I spent a lot of time in my youth wandering the back streets of Surry Hills in Sydney. My uncle and aunty owned a fruit shop on Crown Street and my cousin owned (and still does!) a hairdressing salon down the road. There was an urban grittiness and industrial feel to the area back all those decades ago, long before it became Sydney’s hot spot for all things food, coffee and trends.
And as I wander the streets now, I can see how much of it’s industrial past has given way to a plethora of re-purposed warehouses, terraces and corner stores. So, this is where we find ourselves on a late Saturday afternoon, tucked among the fashion wholesaler district of Surry Hills at one of Sydney’s best known cafes’, Reuben Hills.
A renovated warehouse, this industrial chic place is both a cafe and roastery, with a side of South American cuisine. With it’s unassuming shop front and roll-a-door back entry, it spans the length of two parallel streets. As you walk through, you can’t help but notice the care that’s been taken in the detail of this place. The remnants of an industrial space, with polished surfaces and modern lighting with a peak into the coffee making process upstairs from the ground floor. I especially liked the feature of old postcards sent from various places in South and Central America to other areas around the world attached to the bill.
With menu options such as ‘Really f***ing great fried chicken’ and ‘The NOT Reuben’, it was lucky that the whole Coco and Vine crew were on board to exhaust the menu options!
We got straight to it and ordered our beverages first, ensuring we sampled their mix of offerings. I couldn’t resist exposing my palate to a malted bacon shake. Yes, you heard me – malted bacon. I honestly didn’t know what to expect – would the bacon be blended into the shake? Was it a syrup flavouring? (Does that even exist?!) What came out was an old-school stainless steel milkshake cup, filled with a traditional malt shake and served with a thin slice of cooked, dried bacon resting, ever so enticingly, across the top of the cup. Without instructions, I dipped the bacon in the shake and enjoyed the weird, yet interesting combination, of the salty against the sweet in my mouth.
The coffee slushi was light and refreshing with a clean finish and the fine crushed ice melts on the tongue with a light coffee taste.
With its great combination of flavours and totally vegan (made from coconut milk,coconut yoghurt and lime sorbet), the mango lassi also hit the palate with a light, refreshing taste.
The Fetco filter coffee arrives in a cute ceramic cup. The brew is an Ethopian Biftu Gudina, where the beans are grown at elevations between 1200m and 1900m above sea level. A sip reveals a distinct floral characteristic, and there’s a slight citrus tang that tingles the palate. It’s interesting how coffee making has come full circle, as old-school brewing methods are coming back into vogue using sophisticated new machinery, and special filter papers.
There are many ways to make cold coffee, but this carbonated cold brew is by far one of the more unique offerings, a cold brew with a slight hint of bubbles. The coffee by itself is already really good but by adding the bubbles, it makes it an even more elegant drink. What makes the Reuben Hills version stand out, is the hint of orange taste in the coffee, which is further accentuated by the slice of orange garnish hanging off the side of the glass.
Then it was on to the food. Inspired by their coffee buying trips to Central and South America, the owners have created an eclectic mix to this menu. Now this isn’t your typical menu – food items are named with a casualness and novelty, that you just know you are in for a food experience.
First out comes the banana, peanuts and espresso bread with salted caramel butter. The banana and peanuts compliment each other with strong, but balanced, flavours. The butter blends in nicely enhancing the subtle espresso tones to the bread, and has the added surprise of chewy, caramalised nuggets as it melts.
The unique combination of hibiscus & macadamia rosemary crumb, make the scorched mango sago a real stand-out. This dish is comforting, light, and creamy with a firm, but not pasty, texture. The scorched sago provides the caramel flavour, and the mild rosemary notes make this an excellent combination of savoury versus sweet.
The pork arepas delivers a slow-cooked pork that is melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Its served with pineapple and blackbean salsa, chipotle aioli and the jalapeno jam had a good kick to it. As with most South American dishes, this one is laced with coriander (cilantro if you are from the North) – so best to explore another dish if you aren’t a big fan of this herb or spice!
I couldn’t go past ordering the dirty bird (that one’s for you, Jane!). The perfect mix of pickles, tomatillo salsa, cheese and spiced grilled chicken was offset by the sweetness of the toasted brioche bun. It was not too spicy, and had the right amount of kick from the chipotle aioli that hits the back of the palate a few seconds after that first delicious bite. This had all the traditional tastes of South America in one ‘burger’ and was absolutely delicious.
A feast for the senses, the vivid colours of the salmon kokoda immediately strikes you. The brilliant yellow of the mango, reds of the tomato and salmon, purple tinges of the basil seeds, and green of the iceberg lettuce and diced cucumber. And then, you take the first spoonful, and what an explosion of flavours! There’s the zing from the slightly sour green mango, to the surprising heat from the basil seeds which surely has an infusion of chilli somewhere along the line! Then, the sweetness of the coconut milk, crunch from the iceberg lettuce, and the cooling of the cucumber. And, that’s just the supporting actors! The star of the dish is the salmon ceviche. Beautifully soft and cured salmon in delectable cubes, adds the flavour of the sea to what, in my mind, is one of the best balanced and flavour-some salads I have had, almost ever! Everyone talks about the chicken but if you’re wanting a dish with complexity and flavours, the salmon kokoda is hard to top.
The Albondingas bowl, for all its fancy name, is Mexican meatballs with fried egg. The first thing that greets you as you peer into the deep, earthen bowl is the base of pieces of tortilla, topped with meatballs hidden under slices of jalapeno peppers, mixed seeds (Pumpkin and sunflower), a pickled ‘escabeche’ (vinaigrette) vegetable salad made with carrots, cauliflower and slivers of white cabbage, and topped with the fried egg, as a final touch. On the other side of the bowl, is the Jalapeno Mojo and Labneh (Middle Eastern cheese) served together but still distinctly separated in 2 halves, so you can taste each dip on its own or mixed together.
There is a peppery kick to the dish which pays its homage to Mexican food but it is so addictive, that you would keep eating it anyway and allow your taste buds to be constantly amazed with each mouthful of this taste explosion.
We also couldn’t resist ordering the ‘Really f***ing great fried chicken’, just to say we had! We were so full, so we ordered it to take-away. But, as we lifted the lid off to take a peak inside, our nostrils were filled with that aroma that makes fried chicken so hard to resist (or is that just me?!). We each kept picking off a little bite-size morsel of these moist, boneless chicken pieces – ‘just for a taste’ – but before we could even lick our fingers, it was demolished!
With our taste buds well and truly satisfied, we rolled out of Reuben Hills, certain we would follow the beaten path back there very soon to experience it all over again!