Friday, 23 August 2013

The No-Brainer

You've got one.  I've got one.
In fact, between us we might just have a few.
If we sat down to chat about it (over a cup of tea and some fresh scones) we'd tally 'em up, realising that we've probably had more than just one or two.
That one in your old neighbourhood.
The other one near that place you used to work.
Another where you used to hang with the old crew from high school/college/illegal street-racing.

Food replicators - the key to digestive democracy? /image from 

It's the saving grace on a Friday night - the answer which benignly presents itself when we are blessed/cursed by dear friends as The Person Who Chooses The Restaurant.

Like Batman appearing when Gotham flicks on the Batsignal , the No-Brainer Dining Establishment is a proper superhero.  The gastronomic version of the Little Black Dress, it is versatile, interesting (but not too strange) and totally reliable.

My current NBDE is ShangDong MaMa in a little arcade off Melbourne's Bourke Street.
Being regional Chinese, it's ethnic enough to flatter the most adventurous diner's unspoken need for gastro-credibility (are we, as a people, insecure down to our very forks?) yet serves a number of dishes which are safe for even the most constrained eater.

Case in point.. no, wait... let's just cut to the chase and call this the tale of Jacqui and Jocelyn.
I'd call it the Tale of Two Great Aussie Blondes, but Jacqui turned to the (dye) bottle a few years back and it's working great for her.  So I've had to use their real names instead.

Jacqui specifically likes to eat in places where a majority of the patrons do not share her genetic make-up.
A dim sum restaurant full of Anglo-Australians?  Nope.  A spot down an alley full of not-white folks slurping Taiwanese beef noodles?  Now that's where we're headed.
Jacqui is a frequent visitor to Asia and can beat me in a chilli-eating contest hands down.  She's actually better at Being Asian than I am.  She owns a great collection of fake designer handbags, for starters...

Anyhow - Jacqui likes ShangDong MaMa.
It meets the 'there-are-loads-of -actual-Asians-eating-there' criteria.
It meets the hipster-esque 'in-a-slightly-odd-location' criteria (it's not on Bourke Street, it's in an arcade off Bourke Street).
It has comforting-yet-not-Anglo food (dumplings, it seems everyone in Melbourne loves dumplings) done interestingly/differently enough to be noteworthy (the fried dumplings are wrapped in a slightly unusual way). There are also plenty of challenging condiments for the brave - hot chillies and good-quality red vinegar are very well represented.

This pleases the adventurous eater.

Now we come to Jocelyn.  Jocelyn is not a picky eater.  She has a lap band.  An actual Health Consideration, unlike the picky eaters who are claim to be "vegetarian" (but will eat chicken) or "coeliac" (but can't resist a slice of chocolate cake).
No wonder chefs don't take anyone seriously any more.  "Allergies", my ass.  It wouldn't be so bad if picky eaters didn't LIE about it, making the actual afflicted suffer even more.

/image from

Sorry, that was a rant.

Also, I'm sure the good people reading this blog would never do anything so sneaky or underhanded as lying to the chef due to sheer spinelessness, right? Right.

Okay, now that's over...

Jocelyn has a lap band, meaning that she has to be conscientious about what she eats.
Chillies are out (because the burn just sits and doesn't go away) and so is a large plate of rich, fatty carbs/protein/anything (because it's just not possible).
Luckily, she's open-minded about food and smart about her consumption.  Interestingly, her criteria for ethnic restaurants is exactly the opposite of Jacqui's - she goes to places where people look like her i.e. predominantly Caucasian/Anglo-Australian.
This does not meant she wants the watered-down version of tasty, authentic food - it means that she wants food she can actually eat.  Meaning no chillies and no crazy spices.

It's a pretty reasonable request.

So whilst dining at ShanDong MaMa with Jocelyn and Other Awesome Folks Who Don't Eat Much Chinese Food, we get the dumplings (there's that not-Anglo-yet-familiar dichotomy again), the wonderfully named 'Daryl' noodles (our buddy Daryl was super-chuffed about this), the house fried rice and some stir-fried broccoli with garlic.
It was all interesting, authentic, regional, delicious, non-greasy and non-spicy.  It was also homely, comforting, easy to digest and the servings weren't stupidly large.

This suited Jocelyn and Co. rather well.

Plenty of white folks eat there.  Along with plenty of Chinese, Italians, Greeks, Indians and other many-hued humans who appreciate good food.

So how does ShangDong MaMa tick all the boxes?  It does this by posessing a number of key elements shared by all great No Brainer Dining Establishments.

  • Ability to get what you want.  You can eat family-style, or have your own dish.  You can drown things in chillies... or not.  You can have a Coke or winter melon tea.  It's all good.
  • Getting the basics right.  Even if it's just broccoli with garlic.
  • Any 'weird food' is weird for a reason.  ShangDong MaMa do "Melbourne Dumplings" because the restaurant is located right in the middle of Melbourne and the dumplings use typically 'Melbourne' ingredients; it's an homage, not an overreach.
    Also, lemon and parsley are surprisingly great ingredients that are perfect for dumplings.
  • It tastes like home.  Maybe not your home, but somebody's.  If the food is like how Mum/Grandma/Auntie makes it somewhere in the world, it's a winner.
  • It's centrally located, so you can do the 'let's meet there after work' thing.
  • It's clean. No greasy walls.  Thank goodness.

I've come to realise that the No-Brainer Dining Establishment is way more necessary then a Little Black Dress.  I mean, you can't eat an LBD.  You can go to a funeral in one and maybe blue, burgundy or peach flatters you better anyway.
But you can eat your heart out with family and friends at an NBDE.

Shandong Mama on Urbanspoon

Do you have a favourite No-Brainer?  What are your benchmarks for a good one?
Comment below! 

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