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Peko Peko

The first time I walked into Peko Peko, it was about 5pm on a Saturday. In spite of the early hour, the place was packed within 30 minutes of my arrival.

I returned for the second time only a couple of weeks later, which is a testament to how much I enjoyed it the first time, because I rarely revisit restaurants due to always having a huge list of new ones to try. Showing up just before 7 on a Friday night, we hoped to just squeeze in; but no, even a table for two was going to be a 40 minute wait. We ended up ordering anyway, and getting everything to-go. It was all packaged excellently and we drove home in anticipation of the deliciousness.

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The patrons are almost a 50/50 split between Asians and non-Asians. The food is very tasty but nothing that spectacular. It’s also a Taiwanese restaurant, which I thought was kind of an obscure cuisine to most Melbournians.

With cities like Melbourne becoming more and more truly multicultural, there seems to be a lot of fixation on what it means for ethnic food to be “authentic”. I want to talk about that in a future post sometime – about how that focus on “authenticity” sometimes takes away from our judgement of what might actually be very good food. But I bring it up today because I want to point out that sometimes a restaurant can genuinely capture the heart and soul of a culinary tradition without exactly being faithful in every way to every traditional dish. It’s possible to invent entirely new dishes your grandmother couldn’t have dreamed up but still stay true to what it means for that food to be Taiwanese, or Vietnamese, or Indian, or whatever cuisine you were trying to emulate with your creation.

So why is Peko Peko so popular? It’s been able to make Taiwanese food more accessible to a wide range of customers, and it’s done it not by cooking up horrible deep-fried “white” Chinese food served from bain-maries but by offering a good variety of honest and “accessible” real-food meals in terms that everyone can understand. Its location helps, too – it’s near St Kilda Road’s big office buildings as well as a bunch of inner city apartments, which explains the suits, students and generally eclectic customer demographic.

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The restaurant is decorated with a certain quirky charm, with utterly random Taiwanese collectibles and objects scattered around the place and odd art on the walls.

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The menu is honest and fairly simple – you won’t find all the traditional Taiwanese street food here, though there is some. It’s more geared towards a modern lifestyle, a well-rounded, no-fuss, filling meal, perfect for a working lunch or takeaways… or add an entree or two to make it more of a sit-down affair. Meal options are grouped into three main types: 1) “Peko box”, sort of like a Taiwanese-style Bento with a main dish and several sides, the ideal quick but substantial lunch; 2) Noodle soup, including the famous Taiwanese beef noodle soup, but with catchy names such as “Beef About” and “Formosa Island”; 3) “Peko Plate” – various Taiwanese-style dishes, traditional and otherwise – served on rice (upgradeable to fried rice). There’s also a selection of modern and traditional entrees such as “wasabi mayo prawn” and “scallop & sausage skewer”.

What this menu lacks is things like “oysters and intestines vermicelli” and “deep fried pigs blood rice cake skewer” – both real life, traditional, popular snacks on the streets of Taiwan, but would probably put off their less adventurous non-Taiwanese office-worker patrons. What the menu has is clear descriptions in proper English – unlike many an Asian restaurant I’ve come across – nice peppy dish names instead of cryptic badly translated ones, decent “v” and “gf” markings – all this it has in common with Shandong Mama. These restaurants show a trend towards a stronger emphasis in the marketing, customer care and presentation departments, as well as showing that Gen Y’s are starting to get into the Asian restaurant business in Australia.

The service is friendly by the standards of a busy Asian establishment, and efficient by any standards; the restaurant is spacious, clean and comfortable.

Everyone seens to talk about Peko Peko’s wasabi mayo prawns, but we decided not to go for that on our first visit. Instead, we started with the Crispy n Crunchy Pork roll (above) – wrapped in fried tofu skin, satisfyingly crunch and deliciously savoury enough that the dipping sauce was unnecessary.

Also as an entree, we tried the house chicken wings, which just about gave KP a foodgasm with its fiery and flavourful coat of spices and super crunchy batter encasing moist and really tender chicken cooked just right.

Being at a Taiwanese eatery, I couldn’t not order the beef noodle soup (the aforementioned “Beef About”). This was a nice dish, but didn’t wow me – it’s miles better than other renditions of the stuff I’ve had at other Melbourne establishments, but I personally like my own version a bit better. What I did notice was that the bowl contained some lovely, fresh slices of beef which looked like a prime cuts rather than one of the gristly, connective-tissuey inexpensive cuts such as brisket or gravy beef traditionally used in this dish. I love me some soft, gelatin-y brisket, but I can see how this smooth cut might appeal more to some less adventurous meat eaters.

The second main we sampled was from the “Peko Plate” section – a saucy minced pork and mushroom dish on rice. The overall feel and flavour of this dish reminded me strongly of Taiwan because it was basically a slightly pimped version of lu rou fan, but KP wasn’t as huge as fan as I was. We upgraded the plain rice in this dish to fried rice for an additional $3.50.

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On our Friday night takeaway night, we finally sampled the wasabi mayo prawns. Certainly a very tasty snack, I didn’t see what was so mind-blowing about it. The wasabi mayo was mild and creamy, and very yummy and complemented the crunchy fried prawns well.

I wasn’t sure what “Silky egg tofu” was but it turned out to be fried tofu with a filling of steamed egg of a very beautifully smooth consistency like in a Japanese egg custard (chawanmushi) topped with crispy tempura sprinkles and served with a umami light soy sauce.

Because they make such easy takeout meals, we ordered “Pop Chicken” from the “Peko Box” section, and we were extremely happy with that decision. The star of this meal box was, of course, the Taiwanese-style popcorn chicken, called yan su ji – directly translated, salt-crispy-chicken. This dish, with its particular salt-and-pepper-and-spice seasoning, is a famous Taiwanese street snack food, and Peko Peko has done an excellent job of reproducing the mouthwatering combination of sizzling hot crispy seasoned coating and juicy chicken goodness inside. The seasonal sides and fried rice were nice enough, and rounded off the meal very squarely, but again, nothing amazing to be said there.

Under “Light Meals”, we tried the Taiwan Vermicelli – tasty and simple, and like the mince pork rice from our dine-in experience, was “very Taiwanese” tasting and placed my mind right back at “home”, even though I don’t think it was a particularly famous or traditional dish (that I know of!)

One of my very favourite desserts of any cuisine is black rice pudding. If it’s on the menu, I’m almost guaranteed to order it, and if it’s on the menu with something else I love or that piqued my interest, I’m probably going to order both. So when I saw the slightly intriguing Earl Grey pannacotta alongside the black rice pudding with green tea ice cream, I had to do just that. A bit disappointingly, the “pudding” was more of a black rice cake, and a small piece of it at that. It was, however, delicious and I unsurprisingly craved more after the tiny serving.

I wasn’t as convinced by the pannacotta. In theory, it could have been fantastic, but there was just something lacking in the flavour here, though the pannacotta was of a decent consistency.

Tucked away in the quieter part of South Melbourne, yet still quite close to the bustle, Peko Peko is a fairly short drive from my apartment. With such affordable, delicious, honest food, I’m bound to return on a semi-regular basis, especially for those dishes involving crunchy chicken… or crunchy anything!

There are plenty of options for vegetarians here, but vegans should be more careful. The menu tells me that many of the meat dishes can be made vegetarian, and some of those appear to become possibly vegan with the removal of meat, but you’d have to double check with the kitchen.

Address: 190 Wells St, South Melbourne, VIC 3205
Website: http://www.urbanspoon.com/r/71/1462432/restaurant/Melbourne/Peko-Peko-South-Melbourne

Peko Peko on Urbanspoon

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