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The ubiquitous roadhouse; culinary adventures on an outback road trip

 

Kathy Lane. July 2015. 

When we decided to take a family road trip over the school holidays, the roar went up ….. ‘play to strengths and eat in in the roadhouses.  You can’t miss.’

So, advice taken, we headed west out of Melbourne towards Adelaide en route to Alice Springs.

First stop was Bordertown and no roadhouse there – just the Morning Loaf Bakery with its quirky décor.  Full of objects from a different age, we had to rush to get our order in…..the kitchen closed at 1.30!  Clearly early lunchers in Bordertown.  Pies and sausage rolls all round.  A good, solid start.

Adelaide was an unremarkable pub meal and a serviced apartment in North Adelaide before we hit the road to head for the outback.  Next stop, Coober Pedy.  We headed to our first roadhouse stop – the famous Spud’s Roadhouse in Pimba, just outside Woomera.  I remembered Woomera as a place on a childhood jigsaw puzzle map of Australia, complete with a rocket launcher!  A proud history, old Woomera.

A dinkum Aussie roadhouse with petrol, convenience and motoring supplies, a tavern and some pokies.  A one stop shop.  All underpinned by the obligatory hot box of fried delights and an eat-in menu to die for.  Literally.

Burgers, hot dogs, pies, sausage rolls, po-cakes, dim sims, chicko rolls and the ever-present chip.  You name any type of bad and it was right here, steaming it up in front of your very eyes.  Some plastic chicken nuggets and chips for the kids that even they decided were rank – and possibly a few days old and reheated.  Grown-ups opted for the burger….a not-bad home-made patty topped with plastic cheese and pedestrian salad.  Our first real roadhouse ‘culinary’ adventure was complete and it didn’t rock our socks.  We remained hopeful.

As the landscape changed, the signs advised to watch for wandering cattle and eagles soared as we hit the Pedy late afternoon.  Not only did we feel like we’d stepped onto a movie set but the town was laden with obvious multi-cultural influence.  Surprising to say the least!

After witnessing the biggest ever display of fetta cheese in the local supermarket, we headed up the main street, with the wind whistling and the tumbleweeds rolling, to Tom & Mary’s Greek Taverna.  We arrived at 6pm, just as the shutters were going up, the neon flashing ‘open’ was fired up and the curtains opened for business.  We were advised to arrive early as the kitchen closes at 8pm!  Clearly another sleepy town.

The feast at Tom & Mary’s was amazing and close to the best ‘classic’ Greek food I’ve ever eaten.  It turns out that the restaurant is now owned by Wendy and Mario but let me say, they’re doing Tom and Mary proud.  Saganaki was delicious.  The most tender calamari (fresh from Adelaide we were told) came next along with a dish of grilled, herbed quail and the most delicious, creamy, fresh tzatziki.  Ever.  Souvlakis for the lads – lamb and chicken – were devoured, whilst the gals shared the most fab moussaka and Greek salad, the tri-coleur salad topped with quality black olives and a mass of red onion.  Acid cut through and delicious.

On the road again, headed to the Alice.  An easy drive through constantly changing landscape, we arrived at the Erldunda roadhouse to a long trail of cars waiting for petrol.  Highlight…..the pen of emus next to the camping ground.  Lowlight?  The food.  Cheap, nasty, rubbish.  Not even the chips were any good.  Moving on….

We arrived in Alice to meet up with our friends Jennifer, Janet and Stephen before heading out to our camping adventure on the Larapinta Trail the next day.  Actually, the whole trip came about because Jennifer, whose business Epicurious Travel runs a permanent camp on the Larapinta near Serpentine Gorge over the winter, thought it a good idea to get our 2014 Indian trip contingent together for a reunion of sorts.  With peeps flying in from Melbourne and Sydney for a long weekend of glam camping, our family had decided to put together a road trip. And road tripped we had, making it to Alice in 3 days of heavy duty driving.

That night we dined at Hanuman at the Double Tree Hilton, next door to our ‘resort’ accommodation.  Owned by Jimmy Shu who has owned many restaurants in Melbourne, the restaurant was a melange of South East Asian and Indian fusion cuisine.  His classic oysters with a dressing of lime and lemongrass harked back to the old days of Monsoon in High Street, Armadale, and were presented in the same terracotta dish with little clay hats for lids.  Tangy and tasty.  Spring rolls and samosas were standard fare.

The Eggplant Pachadi was a standout as were the black pepper prawns.  Green chicken curry, beef massaman, rice noodles, roti, bok choy with oyster sauce and rice completed our Asian odyssey, all washed down with some fine Albarino to deliver some European flavour.  Tomorrow we food shop then camp.

The food shopping in Alice was terrific and Milner Meat & Seafood – Modern Meat Purveyors – was a revelation.  The quality of the produce – that Jennifer had pre-ordered – was outstanding.  Our meals in the camp were pre-planned as 130kms west of Alice in the West McDonnell ranges there ain’t a lot of shops!  Breakfast at Page 27 in downtown Alice Spring was amazing – the best omelette filled with quality ham, spinach and  bitey cheddar – that I have ever had.  Fluffy, rich and creamy, the quality of the ingredients superb and the technique second to none.  And Jennifer’s French Toast rocked!

We headed out to camp to set up, to await the arrival of the others from the airport.  The camp was a beautiful oasis, edged by sacred rock faces, the rocky river bed of the Todd River and spinifex. A late platter lunch in the permanent dining tent was delicious and a lazy afternoon around the fire was perfect now that the band was back together.  Our Indian adventure brought together a group of people who enjoyed each other’s company – a mixture of old and new friends – and this was the perfect chance for a catch up.  The noise level high, the wine flowed and the beauty of this amazing place started to seep in.  You could hear the serenity.  Then the dinner prep began.

Over the next 3 nights, the most incredible meals were prepared in unique circumstances.  Jennifer has a great set up with a well-stocked trailer with just about everything you’d ever need; salts, cereals, peppers, vinegars, oils, herbs and spices, condiments, sauces, coffee and a range of delicious teas. Cooking jets and generator lights brought the ‘kitchen’ to life as teams worked together to cook up a storm.

Grilled asparagus with parmesan; chicken and chorizo paella; marinated spiced prawns; eye fillet with chargrilled broccolini; roasted vege salad with olive oil and balsamic; panacotta with strawberries; barramundi and pipi stew with onions, garlic, tomatoes and almonds; apple shortcake made in the camp oven and served with double cream.  The food was incredible, prepared by and for 13 friends with love and care.  Nothing better.

The stars were bright and through guest guide Mark the ‘bird nerd’s’ telescope (his words), we saw Saturn and its rings, the craters of the moon and Jupiter with its four moons – all in a row.  Dingoes howled from the river bed and made us all just a little anxious.  Jennifer had briefed us all on the importance of keeping the campsite clean to avoid attracting dingoes – and nasty crows – from swooping into camp looking for food.  We did what she said!  Whilst the temperature dropped to near zero, our swags were cosy and warm, as the cold air landed on our tired faces.

After walks and hikes, swims and bird watching, our time was done.  We said our good-byes and headed off, back to Alice, before turning south to Marla and the beginning of the Oodnadatta Track.  We were four wheel driving and about to go off piste. Exciting.  The Stuart’s Well roadhouse was good looking and we made a mental note for next time.  After a big breakfast, we were not stopping for anything!  Except a toilet stop at Kulgera…..another crazy roadhouse with a wacky bar, complete with its very own sense of style.  We stretched our legs and kept on trucking.

Marla is another one roadhouse town – petrol, a supermarket, post office, ATM, camping ground, motel, tavern and bar.  And the locals pour into town come sunset, to down some jars and tell some tales.  Dinner at the Traveller’s Rest tavern put our faith back into roadhouse as we enjoyed some hearty local fare.  I went for the sticky hoisin pork ribs.  Definitely sticky and delicious.  Angus’s t-bone was well cooked and full of flavour.  One of the best t-bones he’d ever tasted in all his thirteen years!  The chips were clean and fresh and handcut.  Matilda’s chicken parmigiana man-sized and a classic.  No surprises.  And the world famous Marla burger the best!  A homemade, thick pattie sat atop a good quality bun with egg, fat bacon, tomato, cheese, coleslaw, beetroot and lettuce.  Nick declared it a winner.  We ordered a bottle of Coonawarra Cabernet – all of $42 for a 2010 vintage.  The barman was embarrassed.  “You do know it’s forty two bucks, right?  We don’t sell a lot of wine here.  Listen, I’ll throw in the soft drinks for free.”  Country hospitality at its finest.

We took off early and hit the track.  We were heading to Oodnadatta for lunch.  The dirt track was in pretty good shape, even considering the recent rains.  Apparently, it floods the minute the rains come, so whilst open, we had to watch the soft edges and proceed with care.  The Pink Roadhouse in Oodnadatta is legendary and its owners have created a brochure of the track and all there is to see, that became our guiding light.  Dry creek beds, wandering cattle, windmills and Patterson’s Curse everywhere, the sky was bright blue and cloudless and the old Ghan railroad kept us on track.

Another roadhouse, another burger and their famous burger with the lot was obligatory.  Not a patch on Marla’s apparently, so the bar had finally been set.  After stopping to look at ruins of old towns and homesteads, railway bridges and waterholes, we made it to William Creek just before sunset.  William Creek, population 7.  The famous pub with its front bar was the reception for the hotel and our family room possibly the worst room I have ever stayed in.  We didn’t care.

We booked in for dinner, not quite sure what to expect.  A drink in the bar first, we headed out back to the dining room for dinner.  A big, square room with a roaring open fire in the middle, I certainly didn’t expect goat rogan josh!  It was delicious and came complete with yoghurt and pappadum.  Flathead tails came with chips and the ex-Scout leader bushie who lives and works at the pub, gave us all the tips for our next day’s sightseeing.  And take his advice we did.

Post dinner, the pool table and jukebox called, with me pumping in coins to play my old-time favourites.  Of course they were old-time – it was a jukebox!  The kids didn’t even know what it was.   The family pool teams were formed.  Competitive?  You betcha but the ‘quality’ of the ancient cues definitely let me down.

Next day, up early and back on the track, heading to Marree.  Stops along the way at beautiful ruins and a swim at the natural spa at Coward Springs.  The landscape was incredible, constantly changing and the wetlands beautiful.  We stopped to drink in the majesty of Lake Eyre at its southernmost tip.  Waterholes, more ruins and the omnipresent Ghan railroad kept us enthralled.  We arrived at Marree to a classic Aussie pub.

The centre of its outback universe, the Marree Hotel stood watch with its iron balustrades on the top floor, rusty and harking to a bygone era.  Three dining rooms (all named), a front bar and accommodation upstairs with communal bathrooms confirmed that we were staying in a classic Aussie pub.  We booked into the Tom Kruse Room, wondering if this was some crazy outback play on words.  We looked forward to being surprised.  As it turns out Tom Kruse was a legend in the area, running the mail and supplies all along the Birdsville Track that heads out from Marree.  Pretty sure he could flare a cocktail and fly top gun style if he put his mind to it, Tom was a jack of all trades.  He was a welcome sight on the track,  in town and clearly a mate to all.  There have been documentaries and books written about him, and a dining room filled with memorabilia named in his honour.

A 400gm Cape Grim sirloin with mushroom sauce was another hearty reminder of Australia’s rich pastoral history.  Pork sirloin with apple sauce, a predictable but appreciated spaghetti bolognaise and some salmon for me – complete with Irish–style mash and a curried aioli – were hearty, well cooked and interestingly paired.  It turns out the cook is an English criminologist, travelling around Australia, ‘who can cook a bit.’  Hilarious!

On the road again early, we headed to the mining town of Leigh Creek for petrol and a coffee stop before making our way to Wilpena in the gorgeous Flinders Ranges.  But not before we pit-stopped at the world famous Prairie Hotel in Parachilna.  Its reputation definitely had preceded it and we were lucky to arrive at noon to secure a table.  The place was jumping.

Very smartly decorated and featuring indigenous art in the dining room and galleries, the Prairie Hotel is famous for its FMG – feral mixed grill.   And we couldn’t go past it.  Emu filet mignon, kangaroo fillet and camel sausage served with smashed potatoes and roasted tomatoes.  Absolutely amazing.  The best food on the road so far.  My Spencer Gulf whiting with chips, salad and homemade tartare was light and clean.  Angus’s kangaroo ‘schnitzel’ with bush tomato chutney and chips was popular and Matilda’s chicken strips with lemon pepper berry aioli disappeared quickly.  With new accommodation at the back of the Hotel, this is definitely somewhere we will visit again.  In fact, we loved it so much, we wanted to go back the next day!

On to Wilpena in the Flinders Ranges via Brachina Gorge.  The beauty of the ranges was almost overwhelming.  Amazing scenery, 600 million year old soils, rocky, river beds and yellow footed wallabies basking in the sun on the rocks.  Birds overhead, red and grey kangaroos all around and an eerie, late afternoon quiet settled over the ranges as we reached our destination.

We spent the next three nights in the Flinders Range, staying at the Wilpena Pound resort.  Whilst the food was unremarkable and not particularly memorable, the scenery and beauty will stay with us forever.  We took a small plane flight over the Pound and surrounding areas; drove through Parachilna Gorge and hiked to the Wangarra Hill lookout for a view across the ranges.  We were very fortunate to be part of NAIDOC week celebrations, invited by members of the Adnyamathanha people, the traditional owners of the land and the resort.  Special.

Finally pointing our nose towards Melbourne, our stop in the gorgeous town of Burra on the outskirts of the Clare Valley made us want to go back and explore the Valley and surrounds, further.  And the toilet block in Renmark was so clean and glamorous it was definitely the best john of the journey.

We had some amazing food and some not so amazing.  The roadhouses were interesting but definitely not the culinary oases we were hoping for.  And whilst the food is always important to us, in this instance, memories of the pure beauty, diversity and vastness of this country of ours is what will stay with us, not the below par food at the ubiquitous Aussie roadhouse.