Proud locals might not want the rest of us to know it, but Melbourne's western suburbs hide some of the city's most obscure cheap-eating gems. You want the most authentic, affordable ethnic eats in town? You got it. From tibs to dosa, banh cuon to znoud, the west is best, and this weekend's inaugural food awards, The Westies - Dishes of Distinction, are set to highlight the area's top dishes.
When it comes to unearthing the west's hotspots, long-time local bloggers Lauren Wambach of Footscray Food Blog, and Consider the Sauce's Kenny Weir are royals.
Between them, they've chalked up almost 1000 blog posts, boast a collective social media following of more than 4000 fans and, since launching in 2009, their respective blogs have become a haven for legions of overwhelmed new arrivals, culturally blinkered locals and ethno-epicurious outsiders.
They sometimes get stopped in the street, too. "Not that we're really into all that," says Weir, a long-time Yarraville resident. "The good thing about the west is you can still embrace your inner bogan and we just do what we do [blogging] because we love it," he says. Wambach agrees wholeheartedly. "I'd still eat out this much even if I wasn't blogging about it - it's just how I am," she says. "It's just a good thing that eating out is so affordable on this side of town."
Covering turf around Spotswood, Sunshine and ''Snorbens'' (westie patois for St Albans), with an inner boundary of the Tullamarine Freeway, Wambach and Weir's blogs have shunned any of the highbrow pretence or trend-chasing of the food-blogging genre. They are widely respected for skipping the rice-paper rolls and trying lesser-know menu items such as pork belly in coconut juice or black pepper mackerel.
This year, the duo decided to pool their palates, passion and local knowledge to stage the first annual western suburbs food awards - honouring what they declare to be their top three dishes of the year.
According to Wambach, "The awards will celebrate three dishes each year, chosen as excellent representatives of what's great about western suburbs food." The rigorous selection process will take into account "taste, consistency, pricing, and a sense of uniqueness or tradition".
When we agree to meet for lunch, the pair elects Sunshine's delightfully kitsch Afghan Master Kebab. We make like suburban kings on a beer budget with generous platters of smoky, cumin-infused lamb kebabs, juicy spiced chicken and chewy Afghan-style naan bread. Totalling around $15 a head, it's a classic west-side feast, and precisely the type of experience The Westies aim to highlight.
"We're hoping the initiative is not perceived merely as a matter of winners and losers, but is seen more broadly as a celebration of the food culture of the western suburbs and of the people who create it," Wambach says.
When pressed for opinions on where's best for what in the west, a gentle banter invariably ensues; be it Vietnamese banh xeo or Ethopian kitfo, you can bet your arepa these guys have tried it.
"To give you an idea, the contenders may include sub-continental burgers, eastern European street food, handmade noodles or any number of multicultural riffs on rice," says Wambach. And of the winning dish? "I've eaten it at least five times and, I can tell you, it's that good."
The Westies - Dishes of Distinction award winners will be announced at the combined Footscray Food Blog/Consider the Sauce Spring Picnic at Yarraville Gardens, Somerville Road, Yarraville on Saturday, November 30. Picnic starts 11am, awards will be announced at noon.