Popol Nah

171 Lygon St
Carlton, VIC 3053
03 9347 3293

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There aren’t that many gems along the touristy stretch that’s Lygon St… full of large, apronned, moustachioed waiters trying to lure you to dine at their (mostly crappy) Italian restaurants. A diamond in the rough is hard to find, although I find myself being quite partial towards Helados Jauja, Koko Black and maybe D.O.C. Espresso.

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All that said, Popol Nah popped up on this stretch earlier this year, and from the interior (and lack of doorway touts), you can already tell it’s different from the rest of the restaurants. Plus the focus is on Latin American food, as opposed to “Shitalian”… on it went onto my restaurant wishlist.

Months later, I pounced on a Groupon offer for a Seven Course Latin Degustation (including Sangria) priced at $95 for four persons. That’s how Fatbee and I ended up here a few weeks ago with Lorena and Jerri. A long overdue catchup with his friends, if I might add.

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Red Wine Sangria

I think that group social voucher meals can be a little hit and miss. Sure you’re getting a heckuva discount out of it, but quite often the restaurants participating in it tends to treat you like they’re herding cattle. On this front, I’ll have to say that Popol Nah did none of that. The staff were friendly, attentive, humorous and professional even though they knew right from the start we were embarking on a voucher deal. And they were this way right off the bat from the moment we entered, before my camera even appeared.

We started off with a glass of Sangria each, with a choice of red wine or white wine Sangria. All of us went with red, which came nice with rich and rounded flavours. In retrospect, I should’ve asked for the white wine Sangria just out of curiosity.

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Empanada vegetarian – chickpea, sweet potato and silverbeet in baked pastry with crema fresca

And so our meal began… it has certainly taken me more than a year to get over my phobia of South American fare from my trip to Peru, Chile and Argentina. Peruvian food, in particular, is damn scary (and gassy)… where a meal can consist of rice, corn AND potatoes all on the one plate, served alongside with quinoa, beans and other grains. Yeeks!

The first course consisted of vegetarian empanadas with a mild push of paprika inside. It was pretty interesting that the accompanying dipping ‘sauce’ was a dollop of fresh cream!

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Anafre de chorizo – cheese fondue, chorizo and corn chips

Next came cheese fondue scattered with deep fried chorizo crumbs and a serve of housemade corn chips. Please take note that all of the serves you’re seeing in this blog post are shared between two persons.

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It was a fun and stretchy dish. I liked how milky the cheese was, and it stayed that way because of the really hot cast iron dish it sat in. My only gripe was how the scatter of chorizo crumbs pushed the salt levels a bit too high for my liking.

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Albondigas – lamb and beef meatballs in a tomato sofrito

The third dish consisted of firm, peppery meatballs with blushingly pink insides. I really enjoyed the comforting red sauce that it sat in, and the tangy pieces of pineapple salsa on top gave it a nice lift.

Popol Nah Carlton 2879Pollo con adobo – fresh baked chicken breast in adobo with vegetables

Our mains came as baked chicken breast in adobo sauce. I’d always thought that adobo was a Filipino stew, but Wikipedia tells me that as a sauce, it’s a different thing that’s of Spanish origin. This adobo sauce tasted like it had briefly cooked peppers, jalapeños and paprika in it and I enjoyed how light it tasted.

The roasted pumpkin and zucchini had a nice chargrilled caramelisation to it, but sadly, the chicken breast itself was on the firm and dry overcooked side.

Popol Nah Carlton 1Patatas bravas – potatoes with tomato sauce and aioli
Ensalada de vegetables – shredded zucchini, kale, cucumber and pickled vegetables

By this point, we were pretty stuffed, but here’s the sides that came with our mains. A serve of twice cooked potatoes that could’ve been a bit less salty and less soggy… nice tomato sauce on top of it though. And a vegetable salad of lightly marinated kale with zucchini, accompanied with pickled beans, carrots and cauliflower.

I liked the kale and zucchini component of the salad because it wasn’t overdressed. However, we left that pile of sour sour pickles alone, as we’d all grown accustomed to the spicy-fragrant Malaysian variant (with chillies, sesame seeds et. al.) that’s called achar.

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Arroz en leche – rice pudding, caramel, banana

For sweets, we had rice pudding along with our choice of coffee, teas or chai. We all went with the same thing – soy chai, and they served it with a little bowl of agave syrup to sweeten it with. The rice pudding was a good dessert, although I found it odd how the actual rice in it was a bit crunchy.

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A few of the dishes here could be improved on, but overall this teaser degustation at Popol Nah had many highlights and it was a delightful spread of Latin American-inspired dishes. The ambience and service was excellent too.

I think this place is a good example of a group social voucher deal done correctly. Treat your customers well, tease us with good food and give us a good overall experience. Do that we’ll end up wanting to come back to sample more of the menu. On this front, Fatbee wants to come back to try the beef short ribs in broth and the slow cooked lamb shanks, while I’m keen on having a South American brunch of huevos rancheros or bocadillos here.

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