168 Grey Street South Brisbane, Queensland 4101
I haven't been to the US for at least a decade but I can still taste the coffee. Which is why I couldn't stop an involuntary shudder when I was offered a "bottomless cup" from a filter-coffee jug at Brisbane's newest American eatery.
With a menu offering at least five of the 10 or so essential eats from the 2013 hot food list – wings, ribs, sliders, tacos and hot dogs – I predict it's going to be a long, busy summer for the freshly opened South Side Diner.
Letting the stereotypes run wild, I had mentally prepared myself for wait staff with braces and badges displaying clever quotes. On rollerskates, maybe. And a jukebox playing Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run. But South Side, in an oddly shaped space between Little Stanley and Grey streets at South Bank, has been put together with admirable restraint. Apart from the name there are other recognisably American references – wire baskets of sauce and mustard on the table, pop-art on the walls, chrome bar stools, and yes, filter coffee – but it has been done cleverly enough to avoid becoming a Disney diner. In place of stars and stripes kitsch, the decor is based around a palate of retro pastels, blond wood and a polished concrete floor, with bi-fold windows opening onto the breezeway and outdoor tables. The only element I'm not sure about are the long (but admittedly very comfortable) booths which become communal depending on the size of the party. How does it work if you're sitting with a bunch of strangers and you need to leave? A bit like sitting in a window seat of an airplane, I'd imagine, in a row of five.
The solution is probably to come with a group, which is also a nifty way to taste your way through the menu.
Because just as surprising as the coffee (in a choice of single origin or reserve blend) is the food. It's good. Not in a fatty, salty, subdue-a-hangover way either. And portions are so generous that after lunch I wasn't able to eat until breakfast the next morning.
Soliciting the advice of our American waiter, we order a selection to share. Of everything, the Reuben sandwich was probably the only disappointing dish. It just didn't have enough attitude. The sauerkraut wasn't tangy enough, the pastrami not salty enough and the bread didn't have a lot of flavour. At the other end of the satisfaction scale was the beef rib. As another American acquaintance recently pointed out to me it's pork, not beef, that's traditional, but frankly when it's this good, who cares? Fat, juicy, tender, sweet; the rib (a large, single one) had been generously anointed with a maple syrup and pink peppercorn glaze that permeated through the meat instead of just sitting on the surface. It is one of, if not the best, beef ribs I've ever eaten and I hope sometime to successfully wrest the recipe from the chef.
By the way, be warned. Eating here can get messy, but South Side has prepared for sticky fingered situations; a little tray is brought to our table with what look like two peppermints on it, over which the waiter pours water from a jug. Et voila, the "peppermints" swell and grow and turn into damp napkins, perfect for cleaning rib glaze and sweet potato chip fat from fingers. And speaking of sweet potato chips, they are very hard to resist, even when you're stuffed to dolly's wax. They have been given a little coating of something to coax them to crispness in the deep fryer then served with chipotle mayonnaise. The tacos are also worth risking stained clothes and embarrassing smears on faces. They are soft, although they seem to have been briefly crisped in oil before being generously stuffed full of pulled pork and fresh, crisp lettuce (iceberg – yay!), as well as finely diced tomato with a mild banana-chilli garnish.
It's going to take a few visits to work our way through the menu, but we've put Deano's duck burger, Buffalo wings, the smoked bourbon hot dog and a posh mac and cheese with truffled pecorino on our must-try list for the future.
Ditto drinks; with less of a focus on wine and more on cocktails we're coming back to try a sherbet Margarita (tequila, elderflower, sherbet, lemon and agave nectar) and perhaps an "adults only" shake. There are also imported sodas and a nice range of beer and cider.
Despite much "you have it/no, you have it" to-ing and fro-ing, we couldn't manage to eat the last mouthful of peanut butter pie with chocolate fudge sauce – cold, smooth and utterly delicious – but we'll be back for it and to try the cherry pie.
South Bank Diner has nailed it – a cool decor, staff who are friendly without "have a nice day" insincerity, and best of all they've managed to take some classic American dishes and improve them substantially by using less fat, sugar and better produce. They've even lifted American-style filter coffee to something drinkable.
Wham! Pow! – Take that America!