Wollongong is home to some top-shelf eats. Here, Angela Thompson and staff writers celebrate 10 local menu items chosen for their unique-factor, star quality and above all, deliciousness.
Atomic Bomb – Souva King, Wollongong
A pile of meat on a pile of chips, slathered in three sauces - garlic, barbecue and chili. To look at, the bomb is no oil painting, but it is beautiful in its simplicity – just ask its late-night crowd of admirers. The King is a rarity because he works with 100 per cent lamb rather than processed meat, and you know it's real because it rotates on a horizontal spit (processed meat would fall off if cooked this way).
The meat is marinated in-house before it's cooked and carved. Business co-owner Frank Kaadan says demand for the dish was high at his previous shop in Melbourne, especially among football fans visiting from Adelaide - apparently long home to meat on chip goodness. "It's big in Adelaide - that's where it all started,” he said. Kaadan put it on the menu when he opened his Kembla Street shop in 2012 but it took a little while to build its fan base. "People were a bit shocked to see chips, meat, all that slapped together - a little bit scared - but now it has a huge cult following.” Also available with chicken or with falafel, hummus and tabouli. $14.
Truffle Pecorino Cheese Wheel - Il Nido Trattoria, Balgownie and Cin Cin Pizza Cucina Bar, Thirroul
You’ll smell it before you taste it – heady, unmistakable, irresistibly stinky truffle. The pasta is cooked on the pan with some cheese, thickened cream, cracked black pepper and truffle paste, then thrown inside the hollow of a giant wheel of truffle-infused Italian pecorino. It leaves the kitchen like this then is scraped out table-side, so it collects generous, rustic scratchings of the cheese just before serving.
“It’s an eye-catcher – people see it and they say, ‘what’s that?’,” said co-owner Adrian Giuliani. His parents, Diana and Giulio Giuliani, came across the dish during a visit to their northern Italian home region, Veneto, about five years ago, and brought it to the Illawarra. “We tested it on our specials menu and people just kept asking for it; now it’s a staple,” Giuliani said. $25.
Felafel – Al Aseel Lebanese Restaurant, Fairy Meadow
For sheer deliciousness and sheer bargain, you can't go past Al Aseel. You’ll get twelve hot, crispy falafels with melting insides, plus some perfectly balanced tahini sauce, a selection of pickled chillies, cucumber and turnip, and even some fresh Lebanese bread thrown in. For $9.
And the falafel is as good you'll find, anywhere - even in Lebanon, says owner Bassam Hadaya. “It’s an authentic dish made exactly the way they make it in Lebanon,” he said. “We use good quality chickpeas, fava beans and spices. We select our products from all over the world.”
Pumpkin and Beetroot Salad – Stokes Lane Cafe, Bulli
A wise man* once said, “you don’t win friends with salad”. But Bulli’s highway-side tastemakers beg to differ with this moreish medley of baby spinach, cashews, beetroot and pumpkin, given a sweet and salty kick with feta and honey dressing running through. It’s the most popular dish on the menu, according to owner Samuel Dodd, who says the secret is in the warm ingredients.
“A salad is always cold, whereas with this, the roasted pumpkin and beetroot is actually cooked on the hotplate. We make the whole salad up and the last thing that goes on is pumpkin and beetroot. It’s hot as it’s tossed through and plated.” Dodd ran pubs in Sydney for five years and has held onto the recipe dreamed up by his former chef Michael Sturgess, of Botany’s Waterworks Hotel. Costs $16 (add chicken for $5).
Grilled Cheese – Beast Good Food Eatery, Wollongong
Yes, the Beast’s colourful and inventive protein and salad plates are its rightly revered mainstays, but a humble menu star is its cheese toastie. The childhood classic pulls its socks up with some grown-up ingredients – gruyere Swiss cheese, parmesan and house-pickled zucchini and onion. The goods are packed inside a dusty ciabatta roll, smeared with spice mayo and made melty.
The clincher is the packs-a-punch barbecue dipping sauce, made in-house to a secret recipe. “It’s a take on a classic that I think everyone eats in their childhood – a good old grilled cheese,” said creator and owner Dave Ryan. “It’s a comfort dish, particularly in colder weather, for any time of the day really.” $9.90 or $15 with side salads.
Garlic bread - Kneading Ruby, Wollongong
A baked cob loaf is cut into segments and sacrificed under a waterfall of melted garlic butter, poured table-side from a dainty saucepan.“It’s a little bit theatrical, and a little bit different to what people perceive as garlic bread,” restaurant manager Sam Morgan said. “As far as we know, we’re the only ones that do it.”
The bread wants a bit of pulling apart and the liquid butter wants mopping up, bringing everyone in for the restaurant’s celebrated share-style dining. Along with the house-made gnocchi (highly commended –pancetta, peas, goats cheese, lemon butter sauce), the garlic bread is the only menu item unchanged since the pizza and pasta bar opened two years ago. $9.50
Pot Chicken with Fresh Mushrooms – Chef's Choice, Wollongong
We haven't found anything quite like it in Wollongong and it's to die for. In fact, we’ve almost died a couple of times eating it - it's hot! Think tender morsels of chicken (choice of bone or no bone) in a light batter, mixed with the restaurant's own secret herbs and spices. What isn't a secret is the chilli - there's a fair whack of it in this dish - enough to bring you to tears - tears of joy, that is! As the name suggests there's also fresh mushrooms, together with fried tofu and a sprinkling of vegetables. Hint one: eat in. This is a dish that likely wouldn't travel well as a takeaway. Hint two: eat the tofu pieces first thing - they've absorbed all those chilli oil and spice flavours and are best eaten straight away, if you can stand it!
Crispy Roti – Coastal Thai, Thirroul
Crispy, meet creamy. Cold, we’d like to introduce you to hot. Coastal Thai’s indulgent desert is the perfect marriage of opposites. The roti are rolled into loose scrolls, deep fried and drizzled with condensed milk and sugar. Served with vanilla ice cream and fresh strawberry. $14.50
Antipasto Misto - Lupa Woodfired Pizza, Wollongong
Keira Street’s woodfired pizza powerhouse starts things off right with its mixed antipasto plate of cured meats and vegetables. The veggies are prepared in-house, with long slivers of zucchini and eggplant set under good olive oil and herbs.
A fat, half tomato comes flavour-packed, baked in the fire oven under herbs, garlic and salt. “The herbs are from my garden,” said owner, Luca Battisti. “We don’t buy anything in jars.” Served with fresh sourdough-style bread.
Masala Dosa - SVT Canteen, Sri Venkateswara Temple, Helensburgh
This is no secret to devotees of Hinduism who visit in droves from Sydney each weekend. But it is truly one of the region's great culinary treasures. The canteen, staffed by volunteers, does a roaring trade on weekends, with Indian-Australian families dressed in their finery for a temple visit, lining up to get their hit of the most authentic, flavourful and sophisticated Indian food in the area – poori, idly, vada, chenna, lassi, masala tea, dosa. Dosa!
The standout is the masala dosa, a giant but wafer-thin pancake with a potato curry inside, served with the gorgeous soup-sauce, called sambar. With each dish costing about $7, you might as well splash out for two and sit under the gum trees to chow down with the happy crowd. Strictly vegetarian.
* Homer Simpson