30 Ovens St Brunswick, VIC 3056
|Opening hours||Lunch and dinner Wed-Sun|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||0478 697 257|
In many places around the world, the best food can be found not in quiet rooms with linen-clad tables but outside, on the street, from makeshift grills or from the windows of trucks.
Even though Melbourne's culinary scene owes a great debt to immigrants from places where this is the case (Vietnam, Thailand, India), our street food scene has never really taken off. Sure, there are exceptions: some fantastic food trucks; the raucous scene on Saturday morning between the sheds at the Vic Markets; the travelling gozleme and falafel vendors who show up at festivals and neighbourhood flea markets. But makeshift dining is not our strong suit.
Which is part of why Vola Foods is such a breath of fresh air. Set in a previously empty lot in Brunswick, the bright orange shipping-container-turned-restaurant gives us a taste of what our neighbourhoods could be like if we expanded our notions of how and where we might eat.
Vola also provides an opportunity for us to expand what we eat, at least those of us who haven't yet had the pleasure of experiencing Cameroonian cuisine in the past. And a pleasure it is: the food coming out of this orange box is dynamic, filling, comforting and, at times, thrilling.
Owner Ashley Vola was born in Cameroon and raised partly in the UK and partly in Australia. A few years ago she moved back to her home country in west-central Africa, where she immersed herself in the food culture. She returned to Australia to appear on the Seven Network's cooking competition show, Plate of Origin, with her sister. When the show wrapped, she decided to make a years-long dream of owning a restaurant a reality.
Vola Foods has been operating quietly on Ovens Street since June last year, in the midst of lockdown, during which time it gained a decent takeaway trade.
Vola is building the business slowly, using more shipping containers to build toilets (which are currently usable, kind of, if you can tolerate no walls and no locking doors) and, eventually, a bar.
For now there is covered seating, a semi-outdoor barbecue where much of the food is cooked, a speaker blaring Afro Beat music, and the fantastic warmth of Vola's hospitality.
You can order using a QR code at your table, or directly from the window of the shipping container. I suggest the latter, it will give you a chance to talk with Vola about her food, get suggestions and even warnings. There isn't much "service" to speak of in the traditional sense of the word – when food is ready, Vola calls to you and you pick it up from the window – but when cooking is this personal, it's a true pleasure to talk to the cook.
There are so many things to try here that I almost neglected to order the chicken wings ($7 for three; $13.50 for six) – how exciting can chicken wings be? Very, it turns out, when spiced with Vola's secret suya spice mix. Unlike the cloying nature of many things labelled "hot and sweet", these are mellow and tangy rather than syrupy or saccharine.
Another unlikely favourite: a simple bowl of black beans ($15.50), served with puff puff – dense fried dough balls that work here like savoury doughnuts. Vola won't divulge her seasoning secrets, but she will say that she uses "many, many herbs and spices" for the beans. However she does it, it makes for an intensely comforting and incredibly filling meal (and vegan, to boot).
There are many variations of jollof rice ($15-$23), smothered in thick tomato gravy and served with vegetables, chicken, barbecued meats or all of the above.
If you come with a crowd (and you should; I easily fed six people for less than $150), be sure to order the boning fish ($37), a whole fish that's been marinated with hard-to-find Cameroonian spices, and then cooked over the charcoal grill.
Here's my greatest concern: Vola will need to survive the next few months amid the rain and cold of a Melbourne winter. (The fact that I'm worried about this goes a long way towards explaining why street food is not our city's forte.)
That takeaway trade will help, but even with space heaters and covered seating, outdoor dining is a tough sell from May to September in this city, and I worry not enough people will brave the elements and learn how special this place is. Which would be a real shame.
While I was eating at Vola, I kept imagining what this repurposed lot might be like on a summer evening, when the sun doesn't set until after 9pm, when the breeze is warm, when a crowd of people might gather at these tables. With this food, this music, some fruity cocktails and the infectious joy of Ashley Vola? What a party that would be.
Vibe: Shipping containers in a gravel lot! It's more fun than it sounds
Go-to dish: Hot and sweet chicken wings
Drinks: Soft drinks
Cost: $40 for two