Heart and soul
A food truck, bricks and mortar style
The sign on the guitar leaning against the counter says, “Play me.” No instruction is needed for the fried bread and icecream sandwich.
Eat me, eat me, eat me. This is the pudding of your dreams, last suppers and birthday dinner requests. I used to think my mum made a mean caramel dumpling. It’s not a patch on this puffy, crispy, manuka caramel sauce-drenched treat with the cold, creamy centre.
“It tastes like Tip Top,” I said. (I meant this as a compliment. I know we’re all about the artisan, but next time you’re at a dairy that sells those teeny-tiny one-person cardboard tubs, do yourself a favour and remember great icecream doesn’t have to cost $24 a litre.)
Belinda Mckay, waitperson and owner, nodded. “Vanilla. We wanted to keep it simple.”
That ethos extends to paper plates and compostable cardboard serving boxes. Puha & Pakeha was (and still is) a food truck. The bricks and mortar version, which operates Wednesday to Sunday, opened in spring. There are a handful of inside and outside tables, and when the planter boxes take hold, it’ll be a properly pleasant courtyard. On the night of our visit, it was being frequented by families and couples and the counter was doing a steady trade in takeaways.
There is no liquor licence. There are Marmite and chocolate milkshakes (don’t ask me, I had a pre-dinner wine at The Gypsy Tearooms and stuck to the kawakawa, honey and ginger tonic with dinner). This is not a flashy fine diner. It’s not even a flashy fine-ish diner. But it has heart, and its soul is firmly in this place we call home.
Canvas readers might remember Puha & Pakeha from our story on the rise of contemporary Maori kai. Back then, Mckay said: “It’s great New Zealand is embracing lots of cuisines ... but where is our own? The flavours of our own country have been overlooked.”
No more. In the same week that Monique Fiso (who also featured in that Canvas story) opened the permanent incarnation of her very high-end Hiakai in Wellington, I pulled up a mismatched chair in Grey Lynn and ordered the hangi kumara and coconut bites ($8 for three).
Smoky, earthy and sweet. Spain has croquettes and Italy has arancini. These are better. Get two serves and skip the loaded fries ($10) that read much better than they taste. The menu says “spice-rubbed hangi cooked pork, spicy salsa, coriander and lime dressing”. It was all too much for the shoestring chips that went cold and soggy quite quickly (and the pulled pork topping was more tangy than smoky).
Next up: tuatua fritters with a kina-spiked mayo. Sea urchin is an acquired taste but this is entry-level stuff; subtle but definitely there. The flavour reminded me of crayfish “mustard” with a considerably less visceral delivery. The fritters could have been crisper on the edges, but I love that slightly chewy texture you get when shellfish submits to heat, and there was plenty of that ($12 for three). The menu is divided into nui, iti and reka eats (that’s big, little and sweet, in case you’re still on a te reo class waiting list) and includes a glossary of some of the native ingredients and traditional foods on offer. Rewena bread — described as “a traditional Maori bread made using a potato bug” — makes multiple appearances. Think hangi, think cabbage — add pastrami and, ka pai — an Aotearoa reuben ($10).
The bread is slightly sweet. It’s likened to sourdough, but there’s a bit of a brioche feel there as well. The reuben was good, but take it to the next level with the steak sandwich ($16) which has a really appealing acid/sweet/manuka smoke balance. Gluten-free diners should consider the horopito piri piri chicken salad ($12) — packed with plump (possibly brined?) thigh meat and excellent value for money. We could have stopped there. We should have stopped there. Don’t even think about stopping there. The sweet-of-tooth will love the rewena bread trifle
(in which rhubarb valiantly tries to add balance but basically comes off as jam) but spend your $7 on that fried bread icecream sandwich and thank me later.