ON a leisurely Saturday with no particular agenda in mind, the Hunter Valley can be a challenge.
Do we want to retrace familiar steps: enjoy a coffee and see what happens? Visit a favourite cellar door or two? Or try something new?
If you’re not careful and don’t do some planning, you can end up disappointed because you wanted to do so much and you end up doing so little.
That’s why we’re still smiling about taking a chance on place we’d been told about months ago but hadn’t got there until last weekend.
Simply called PopUp Restaurant, it’s in the same building as the Harkham Windarra winery cellar door on DeBeyers Road, Pokolbin. Modest from a distance, but good fun up close.
It’s a sunny autumn afternoon and, with plentiful outdoor seating under cover, we never step inside the main building. We’ve come up to the valley for a concert, so we’ve got some time to spare before the show, and as it turns out, afterwards as well.
We arrive after three o’clock, too late for food (service restarts at 6pm). But the bar’s open and the specialty is tequila. The specials look tempting so we go for a salud mojito (“minty mojito meets limey margarita”) and a mocktail (similar to the mojito and just as nice). Served in generous jam jars with plenty of ice, they are the perfect sip while sitting in on a comfy old leather sofa admiring the open fields and vineyard as the Brokenback range looms on the skyline. The house music at the time was Old Crow Medicine Show and G Love, again, just right for a laidback vibe. The decor is Latin-country-chic; colourful, simple and stylish.
Drew Wallin, the owner and operator, is managing the floor and good for a chat about, well, just about anything, so we talk about business, snakes, dogs and music.
It’s a fun hour and time flies, and we promise to return. As it turns out we come back later, after the concert, and Wallin just manages to get the kitchen to plate up a couple of their favourites for us.
We match our food with beer (limited selection but good: Dad & Dave’s Pale Ale, Angry Man, Big Head, Corona, Sol, Dos Equis) and a mocktail this time.
There are also Harkham wines (natural and preservative free) available.
We take a table outdoors - the fireplace isn’t lit tonight as the air temperature is still pleasant (but the fireplace is lit all winter long). There’s live entertainment, a guitar troubadour who’s not too loud.
PopUp is pretty informal, and the food is the same. We enjoy a plate of spice rubbed chicken wings, “eat them with your hands” Drew says as he walks by and sees us with knife and fork in hand. Squeeze the lime slices over the chicken, wait 30 seconds for it to soak in, and you’ll enjoy a great flavour hit. The melt-in-your mouth spicy warm meat with a tingling kick falls off the bone as you devour. The menu says “slow cooked in orange juice and banana leaf, served with lime cheeks and chili sauce”.
Is this Bali? Or Costa Rica? It’s manna of its own making.
The other dish, the pulled beef nachos, is just as stunning. Thinly sliced jalapenos give it a kick but not a burn. The meat is again melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Every ingredient begs to be tasted - the guacamole, the smoked cheese, the crispy tortilla chips, the pico de gallo. I throw some of the chili sauce from the chicken plate onto my chips and it adds a spicy tang. (There’s a bottle of McInerney Buffalo-style tabasco sauce on the table if you favour more heat.)
The menu is small and precise: they all sound just as good as what we’ve sampled: guacamole (smash your own), veggie papas rellenas (sweet potato balls), tequila salmon carpaccio, prawn and chorizo skewers, sliders, chicken fajitas, crunchy coleslaw, churros and Mexican chili rice and black bean salad. Plus specials.
Fresh, local and fun. A Latino surprise in the heart of the Hunter.
Be careful, it’s one of those places that may hold your attention for much longer than you anticipate.