Glutton Abroad: The one where we eat everything in Auckland

Pork belly lechon at Nanam

Taking a friend out to eat in a city that’s neither yours nor theirs is a tricky thing. Don’t get me wrong — it can even be difficult in Bangkok, if you don’t know someone well enough. People can say they “love food” and “will eat anything”, but when push comes to shove and you’re facing an oozy oyster omelet or a glass of water that someone has chucked a couple of ice cubes in, all of a sudden there’s hemming and hawing and “Oh, I think I’ll pass” with all the subtlety of an auntie who sits gingerly on the edge of a subway seat that you’ve just vacated.

That’s the problem Lauren and I faced, when friends we hadn’t seen for years asked us to take them out. They were excited about Asian food, and they wanted to explore the delights of one Dominion Road, the “Chinatown” in Auckland that’s not really Chinatown (that would, in fact, be Albany, a northern suburb to Auckland that is the NZ equivalent to Flushing in New York.)

Yet we balked. Lauren, cognizant of the fact that this was their first time in NZ, wanted to show them all the heights to which NZ food is capable of reaching (elevated Kiwiana at Ahi, upscale Korean at Tokii, fun Japanese at Azabu, etc). Me, cognizant that I wanted to eat greasy street food, wanted to get as down and dirty as possible, simply roaming the sidewalk down Dominion Road like a feral pack of dogs. There was a moment when we were very much aware of being at loggerheads and very much not liking that. And then it passed when we reached a compromise solution, Speaker of the House-style: we would go to Sri Penang, beloved of everyone (including Conde Nast Traveler for some reason), and then intuit where to go from there.

Ordering on a food crawl is a tricky tightrope walk of greed: too much and you’re a goner before you’ve even started; too little and you want to kill everyone around you, especially your hosts (aka me). So we took the prudent route and got the highlights: Sri Penang’s most famous dish, a melt-in-your-mouth beef rendang, a soupy and mild chicken curry, and the flakiest roti this side of, well, Penang. All was well-received, even if no one would partake of the local IPA, red vino or sparkling wine that Lauren and I had painstakingly picked out on an afternoon jaunt to two different liquor stores (all the more for me. Seriously.)

Next, I originally meant to take everyone to a personal favorite, Barilla Dumpling, where I fell down the stairs the first time I visited. I love dumplings, and Barilla takes care of that craving (and then some). There are umpteen fried, steamed and soup versions; so many, in fact, that I once, in a fit of greed, ordered an entire tableful and had to call my daughter and her friends to help bail me out of indigestion jail.

Alas, a stray review on Trip Advisor convinced me to take the group to Jolin, where I was promised the best soup dumplings in the city. Reader, there were no xiao long bao to be had. So instead we contented ourselves with the “kung fu” noodles, a mish-mash of all the noodles at the restaurant’s disposal and served by a gloriously surly Chinese man.

No worries: we saved the best for last. A trip to Eden Noodles is tough at even off-times because this place is just that popular (and tiny). I once walked away after being told that the wait would be 40 minutes, something that my husband still complains about (I went to Barilla Dumpling instead!) In any case, our visit this time was at just the right moment, and we scored a table for 5 without too much trouble. The favorites here are the dan dan noodles and the dumplings in spicy sauce, so that’s exactly what we had.

I love any and all dan dan noodles, but this one was special: tender, even melting noodles in a clear yet aromatic broth, topped with soft and sweet butter lettuce leaves and a beautifully crunchy toss of umami pork. The dumplings were even better, spicy with a big thump of savory and, dare I say it, quite sweet as well.

With all the food we ate that night, Lauren and I were surprised to discover that our friends wanted to have dinner with us AGAIN, and where should we go? It was easy this time — Nanam, a nouveau-Filipino restaurant helmed by chefs Jessabel Granada and Andrew Soriano, where standards like sisig and lechon get a sophisticated glow-up. I feel like Filipino food is on the cusp of really breaking out; people already know Thai and Vietnamese cuisines, but there are talented chefs all around the world starting to do new and interesting things with the food of the Philippines.

So we ordered, and then ordered some more. This is when I suspected that our friends only ate one meal a day — that was how much food we ended up ordering. My suspicions were justified after they told me they had shared a single minced meat pie on the ferry back from Waiheke. Los Angelenos! What do you expect?

We ordered a mashed eggplant salad that reminded me of a chili-less “soup makuea”, punctuated with black rice crisps.

There was also a lovely ceviche, and a platter of serrano croquettes, and a knockout starter of longannisa — a traditional sausage usually served with a fried egg and rice — that, in this case, is spiked with lemongrass, grilled over coals and stuffed into a tortilla with a drizzle of chipotle mayo. If that sounds good to you, don’t worry, it is. If you would like to see what it looks like, sorry, I ate them all. (However, Lauren does have a great recipe for them, in a book that was rejected by our publisher. Call us!)

That wasn’t all. We also had juicy roast chicken in a tamarind “sinigang” rub, a red snapper baked in a banana leaf, and a pork belly “lechon” with apple sauce and artichoke. It all ended up being so good that our friends ultimately didn’t care (or cared less) when my son the diplomat told one of them, the writer of a longtime cartoon series, that his favorite show was “Family Guy” and the other, the writer of a well-known comedy, that his favorite show was “Friends” (they said “That’s interesting” and “Thanks for being honest”, which is code for “Your opinions are terrible”). At least we were well fed.

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