but you'll pay a premium ($5).
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One time I came here and there was a live folk duo on the stage. Another time, we were a group of 12 and the feasting included the $43 signature dish - knobbly bits of bone-and-cartilage-in chicken, potato and capsicum in a chilli-spiked sauce. The hand-made noodles are so thick-cut and elastic you could strap an ankle with them. Tiger prawns come one to a skewer, so crispy you can eat head-to-tail. If the spicy, salty heat gets too much, a black fungus salad is both cool and sharp with vinegar.
There can be a wait between drinks and the service is more on the waitstaff's terms than the customers, but just go-go with it - the food is tasty and nowhere else offers this bonkers Dali-does-Disney ambience.
Maya BBQ? So busy we couldn't get a table (the neon sign says "open until die" so, hopefully, another time). Keep heading towards the city and you'll find Mr Hao where the kitchen slings skewers in the space that used to be Meredith's and Monzu.
This is barbecue for those who like their lighting a little dimmer with cocktails on the side. The red and black surfaces gleam; if Gogo is beers with the flatties, Mr Hao is date night. We ordered oysters ($6 for three), mussels ($9 for six) and scallops ($6 for six). The shellfish uniformly impressed with its succulent just-steamed-open texture but every mollusc was loaded with the same minced garlic mixture and so was an eggplant. We had exceptionally attentive service but some guidance to ensure flavour variation is needed.
Never mind, because OMG the beef rib-eye. At $3 apiece this is a skewer straight to the heart of every overpriced gastropub steak I've had to rescue with chips. Big, juicy chunks of cumin-spiked meat with nowhere to hide. Sublime.
We were considering dumplings or perhaps a flounder when the kitchen, unexpectedly, sent out a complimentary dessert. Sweet little fried mantou - soft bread buns - with a ramekin of condensed milk for dipping. Playfully decadent. Delicious but not too serious. The essence, really, of the barbecue skewer restaurant experience.
Gogo Music Cafe, 559 Dominion Rd, Balmoral. Ph (09) 638 8365. We spent: $70.70 for two.
Mr Hao, 365 Dominion Rd, Mount Eden. Ph 021 0840 6355. We spent: $101 for two.