Photo: Fiona Morris
"These boys have got it down,'' my mate from Alabama says, holding up a piece of fried chicken on his fork. As he waves it around, he explains how his ''mom'' cooked the dish at home, marinating the chicken in buttermilk before crumbing it.
Panama House owners Anthony Kaplan and Brent Mills, the duo behind the Corner House just down the road, brought back from their travels through Mexico and Central America a whole bunch of dishes rarely eaten here. From huevos rancheros for breakfast to jerk chicken tacos for lunch, the menu of this small bar-cum-restaurant sprawls across the American continent, with plenty of spiced-up, down-home flavours.
The lads have stripped back a narrow shopfront to expose rough-hewn brick walls and wooden beams. It has a stylish warehouse atmosphere, with polished concrete floors and industrial mood lighting.
It is a tight space with a bar along one wall and table seating down another. Wait staff whip along the narrow corridor in between. The kick-back atmosphere is enhanced by a good selection of alt-country-folk and the banter of our waiter as he gives a rundown on popcorn shrimp po' boys.
A po' boy (or poor boy), he tells us, is a humble submarine sandwich. It is traditionally a soft, white baguette with roast meat or fried seafood. The Panama House version comes with shredded iceberg lettuce, tomato salsa and chipotle mayonnaise.
We know it is going to be a spicy night when four pots of condiments arrive. Along with the safe-as-houses tomato, coriander and onion mix, there is a pineapple jelly with a nip of Scotch-bonnet chilli, a hearty bite of jalapeno salsa, and the well-named firewater - a throat-flaming mix of vinegar and five types of chilli.
Before the heat begins, we have two clean, crisp starters: rock oysters with tequila, lime and coriander jelly; and a ceviche with lime, lemon, pink grapefruit, tequila and beer dressing, with crispy ''plantains'' or banana chips. Both dishes are fresh and delicious.
The New Orleans sticky baby back ribs is, in fact, one long, meaty rib. Coated in a wonderfully sticky but not-too-sweet barbecue sauce, it is bone-pickin' good.
Carnivores should treat themselves to the hangar steak, a cut unknown here but common in New York and prized in Mexican dishes. There is only one a beast and it ''hangs'' from the diaphragm. Also known as butcher's steak (butchers apparently keep it for themselves), the thick, soft meat is grilled medium-rare and served with battered buttermilk onion rings.
The grilled market fish turns out to be mulloway, a thick steak with crispy blackened skin in a puddle of gumbo sauce (a Louisiana blend of okra, onion, sweet bell peppers and celery). There is a slice of jalapeno corn bread to mop up any precious leftover juices.
Disappointingly, the southern fried chicken's crunchy crust is overcooked and dark brown. Inside, though, the meat is tender and moist. It is topped with fried okra and served with a little jug of gravy. My friend is a happy man.
The desserts are all indulgent. And served all day. New York cheesecake or banoffee brulee for breakfast, anyone?
That's what's known as true southern comfort.
Menu Mexican, Central American, Cajun and Creole flavours.
Value Good. Tacos and po' boys, $7-$9.50; mains, $26; desserts, $12.
Recommended dishes Southern fried chicken; New Orleans ribs; grilled fish with gumbo sauce.
251 Bondi Road, Bondi, 9365 0839
Daily. Breakfast, 7am-1pm; lunch, noon-3pm; dinner, 5pm-late. Licensed.
- Cuisine - Mexican
- Prices - Tacos and po' boys $7-$9.50, Mains $26, Dessert $12
- Features - Licensed
- Opening Hours - Breakfast 7am-1pm, Lunch 12pm-3pm, Dinner 5pm-late
- Author - Lynne Dwyer