Get the band together and slide into a booth seat for cheap beers and cheerful arepas at Conch Kitchen, reviewed by Kim Knight.
Conch Kitchen & Bar
115a Ponsonby Rd
Ph: (09) 360 1999
WE SPENT: $120
WE THOUGHT: 14 - Good
Bye bye, bao. Hola arepa!
The maize flour flatbread is the carbohydrate you didn't know you were missing. Credited by historians as one of South America's enduring "pre-contact" foods, it was eaten before (and after) the arrival of Christopher Colombus. Frankly, I'm astonished it's not on menus everywhere.
It's de rigueur at Conch, the place that used to sell records but has, in recent years become Conch Kitchen - all-food-all-the-time (though if you jump on their website someone will be along shortly to discuss your every vinyl need).
We wandered in on spec, looking for an early feed on Ponsonby Rd. It was busy. The $7 weekday Hallertau happy hour draws a crowd and I suspect the post-9pm DJ sets do the same.
We walked all the way through the restaurant to the covered space out the back, slid into booth seats and eavesdropped on a large table of bunch of 20-something men talking about bass levels and vinyl pressings and how little time they have left to really make it, bro.
Across from us, a pale and interestingly dressed couple picked at a woodfired organic wholemeal flour-based vegetarian pizza. I thought I had the art-student-meets-muso clientele sussed but then two young women wearing high heels and half a cosmetics counter plonked down their shopping. Everybody loves an arepa.
Specifically, I love their heft. They don't look that substantial but, in the mouth, the crumbs clump together and your teeth get something more than bready air to work with. Split in two, they become a vehicle for everything from free-range pork belly with crunchy pickled cucumbers to a chorizo sausage, smoked cheese and a fried egg. And, unlike the bao that is at its very best straight out of the kitchen, they're up to a bit of sitting around while you work your way through a bowl of yucca chips with vegan-approved chickpea aioli ($12).
"I feel like I'm in Christchurch or Wellington in the late 80s," said James, and I knew what he meant. There was absolutely nothing Auckland or of-the-moment about our warm wood cubicle with the gridded stained glass windows. It was a cubby house for grown-ups. Every so often, a kind and friendly woman would appear bearing food and drinks and it smelled like woodsmoke, because the pizza oven is almost literally part of the furniture. The vibe is seriously chilled. If you found this place overseas, you'd write home about it - not because the food was spectacular but because the place has heart and is relatively kind to your credit card.
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It's not fine dining by any stretch but our meals were robust and good. Start with aforementioned arepas ($9-$14; fillings range from mushroom to meats to salmon) and then choose from the four mains or move on to a pizza.
Chicken mole ($26) was rich and earthy and the sauce was ever-so-slightly gritty, in the inescapable manner of pulverised dried chillis ("ancho poblano"). Rustic, and not-your-usual chicken dinner. Mole is a sauce that famously contains a small amount of dark chocolate and it was definitely there, as a mysterious sweet-bitter and extremely moreish note. The dish came with vege-flecked rice and the chicken (leg and thigh) was well-cooked. I'd be super-happy if I served this to dinner guests but a quick search for a recipe reveals an authentic mole is long labour - also, any chocolate in my pantry was eaten last week.
James' free-range pork ribs ($36) came with the now-ubiquitous "five-hour" slow-cooked promise but I think these ones actually had been. They were incredibly meaty, and even the bony bits dissolved under the knife, indicating a decent stint in the oven. Guava was the magic ingredient in this sticky, spicy-sweet sauce. There was corn (which was surely frozen last season but was actually really good) and a pile of paprika-roasted spud. Again, it was like a really good home-cooked meal, if all you did at home was cook.
Pudding was something they'd prepared earlier. It arrived in a flash. A coconut flan with "house made dulce de leche" that was far more liquid than I expected (in my head, I was already running my finger round the inside of a tin of boiled condensed milk). The custard flan ($12) was liberally sprinkled with toasted coconut and when the whole lot was smooshed together, the effect was reminiscent of a coconut Mackintosh lolly. I am easily led. Later that week, I was compelled to buy a pack of Mackintosh's. They were not as good as the Conch Kitchen's flan.