When I found out James Balaksharian (formerly head chef of Madame Woo) had opened his own neighbourhood restaurant in Birkenhead, I dropped my gas station pie and made a booking straight away. After a pang of regret for the loss of my Big Ben Steak & Cheese, I quickly moved on and started to salivate in anticipation of the real culinary experience in store. You see, at Madame Woo James and Josh Emett crafted a masterful menu, which is among the most accessible-yet-authentic Southeast Asian culinary experiences in Auckland. I expected more of the same from Mulan and my excitement was palpable.
On a Wednesday night, their second week open, they are completely booked from 6 till 8.30pm, indicating the huge popularity they have already achieved. Slightly late for my 6pm booking, I find the restaurant is conveniently located just off the bridge on Hinemoa Street, and sporting a charming neighbourhood vibe. You’ll often spy happy diners chatting over steaming curry through the wide open street facing windows, and see the waiters in white running around and smiling despite their apparent rush. Service is warm and attentive off the bat, and we’re seated in prime location with both a view of the kitchen and a pleasant breeze through a nearby window. The interior is understated and befitting of a modest neighbourhood eatery, the kind of place where the food is so good you could be anywhere.
If you’re after the authentic South East Asian experience, order a Tiger ($7), and use it to cool down in anticipation of several hot curries. Alternatively go with a Kauri Double IPA ($9), an uber tasty beer brewed a few steps down the road at Birkenhead Brewery; a promising fledgling alesmith.
When it’s kai time, order the whole menu if you can (I tried almost everything), but make sure you try the Golden Shield, squid fried in kaffir lime and chilli jam ($16) and the vegetarian rendang ($23), a creamy, flavour bomb with just the right chilli kick. If you’re a fan of steamed buns, don’t miss the Mama’s Special ($10), with sticky pork or Thai chicken; these give Blue Breeze Inn a run for their money for the title of “best steamed buns in Auckland”. The food is rustic and simply presented, yet the flavours are typically outstanding, complex and featuring a generous dose of sweat-inducing chilli. As I rapidly devour the rendang, I’m brought back to eating similar dishes in wee beach huts in coastal Malaysia and smoky street corners in Chang Mai, Northern Thailand. This is real deal, Asian fusion how it should be; a harmonious marriage of the best of Thai, Malay and Indonesian cuisine. It’s adjusted just slightly for the western palate but, maintains a vital authenticity and strength of flavour that is near impossible to find in New Zealand. Not only is the food amazing, it’s cheap too; a veritable feast and drinks for five came to a measly $201, a figure which suggests the prices are straight out of South East Asia, just like the food.
Top it all off with the warm, tropical sweetness of mango sticky rice ($10) and you’ve just experienced a complete South East Asian feast, which you’ll struggle to trump outside of Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. Yes, it’s that good.