Sunday, May 29, 2011

Something funny is going on at Bar Alto

Bar Alto ( has been around for a good while and is the more casual dining option at the Powerhouse, where your average Brisbane urban wanker can go and see bands, plays, comedy acts and all manner of other artistic endeavours.  I'm told that it is owned by the same people who own Ortiga (YUM), but because it operates out of the Brisbane City Council owned Powerhouse arts centre, the Council restrict them in terms of pricing which is why you can get mains under $30.  Maybe so starving actors can engage in some fine dining without breaking the bank?

I've eaten at Bar Alto twice now, and both times the food and service has been pretty good.  And certainly EXCELLENT for the price.

But here are two tips for you:
  1. If you sit inside, you will come out smelling like a fish and chip shop as there isn't a lot of ventilation and the deep fryer gets a real work out here
  2. If you order off the a la carte menu, you will have food envy of those who order off the pasta menu
What began as a very tame birthday dinner for a pregnant friend of mine at Bar Alto, became a raucous, saucy, booze fuelled adventure that eventually led us to the Brunswick Hotel on karaoke night (*shudder*).  Throughout which I remained stone cold sober.

Much to my chagrin, a lot of my friends are beginning to become sensible, stable, responsible types with mortgages, spouses and babies.  Hell, even the gay couple I'm besties with have bought a neat as a pin townhouse in inner northern suburbia and want to adopt a Cambodian baby.

That's not to say that I'm against those things.  I married at 21 and have my own (frighteningly large) mortgage.  And these days, my idea of a good Friday night consists of spending it on the couch with a bottle of red, and some takeaway, watching reruns on Tivo rather than out on the town, lurching from a cheap Asian BYO to the nearest nightclub in the Valley as in earlier days.

The night began innocently enough.  I was running 40 minutes late, mainly because I had to drive myself and I am both an awful driver and somewhat challenged when programming a GPS.  The guests were ravenous and I was none too popular for turning up late.  I was also surprised to find that a few of them were a little tiddly already. 

I shared an entree with a friend: the veal sweetbread and pigs trotter milanese, green apple agrodolce ($19).

For the uninitiated, a sweetbread is basically a little gland from a calf, lamb or pig either found in the neck, tongue or cheek of the animal.  The meat is quite sweet, hence the name.  These were good, but not exactly healthy, what with all the deep frying.  Not that I was complaining.

Having learnt my lesson about pasta vs a la carte at my earlier visit, I ordered the agnolotti dal plin: porcini ravioli filled with slow braised oxtail, wild mushroom and chestnut brodo ($27).  I was not disappointed.

For sides we ordered a salad, chips and these zucchini fritters ($7).  Yes folks, just what I needed: something else deep fried.  These were a big hit at the table.

With my nostrils full of deep fryer kitchen smell and my mouth full of rich, fatty, buttery and dark agnolotti, I felt more than a little disoriented.  I became even more so upon witnessing the embarrassing debacle of epic proportions the dinner was turning into.  A friend who had recently stopped breastfeeding seemed to be channelling her former, younger self and making lewd comments at the waiter, while one of the gay couple was making lewd comments about all of the women of the table (well ok, that is not actually that unusual).

As predicted, those who had ordered off the a la carte menu were suffering from serious food envy of my dish and I had more than a few offers for taste swapsies.  There were those of our party who were taken in by the amazing description of the rabbit fagottini with pancetta, buckwheat polenta, tarragon and almond butter ($29). 

While tasty, it was a little on the small side.

While chowing down on this fat laden fare, our table grew more and more raucous.  Was it the wine?  Was it the lack of ventilation?  Was it simply that a few of us now conservative types just don't get out that much anymore?  Who could say.  

Even more interesting, however, was the tip from our waiter that the table next to us had been a table of swingers who had all but propositioned him during the meal and given him a hug when leaving.  It seemed we weren't the only table of boring 30 somethings trying to spice things up a little that night.

And then there was dessert.  A friend recommended the chocolate budino with hazelnut ice cream as the best thing on the dessert menu.  And who can argue?

It was cooked perfectly and oozed its innards out onto my plate when I dug into it with my spoon.

Not to be outdone by the swingers, a few of our table tried to hug our waiter as we left the restaurant.

And while I can't blame Bar Alto for what happened next at the Brunswick Hotel, truly where the glitterati of Brisbane come out, I think they had something to do with it. 

There's just something funny going on at Bar Alto.
Bar Alto on Urbanspoon

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Guzman y Gomez vs Mad Mex

You have probably noticed, like I have, that Brisbane has recently been inundated with some interesting new Mexican fast food options.  This is good news to lovers of Mexican food like me who are more than a little disappointed by Brisbane's offerings to date.

This post compares two of these new entrants: Guzman y Gomez ( and Mad Mex (, both situated in Fortitude Valley.

Guzman y Gomez: Ruler of the smokehouse

Guzman is an Australian taqueria chain with seven stores in Sydney, and now one at Emporium, which is always bustling with activity.  It's named after the founder's two childhood friends who cultivated his love of authentic Mexican food.

Most people in Brisbane agree that Guzman is the best Mexican in Brisbane, and it is hard to disagree.  What's not to like about the great location, cheap frozen margaritas and tabasco on tap?

That's right people, they have pump packs of types of tabasco that you've never seen before!  I have managed to snaffle green tabasco and garlic tabasco at obscure delis before, but I've never found habanero tabasco and *drum roll* chipotle tabasco before EVER.  This stuff is like crack to me.  I have to restrain myself from putting my mouth under the nozzle.

But it's not just the condiments that make Guzman kick ass, mexi style.  It's the fabulous fillings and array of crowd pleasing dish types that you can mix and match that really gets you.  You can choose from chicken guerrero (spicy or mild), steak chipotle, beef guerrero, pork chipotle, barramundi and vego.  Make sure to add a dollop of guac.  The bbq and smokey taste pervades throughout.  Did I mention I liked smokey anything?

A good way to start off here is to order the quesadillas because you can get a 3 pack, and try out 3 different fillings.  Otherwise, go with nachos, tacos, burrito or naked burrito (i.e. no tortilla).

You order and pay for your food and beverages at the counter, take your drink and a ticket and wait for your meal to be brought out to you.  Be sure to watch out for your number being called, otherwise another ravenous patron may just steal it from you.

The burritos here are a neat little package, they come out with cute newspaper style wrapping, encased in tinfoil, kind of like a South American easter egg! 

You unwrap your shiny present and inside you find a bundle of cal-mex goodness.

It's all pretty delicious, but I would recommend the other meat fillings over the barramundi pictured.  Although I've got a mate who swears by it, I have just never been a fan of seafood in a burrito.  I hope to change my mind when I head to California in September this year!

Guzman y Gomez Mexican Taqueria Fortitude Valley on Urbanspoon

Mad Mex: Subway hepped up on tequila?

Mad Mex is a franchise quickly proliferating Australia with its Baja Cal-Mex takeaway food, founded by a Californian born couple who were frustrated with the lack of modern Mexican food available in Australia.  Looking at their website, their mascot bizarrely appears to be a cross between an Evil Kneivel-esque cage fighter and a gimp. 

Their Brisbane outpost is in the Brunswick Street Mall in the Valley and is perfectly located to capture the late night party crowd, and give the existing market (until now dominated by kebab vendors and New York slice) a run for their money.

The first thing that hits you when you enter Mad Mex on a Friday night though, is the resemblance it has to a Subway.
Honestly, it's a little off-putting as the waiters slap beans, shredded meat and guac all over your burrito in a similar style to the pimple faced kid that serves you your meatball sub around the corner.

If you're lucky, you might get to sit at the bigger table inside (which is pretty small) under this beer bottle light chandelier while you're serenaded by the soothing soundtrack emanating from the RG and Kaliber across the mall.  If you're really lucky you might get to see some Gen Y's on pills punching each other in the face in the middle of the mall.

Now I've got to admit, I was actually surprised how much I liked the burrito here.  Like Guzman's you choose your style (taco, nachos, burrito etc.), your filling, but also your salsa - and of course add guac.  I chose the slow roasted beef.  As they slapped more and more on this sucker, I was concerned it would be too big to wrap.  I was wrong.  These people knew what they were doing.

There was no neat little Guzman style package - this was a Baja monster, ready to take over your digestive tract with reckless abandon.

Once you started eating this thing, you just couldn't stop.  We all seemed to enter into some kind of trance, focused on getting as much of this sloppy, juicy burrito into our bodies in as short a time as possible.
I mean just compare this to Guzman's photo.  There were no delicate smoky flavours and complimentary tabasco.  This thing was rough, ready and precisely the kind of thing the lovechild of an Evil Knievel style cage fighter and a gimp would choose to eat. 

I washed the burrito monster down with a $5 margarita (that is NOT TYPO PEOPLE).  And I've gotta say, the margarita shat all over Guzman's frozen version.  There was salt on the rim, it was sour, it was good.  I bloody loved it.

The other advantage Mad Mex has over Guzman is that it has dessert options.  And I'm talking churros.
Now they did dispense the churro mixture from a soft serve style contraption straight into the boiling oil. But hell - we couldn't stop munching on these deep fried sugared sticks dipped in warm chocolate.  Our resident pregnant lady went back for seconds!

Mad Mex Fresh Mexican Grill on Urbanspoon


So there you have it.  If you're wanting a casual, tasty, Mexican dinner with friends any time of the week, head to Guzman y Gomez and add lashings of tabasco.  If you're wanting to line your stomach with some rough and ready Baja-Mex and throw down a few tasty margaritas before heading out and getting shitfaced in the Valley, try Mad Mex. 

With both options, remember, black beans cause gas.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Cold Pouring at PourBoy Espresso

Fairly new PourBoy Espresso (26 Wharf Street, Brisbane) has been getting a lot of buzz on social networks and in food magazines of late and so I knew I had to try it out.  Also, it's is only about 150m from my office building which is situated on a part of Eagle Street that has few good lunch options (except for the amazing Kitchen Sanitarium of course).

The name PourBoy comes from their signature "cold pour" espresso which looks like this:

They make the coffee using the "cold press" method where they steep their Sydney roasted Mecca Espresso grounds in cold water for 14 hours or so while it slowly drips through a filter into a beaker below, using this weird and wonderful contraption:

I thought the pour over was pretty amazing.  It's really smooth and mild with a lingering aftertaste.  Also, they serve it over ice and the cold shock of the coffee really gives you a pleasant jolt (not to mention the caffeine jolt...!).

The PourBoy lunch menu is short sweet, with a few simple, delicious food choices on offer that focus on fresh ingredients.

I went for the wild Queensland spanner crab wrap:
It was absolutely delicious with a zesty but delicate creamy sauce through the lettuce.  For $14 it was pretty good value.

Other memorable orders on the table were the croque madame with a perfectly poached egg on top (only $10 people!!!):

As well as the soup special of the day - the corn chowder (we all had food envy of this one):

The breakfast options also looked amazing and from all reports are really really good (and are next on my hitlist). 

I'm just so glad that a cafe with this standard of food has opened up in an area of the city which until now has had a dearth of food choices.  Also, to my delight, they don't force you to have one bill per table and everyone can pay separately (I prefer to live in my own cashless society where I can just pay everything by credit card with out touching dirty dirty cash).

One criticism I have of PourBoy is that the fitout is a bit sterile and austere.  A place with the appeal of simple, good comfort food and an interesting take on coffee as well as attentive service, should have a suitably comfortable and cosy ambience.  Instead it's all white tiles, plastic tables and chairs and soul-less patterned bar stools.  I want this place to be my cushy, warm hideaway from the office, with the quaint appeal of a Melbourne woodpanelled coffee house or something romantic like that. 

But I will be back because the food and coffee is EXCELLENT - plus you can grab a brioche scroll for $4 on the way out in either cinnamon or chocolate (which has a hazelnut hiding inside YUMMO!)

PourBoy Espresso on Urbanspoon