Review: Soda Rock Cafe, South Yarra

In my last two years of high school, I went through a phase where I only watched old films that were made before the 1960s. I had posters of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn stuck up over my walls. I considered Katharine Hepburn and Grace Kelly my style icons and wanted to date Cary Grant.

As part of that phase, I embraced old rock’n’roll music, drive-in movies and fast food diners with waitresses in pinstriped shirts. The iconic Soda Rock Cafe in South Yarra was my dining establishment of choice. Ten years after my flirtation with retro, the Soda Rock Cafe is still welcoming retro-inspired diners through its doors every day. In my recent month long stay in Melbourne post-family tragedy, I dropped in for a meal with my younger brother, for old times sake.

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The King dominates Soda Rock Cafe

As soon as you walk into the diner, you’re greeted by a life-size model of the King himself, Elvis Presley. With sweet fifties rock’n’roll tunes cranking in the background, and the service staff dressed in crisp white uniforms, you almost feel like you’ve stepped back in time – perhaps dressed in a poodle skirt with bobby socks!

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Chocolate flavoured Coke and lime flavoured Coke – $3.50 each.

My brother opted for the chocolate flavoured Coke, and I tried the lime flavoured Coke. The chocolate Coke was surprisingly creamy, though with the characteristic Coke fizz – not unlike a Chocolate Spider! The lime flavoured Coke was super refreshing with a nice level of sweet tartness – not unlike a fizzy lime cordial.

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Big Bopper Burger – Beef patty, streaky bacon, egg, tasty cheese, grilled onion, lettuce, tomato, beetroot, pickles, mayonnaise and ketchup – $10.95 burger, or $17.50 for a combo with chips and a soft drink

After examining the list of burgers, sandwiches and other mains available, I decided that it was pointless to pretend that I was even vaguely interested in any of the other offerings – I was fated to get the Big Bopper. Bacon? Egg? Grilled Onion? Pickles? They are pretty much my only requirements for the burger from heaven, so it was really the only choice for me!

It was a heavenly burger – the bacon was nearly fried to a crisp which is the only way to eat bacon, and the grilled onion was thickly sliced which is much better than those wimpy thin slices you get with other burgers. The only downside from my point of view was the beetroot that was included – it’s not my favourite vegetable (I say, as crowds of Australians around the country cry out in protest at this display of anti-patriotism).

Unfortunately, the chips weren’t as crispy as I tend to prefer. While the small chips were crispy, the bigger chips could definitely have benefited from a longer relationship with the deep fryer, as they were quite soft in the middle!

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Chicken Burger – grilled whole breast fillet, marinated in our diner original recipe, with lettuce, tomato & mayonnaise. $10.95 burger, or $17.50 for a combo with chips and a soft drink

My more eminently more responsible younger brother chose the chicken burger, which was marketed on the menu as the choice for more health-conscious diners. I tried a bite of this burger, and found the chicken to be well marinated with a tangy spicy sauce. Unfortunately, it was a bit too over-grilled for my liking and the meat too dry on the inside.

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Rocky Road Sundae – extra creamy vanilla ice-cream topped with marshmallows, nuts and hot chocolate fudge, $10.95

An old-fashioned ice-cream sundae is the first thing that many people think about when it comes to a retro diner like this – can’t you just imagine being perched on a high stool at the bar with the high school football star, sharing a sundae and hoping that he would be your guy, and you would be his best gal? Or is it just me who’s slightly delusional and lives in a fantasy world?

Anyway, sharing a sundae with my younger brother was a far cry from my fantasy, but the dessert itself was more than worthwhile – the hot, sticky, sweet fudge was just heavenly with the super creamy ice-cream. The marshmallows were plentiful, though I could have done with more chopped peanuts overall.

Overall, I rate Soda Rock Cafe a 7 out of 10. It earns its points mainly on the excellence of its funky old-style drinks and desserts, and trendy retro atmosphere – it really takes you back to (what I imagine to be) a simpler time. You can almost feel your cares and worries slip away as you enter the diner!

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Review: Henry and the Fox, Melbourne

In my visit to Melbourne earlier this month, I caught up with some old high school friends for dinner at Henry and the Fox. I’d seen some good reviews and was keen to try the restaurant in my short visit.

We made a reservation for the Friday night, though we probably didn’t need the reservation. With its location in the centre of the business district in Melbourne CBD, it is busiest for business lunches and quieter for dinner after working hours. The restaurant wasn’t full at any point when we were there, which actually made for a really nice, laid-back and relaxed atmosphere.

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We ordered a variety of dishes. We started with a fried zucchini flower each – they were done really well with a great cheesy filling and a light batter. I followed it with the blue swimmer crab spaghetti with cherry tomatoes and chilli basil. This dish was actually a lot more substantial than the other mains ordered (pork belly, trout, etc.), so much so that I couldn’t finish the dish. If there was 25% less pasta and 25% more crab, the ratio would have been better, and the dish probably tastier as well. To finish, I had the quince dessert with quince, pear, custard, coconut crumble and coconut ice-cream. This was a really great dish, as the freshness of the fruit went well with the crisper texture of the coconut crumble and the smoothness and richness of the ice-cream and custard.

The atmosphere and decor of Henry and the Fox was quite laid-back and relatively informal. Light colours dominated the room, adding to the airiness of the setting. The service was attentive, without being overbearing. There was a large group in the restaurant, and they added to the convivial atmosphere.

Main meal ratios aside, I really had a nice dinner at Henry and the Fox and would rate the experience a 8 out of 10.

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Review: Nha Hang 5 Sao Chinese & Vietnamese BBQ Vegetarian Restaurant, Springvale

I’m spending the next few days in Melbourne visiting friends and family – oh, and to officially graduate from my Masters course with a fancy hat and dodgy staged photos and all. After the actual ceremony yesterday, my parents, brother and I went to a new restaurant that had recently opened up near our home in Springvale for a celebratory dinner.

Eating out with my parents generally guarantees two things – it will be a Chinese restaurant (or something similar), and it will be cheap and tasty. Even though they don’t eat out all that often, they have a real knack for sniffing out the good places. The main attraction at Nha Hang 5 Sao Chinese & Vietnamese BBQ Vegetarian Restaurant was that it had advertised a cheap four-person set menu of their special dishes.

The restaurant was nearly empty when we arrived at 8pm, we were clearly the last customers of the day. Not unusual in this part of town, where the cultural background and habits of most residents tend to lend itself to early starts and early dinners. After some guidance on menu choices from the owner, we ended up ordering the following dishes.

The lemongrass pork chops were really lightly battered, and done well considering that it is not unusual to find that this dish at other restaurants often has a centimetre worth of batter surrounding it. Great use of a light batter, and the lemongrass was quite subtle as well, and not overpowering.

The barramundi with bitter melon, bean curd skin and black pepper sauce was a surprise – largely because I misheard the order and thought my mother had ordered traditional Chinese shallot and soy steamed fish (my favourite!). I didn’t expect a grilled fish with lots of sauce to come out! Despite my initial surprise, I really enjoyed this fish. The skin was lovely and crispy, a nice complement to the softer and silkier flesh. I’m not a fan of bitter melon, but the bean curd skin was really nice because it was quite porous, and had soaked up a lot of the sauce.

The king prawn and vegetable vermicelli hotpot was cooked really simply. There were no overwhelming spices – the chef simply added some simple broth to help start the cooking process, then let the natural flavour of the prawn soak through to the vermicelli noodles. Sometimes, simpler is better, especially when the prawns are as fresh as these were!

The chilli beans with spicy pork mince were lovely and crunchy. I thought the dish could have done with a tad more chilli – however, the level of hotness was just about right for my brother who can’t eat chilli. I do have a personal bias towards the hotter the better!

All the above dishes, with rice for the table, a starter soup, and a fruit plate finisher, cost the four of us $65.30. It was really an incredible price, and not one that you could easily find elsewhere. You’d be hard pressed to feed four people a great and substantial meal (with leftovers for the doggy bag) for under $70 elsewhere – or even to buy all the ingredients to cook the dishes yourself.

It was very much a family-run business, with the mother taking our orders (suggesting some good dishes along the way), the teenage son delivering dishes to our table, and a younger son playing on some portable device behind the counter. The whole situation was actually not unlike my childhood spent growing up in a Chinese takeaway shop, when my father would be cooking, my mother would be taking orders, I would be serving, and my brother would be playing on his Gameboy Advance.

Overall, I rate the food a 8 out of 10. While the food was really quite good (I couldn’t point out a fault if you asked), I’m afraid that my sense of what constitutes excellence in Chinese food has been warped by my mother’s excellent cooking. If I rate my mother’s home cooking a 10, there’s no way I could rate any restaurant meal above an 8.

Nha Hang 5 Sao Chinese & Vietnamese BBQ Vegetarian Restaurant is located at 4-4A Balmoral Avenue in Springvale, Victoria. 
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