I walk into Howler on a Sunday arvo and it truly lives up to the moniker. The Beautiful People of Brunswick are crammed into the immense outdoor space not unlike a greenhouse, with its shady nooks and crannies interspersed with brick walls, plants and wooden benches.
It’s a hot day, and in a stroke of genius the establishment has installed devices which emit a delicious mist which floats down breezily, hitting searing bare skin with a sizzle.
Inside, a table tennis table is put to good use, making it an ideal first date venue.
The menu has been entirely revised, taking an Asian spin and offering simply three dishes – Vietnamese char bao, dumplings and fries. Within first two options are four varieties of each, comprising beef, pork, chicken and vegetarian.
The pork belly bao features pillows of squishy white dough filled with the sour crunch of zucchini and spring onion astride orange bricks of pork, that feature a very slight layer of fat which adds enough sweetness so as not to dominate the other flavours.
A generous dollop of chilli sauce in the middle sees the juices trickle down onto the chin with each bite.
I have to go the fries to see how good they are.
I’m floored – innocent-enough looking, these bad boys pack an intense heated punch fierce enough to leave my seasoned Indian palate roaring and fumbling around for some water.
This is thanks to the hefty seasoning laid out on a mountain of crunchy potato which has been inlaid with pickles, onions and chilli sauce to boot.
Always one to throw out the pickles from my hamburger, I give these guys a chance for the sake of the tasting. And you know what – they work, adding a sourness to the dish which gives it a flavour far more complex than the usual fries and sauce.
The fish boa is conservative in flavour by contrast, leaving little to be desired, yet the overall dish holds wonderful textures which alternate between crunchy and crumbly: sesame seeds, fresh green chilli and delicately crumbed fish work well together however slightly more sauce could have been added to lubricate the dish.
The stark whiteness of the chicken bao is initially alarming, however the taste makes a sizeable impact: the occasional crunch of peanuts sprinkled amongst sweet kimchee, carrot and zingy onion makes this a dish well worth ordering.
The food at Howler has clearly undergone an extensive makeover for the better, with the resulting dishes well planned and executed brilliantly. Initially the lack of options are baffling, but in an odd way it seems like the less choice you have, the less confusion.
The service is as good as it can get for a crowded place with minimal staff – to make this easier, there’s no table service. Staff are a bit cheeky but it fits the grungyness of the place allows for it.
Service 7, Food 9.
Howler is located at 7-11 Dawson Street, Brunswick.