I don’t often frequent Lygon Street, Carlton’s ‘little Italy’ precinct these days. There are certainly exceptions*, and there is something endearing, and almost iconic, about the history wrapped up in it, but, it just hasn’t been my ‘go-to’ place since my underage-nightclubbing days. However, my attention was captured by the Latin-American that has samba-ed its way into the hub of relatively consistent Italian eateries.
From the footpath, the contrast of Popol Nah to the neighbouring ol’ faithful trattorias is immediately evident. The shopfront is fully exposed, with fresh white walls and naked filament globes dangling from the ceiling, warmed by soft lighting and earthy elements like raw timber tables and wall panels, and wooden antlers suspended by coloured cord. Touches like colourful hand-painted dolls, potted succulents and menus with bright geometric designs round-off a modern and confident vibe.
The cocktail list has a solid contingent of classics to appease the cocktail conservatives, and then adds a few more with a creative spin. For example, the Margarita-inspired ‘Tequila # 2’ was a thirst quenching concoction of dangerously smooth reposado tequila, lime, cucumber and a distant hum of jalapeno. Down a fluffy killer Pisco Sour, or dive into a ‘Pisco # 2’ with quince liqueur, lemon and orange blossom. Sommelier Carolyn Brown has crafted a short but well-balanced collection of wines from Spain, Chile, Argentina and Australia, and there is a smack of great beers from Spain, Chile, Mexico and Argentina.
The punchy one-page dinner menu ranges from small plates, to three more substantial dishes, themed by bold yet simple flavours that align closely with traditional fare (with a few surprises). The menu isn’t a slave to the parilla, with a purposeful variety vegetarian (think salad of shredded zucchini, kale, cucumber and pickled vegetables, patatas bravas, or empanada with chickpea, sweet potato and silverbeet with crema fresca) and meaty options (read below) that make it difficult to limit the order. We started with a Carribean-style ceviche with plump pink prawns (which were not diced as I am used to) cured in lime juice, flecks of coriander, red onion, tomato and chilli, served with house made corn chips and tropically adorned with a fan of cos lettuce.
The lamb and beef meatballs, with the firmness and richness of sausage, were charged with smoky paprika and a hit of spice that complemented a fragrant tomato sofrito, and a cool mango salsa.
The ‘anafre di chorizo’ was an oozy cheese fondue, studded with moreish chunks of umami chorizo, glossy with liquefied flavour, and the cast iron dish lending a slight crust around the edges. I was concerned that it would be too heavy, but the balance between the two elements, and also amongst the cheeses, kept me attacking those piquant morsels with my corn chips.
From the larger dishes, we opted for the lamb shank with hunks of moist stringy meat falling from the bone, in a rich sauce sweetened with fresh and dried peppers. A mound of earthy shredded kale, quinoa and crisp cucumber freshened-up the palate.
The sweet offerings include homemade alfajores (see my recipe here) with café ice-cream (from neighbourinos Helados Jauja), seasonal fruit ice-pops, and guava and cream cheese empanadas.
Popol Nah doesn’t siesta for brunch – check out the menu on their Facebook page for hearty selection of options to conquer a night of tequila, like eggs with chorizo and potato, Argentinian steak baguette the chimichurri and tomatoes, as well as lighter options like seasonal fruit with ginger syrup and fresh mint, and dairy-free smoothies.
Popol Nah is named after a landmark council house in Honduras, and translates roughly to ‘people’s house’. The Carlton counterpart stays true to its name – the food is for sharing, with uncomplicated, tasty offerings, and a drinks menu that lends itself to multiple courses and good times. It is a welcome splash of colour to Lygon Street.
*From time to time I’m wolfing down some of my favourite pizza at D.O.C (they also serve up some pretty fine pasta and coffeee at near-by Carlton Espresso), downing a few drinks at Little Markov, or devouring the gorgeous gelato at Pidapipo. Also, check out Good Food’s excellent guide to the best that Lygon St (Carlton and beyond) has to offer.