The little town of Okere Falls, just outside of Rotorua, has a new claim to fame: it's officially the home of New Zealand's best toastie.
Fans of toasted sandwiches packed with hot, unctuous cheese, tangy pickles and, in this case, beer-brined smoked brisket, will want to stop in at Okere Falls Store and Craft Beer Garden to sample its winning creation.
Beating out 180 other eateries across the country, wedding photographer-turned-chef Rich Johns' offering earned "a perfect score for taste" from the judges of the annual Great New Zealand Toastie Takeover.
They described the "Get Smoked, Pickled + Toasted" sandwich as highly innovative and a stand out for the way it "maxed out the influence of craft brewing ...
"The entry also delivered epic mouth feel and both complementary and contrasting flavours. No ingredient was superfluous, we gave it a perfect score for taste," said head judge, Kerry Tyack.
John's winning sandwich is filled with house-smoked, beer-brined brisket, McClure's Pickles, hop-salted mozzarella, smoked cheddar, watercress and horseradish. It's all packed into slices of Bread Asylum X Lumberjack Brewing spent grain sourdough, slathered in pickle brine sour cream and served with a beer gravy dipping bowl.
Johns, who just missed out on a finalist spot in the competition last year, says his win this time is "still sinking in" but is "a huge honour".
"It reinforces the love and care we put into the creations at Okere Falls - we get lots of compliments from our diners on the food.
"We don't have a traditional menu and try to be a little different, so to win this shows it's paying off and it's so amazing to be rewarded. We've had so many rave reviews about the toastie and to win, it means a lot."
Johns' win also marks the first time in three years that the top toastie title has gone to a North Island eatery. Last year's winner was Steve MacDougall from Mollies (Hotel d'Urville, Blenheim) and before that Romeo Dowling-Mitchell from Dunedin's Hungry Hobos and Joseph Walker from the Hokitika Sandwich Company took out first place in previous years.
For visitors to Okere Falls Store and Craft Beer Garden, Johns' award-winning toastie is said to be on the menu until the end of August - at least.
Finalists of the Great New Zealand Toastie Takeover
If you can't make it to Okere Falls to try the country's ultimate toastie, you'll also find top-notch hot sandwiches being served up by these competition finalists.
Archie Café: Pepper Pig: Hot pork, double cheese blend, McClure's Sweet & Spicy Pickles, mustard and sriracha on toasted sourdough.
Wynyard Pavilion: Low 'n Slow: Low & slow smoked wagyu brisket, Massimo's mozzarella, McClure's Sweet & Spicy Pickles, truffle aioli and Old Yella habanero mustard.
• Waikato / Bay of Plenty / Coromandel / Rotorua
The Public Office (Ngatea, Coromandel): The Smoky Pork & Pickle: Cider braised pork, smoky wood sauce, melted gouda and McClure's Sweet & Spicy Pickles, topped with crispy fried pickles. ·
Okere Falls Store (Rotorua): Get Smoked, Pickled + Toasted: House smoked, beer brined brisket, McClure's Sweet & Spicy Pickles, hop salted mozzarella, smoked cheddar, watercress and horseradish on Bread Asylum X Lumberjack Brewing spent grain sourdough with pickle brine sour cream and a beer gravy dipping bowl.
• Central North Island
Toastie Ohakune (Ohakune): Owen's Missus, Who Takes No SCHMACK: Corned beef, pickled carrots, Pepper & Me 'Schmack Sauce,' McClure's Bread & Butter Pickles and four cheeses.
Best Burgers (Havelock North): A Cluckin Patty Melt: Chicken fried Best Burgers patty, Swiss cheese, bacon & onion Jam, McClure's Bread & Butter Pickles, Best Burgers Special Sauce on house potato bread.
• Wellington region
Brew Union (Palmerston North): Pork & Rye: Pickled pork, jalapeno, date and smoked gouda cheese sauce, American mustard mayo and McClure's Sweet & Spicy Pickles on rye bread.
The Offering (Greytown): Beef Greytown (Our take on a classic): Four cheese blend with Parkvale mushrooms, onion and baby spinach, thyme and parsley to form a spread, French mustard, pulled hot smoked rump beef with a chipotle BBQ Sauce, McClure's Bread & Butter Pickles, white cheese sauce, all nestled between toasted marble rye bread.
• Upper South Island
Little Nessie Café (Nelson): Toasted Reuben: Pastrami, Swiss cheese, McClure's Sweet & Spicy Pickles, sauerkraut, secret sauce.
BEERS (Christchurch): Lamb Margera: Smoked lamb shoulder, Swiss cheese, McClure's Sweet & Spicy Pickles, kimchi and onion rings on sourdough.
• Lower South Island (three finalists, tie in second place)
Morning Magpie (Dunedin): Tickle My Pickle: Organic sourdough, McClure's Sweet & Spicy Pickles with house pickles, a big slab of Evansdale cheese, served with a dipper of tomato soup. (Also a finalist in 2021)
High Country Salmon (Twizel): Loco Mexicano: Cold smoked salmon, McClure's Sweet & Spicy Pickles, corn salsa, avocado, cheese, spinach, cornflakes and chilli mayo, in toasted rye sourdough. Served with fries.
Johnny Crema (Food Truck, Frankton, Queenstown): Reubie Roll: Corned beef, horseradish béchamel, McClure's Sweet & Spicy Pickles, all rolled up on a divine slice of European Bakery jumbo loaf, served with crisps.