Steve Braunias goes offroad in his attempt to revisit the scene of his epic junk-food journey in West Auckland.
A funny thing happened the other day on the way to walking from my house in Te Atatu to the cycle track alongside State Highway 16, and then onto Lincoln Road, that greasy, salted three-kilometre stretch of – at last count, and I counted each of them with my stomach – 55 places to eat food, much of it junk.
In 2016 I became the man who ate Lincoln Rd . I set out to eat at every single food joint on that flat amazing street in west Auckland; the maths of it is that there's something to eat every 0.054 of a kilometre. I wrote about this mission in thrilling instalments in the Weekend Herald . The series was later rewritten and published as a best-selling book. Curious to revisit the scene of that epic junkfood journey, take note of the changes, and eat more food, I marched forth on a recent Tuesday – and almost immediately ran into one of the few people on the planet who is on even more familiar ground with Lincoln Rd than the man who ate it.
Saten Shama, 50, was pulling out of his driveway. He has the Lincoln Rd franchise for The Coffee Club and as I recorded in my book, he'd built it up to do roaring trade, made it friendly and welcoming. Over the years he's emerged as an authority on life and business on Auckland's second busiest road. He parked up and told me a grim story while I leaned in through the car window.
The Coffee Club was ram-raided seven days before Christmas. Nothing was taken except an empty till. But there were insurance complications with the provider, IAG, and the assessors, Crawford, and it wasn't until March 4 that the window was finally replaced. A dirty great big particle board was put up during the long delay. It didn't look good; it sent a message to customers.
"Business suffered," said Saten. "The emotional distress this has caused ... It's borderline criminal."
And then he told me about the closures along Lincoln Rd. Brumby's Bakery: closed. Lincoln Family Restaurant, formerly Denny's: closed. I knew Valentine's had closed, and although it's reopened as another buffet joint, the outline of the famous V is still on display, haunting the premises.
I brooded on the fortunes of Lincoln Rd, and the entire project of capitalism, as I walked alongside the motorway. A truck loaded with Tegel chicken roared west, a truck dripping with Streets ice-cream roared west. There was the home of Te Atatu Roosters league team, there was Rutherford College, where a young Simon Bridges once ruled the roost as head boy. Lizards and moths fought for existence in the roadside botanical gardens of evening primrose, three-cornered garlic, wild radish, red clover and scarlet pimpernel.
Lincoln Rd drifts left at the motorway exit. Straight ahead through field and farm are Westgate, Kumeu, Kaukapapa, the lifespan of SH16 ending at dingy old Wellsford. I drifted right.
Lincoln Rd felt like a battleground, a zone of fragile economies and good people losing their shirt. I wanted time out. I wanted peace and tranquility. One of my favourite buildings in all of New Zealand is in an obscure nook to the right of the SH16 exit at Lincoln Rd – the Radio New Zealand transmission station, a lovely, creamy art deco masterpiece, built in 1934 with an eye for ziggurat columns, and careful little diamond-shaped patterns. The lights are on, but no one's inside: the building is a robot, automatically maintaining the two radio masts in nearby fields and which are the Sky Towers of the West, you can see them for miles. There's a banana plant growing wild by the front steps. A low, vibrating hum settles all around the station, like an Om.
It felt like a zone of peace and industry. Over the fence are piles of gravel for Downer Construction heavy machinery to pick up and fill in the road on the $110 million SH16-Westgate upgrade. Henderson Creek moseys on past; I followed the road down to a carpark, where Tony Ngauamo, 58, was fishing on the tide. He had a fresh snapper in a red bucket at his feet. He'd caught it with yellowfish bait; the day before he caught two. His family came from Tonga in 1975. He has six children, and the eldest boy is with the police. He worked as a housepainter but a bad heart – something to do with a blocked artery – forced him to rest. "I like this place," he said, in a quiet voice, as the creek lapped against mangroves glittering in the sunlight. "It's beautiful here. Nice and clean."
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This was proof of the everyday miracle of Auckland life. Everywhere, no matter how built-up or depressing, whether given over to dark satanic mills of commerce or damp, crushing poverty, there is beauty close at hand. All the creeks, those trickling canals of the isthmus, bring fish, eels, birds, crabs in a continual wonderland of tide and salt.
I wandered back up the road and was attracted to the only house in the vicinity. It had taro growing in colourful drums by the front door, also lettuce, tomato and zucchini. Ray Lafaele, 43, was sitting out front. The premises were the former HQ of a boat-building firm; its reception area was Ray's sitting room, and the four offices were now bedrooms.
He was happy for me to pull up a chair. The noise of trucks picking up and taking away gravel across the road was constant. "Monday is the loudest," said Ray. "You get used to the quiet in the weekend, and then ..." But he was happy, at peace. He worked nearby as a sandblaster in a steel factory from 3:30pm to 12:30am. His strong legs were decorated in Samoan pe'a tattoos. "It's just culture, you know," he said. Dozens of family photographs adorned the walls of his sitting room.
I asked why there were plastic forks sticking out of the dirt in his garden. "To keep the cats away," he explained. Untold stray cats lived under the old RNZ building. "Soon as it's knock-off time, and the trucks stop, the cats come out. So many cats! Oh man. You even see kittens just walking up the sidewalk. Every night."
The ravenous cats pad past his front door, and turn left, down to a winding cul-de-sac lined with factories, also the town dump. I thanked Ray for his company. It was lunchtime and I was hungry. Like a cat, I drifted left.
Ray's curious home is on the corner of The Concourse. Almost everyone in Auckland knows The Concourse. It's where the dump is, the refuse station, the waste and want-not of our 1.614 million filth providers. But it's also the fabulously unlikely site of Auckland's best Mexican restaurant. I thought: Lincoln Rd can wait, but lunch can't.
I heard about Cielito Lindo Cafe & Taqueria on the grapevine – okay, on Twitter; I don't know anyone irl – late last year, and word has steadily spread online about its authentic Mexican food. But The Concourse? Really? The Concourse is the dump, The Concourse is just another one of Auckland's specialities, a semi-industrial avenue of high-stud warehouses and auto repair garages. And yet there it was, Cielito Lindo, "beautiful sky" to loosely translate it, a homely little pretty taco stand, pretty as a picture with its pink and yellow paintjob, its two tables set outside.
God the food was good. I ordered a burrito, a chicken taco, and cactus – a jar of it, brined tender Azteca cactus. All the tacos have two shells, in the true Mexican manner, and the toppings are classic, too, just onion and coriander, none of that malarkey with sour cream and cheese although it's there if you want it.
Eliseo Delgado Munoz, 34, from Morelos, south Mexico, and his partner Angelina Febiynati, 25, from Jakarta opened Cielito Lindo in September last year. They wanted to open a coffee shop and looked at premises in Onehunga, but it needed an expensive location. They saw the lease for a lunch bar on The Concourse on Trade Me and took a punt. Things started slow, worrying, potentially disastrous: they were making as little as $30 a day during the first few months, but two good things happened. One, Jay Cee Welding moved in next door, and introduced a hungry new workforce. Two, word began to spread. Cielito Lindo has a 4.5-star rating on Zomato, and Paola Enriquez writes on their Facebook page, endearingly, bilingually, "As a Mexican in NZ I tested the food and is really good authentic Mexican ... felicidades Eliseo muy buen lugar mantenlo así." I agree. Eliseo: good place, keep it that way.
Full as a bull but yet with room to spare for something sweet, I ambled further down The Concourse and stopped in at the Food 2 Go lunchbar for a delicious slice of lemon yoghurt cake. It's got one of the nicest outdoor dining areas in Auckland – four picnic tables under a row of pohutakawas. Here, again, was beauty close at hand. And then I remembered an old friend who worked on The Concourse. It was time to visit Elvis.
Everyone knows Andy Stankovich, 59, who runs Waitakere Scrap Metal on The Concourse with his brother George, as Elvis. Here and there are great big skips with a legend on the side: ELVIS. I walked in, and asked, Nick Stankovich, 34, Andy's son, "Where's Elvis?" He pointed to a digger at the back of the yard. Dark-haired, dark-skinned, in shorts and singlet, Elvis was picking up and moving bundles of chicken wire.
"Well, well," said Elvis; his hair was perfect. I first met Andy when he was on the Elvis impersonator circuit – RSAs, Cosmopolitan Clubs, that sort of thing. He had the jumpsuits, he did the corny moves. But then he got a gig in Nashville, where he performed with Elvis's legendary backing vocal group, the Jordanaires, and they told him to put the jumpsuits away, because he had the thing that will always make Elvis special: The Voice. He's never worn the rhinestone get-up since. He just gets up, and sings, and it's amazing.
He recently performed for the Elvis New Zealand Club at the Botanical Gardens in Manurewa, and at the Holy Trinity cathedral in Parnell. "I did the gospel show, mate," said Elvis. "I did 'Peace in the Valley.' I did 'If I Had a Dream.' What else did I do?"
Andy said to him, "Hey Elvis, there's a lady asks if you can unload her s***."
He turned and waved at a woman who had pulled up with a trailer full of roofing iron. And then he said, "And I did 'Crying in the Chapel'. You know something? I do it to keep Elvis's memory alive, mate. Yeah."
Elvis had work to do so I left his scrap-metal Graceland and walked back up The Concourse. There was one place left to get something to eat. The humble lunchbar, that essential fuel stop (the roll, the Big Ben, the chicken kebab) for generations of working men and women, is a New Zealand classic. Every industrial zone has one or more of these little crowded huts. The oldest on The Concourse is The Snack Factory, owned these past 20 years by the fabulous Tony Duc, 54, a small, lively man with a lot of teeth and a very good story about surviving the Khmer Rouge.
Tony was nine years old and living with his family in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge emptied the city on April 17, 1975. "One day they kick us all out," said Tony. We're outside The Snack Factory at the only table with two chairs. "They say, 'American bomber planes are coming. You need to leave.' We cross Mekong River, then they say, 'You cannot come back!' But that night I swim across. I go back to our house. Get food, get money. Gold, you know. Then I get in Mekong again but I don't want to make no noise, so I tie watermelons together and float back ... No, it not scary."
The afternoon sun poured over us. He laughed, and said, "New Zealand best place in world. Better than anywhere!"
He had a good point. I bought a kebab, and scoffed the crispy meat as I walked past Cielito Lindo, waved to Ray Lafaele still sitting out front of his home, and drifted left. I walked the length of Lincoln Rd without stopping. I had moved on. I was the man who ate The Concourse.