DINING: Otak-Otak: Food truck evolves into PE’s newest Asian eatery

Port Elizabeth has been known for its wind, smiles and beaches but might become known for its local Asian-inspired food scene. With familiar local haunts such as Fushin, Mellas and Suki, the city’s food scene is well served with sushi and stir fry. But if your taste buds are on the hunt for adventure, get yourself to Otak-Otak.

Otak-Otak doesn’t do the sushi, stirfry and modern glitz you usually get in an Asian-style eatery in Port Elizabeth. Instead, it serves South-east Asian inspired dishes from Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. And it’s not on the main restaurant drag of the restaurant hub in Stanley Street. Port Elizabethans may have got used to dim sum, but it’s time to venture a little further afield now. I first read the name as Ou Tak-Ou Tak, which translates from Afrikaans to Old Branch-Old Branch. The name, in fact, means brains-brains. It refers to an Indonesian/Malay fishcake, which the owner and head chef Brian Hall enjoyed while living in Malaysia for three years before moving to Port Elizabeth. Here, he started the Otak-Otak food truck. It has moved out of the truck and become a fully-fledged restaurant in Lovemore Heights. Here, Hall’s personal experiences with food during his journey are expressed through every dish. Nothing else is lost in translation though. Hall greets every table and answers all questions while a waitress in a kaftan and Birkenstocks pours your locally brewed beer. A fellow food mole dining with me was unsure of what to order as a main, seeing that he isn’t familiar with Asian-style food. Hall took the time to ask him about his favourite dishes. Using this, he recommended dishes based on his particular taste. Another wearily asked if the prawns in the curry were de-shelled. Hall said they weren’t, as the most taste is wrapped around the meat in the shell, but that he could deshell them for her if she would be more comfortable with that. She accepted with delight. When pressed, Hall describes himself as a “professional eater”. This shines through in the food presentation and the way he interacts with diners. Curries are served in deep bowls for easy scooping and meat is deboned. There are two vegetarian mains and biodegradable straws. Beyond that, the restaurant is a pleasure to eat in. A breeze keeps the room cool in summer while plants, rugs and candles create warmth. Hall’s own gallery of photos from his time in Malaysia make it feel as though you are having a casual, yet sophisticated, meal in his beach shack. A pity Jack Johnson was on repeat though. The menu may be considered small by some, but its diversity makes it feel the perfect length. Local beer from Benn Koppen is on tap, and so is local pink gin and tonic Da Rocca. The wine list is basic, but a small corkage fee is an option. To start off, we had the Nem Ran which is a Vietnamese parcel of ground pork and prawn, brown mushrooms, radishes and chives. The parcel is deep fried and topped with a chilli and lime aioli. It may sound like a strange meat combination, but they combined to make a new taste which made complete sense. Finally, starters under R60. For mains, there were nine very different dishes to choose from which range between R85 and R140. The honey and soy-glazed chicken comes with black mountain rice drizzled with a zesty gravy. Hall bemoans the lack of rice varieties used in South Africa, so this naturally black rice features throughout the menu. The chicken thighs were deboned and topped with sesame seeds. The steamed green veg was a crisp complement to the sweetness of the chicken and earthiness of the rice. I have had Leche Flan, a Vietnamese crème caramel, before but not with honey and lemon. This steamed pudding is a light end to an equally light meal. A fellow mole had the coconut shake… it was passed around the table until it was finished, much to her dismay. Finally, dessert under R50. Port Elizabethans have been known to complain if they have to drive for more than five minutes to get anywhere. The hardest part is striding over the doorstep of your comfort zone and into the restaurant. DM Otak-Otak, cnr Buffelsfontein & Salisbury, Mount Pleasant. 078 459 4881.