One Night in Wollongong

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Much like Newcastle to the north of Sydney, Wollongong in the South doesn’t often get a great deal of play with tourists and locals alike. In fact, were it not for the Newcastle Knights playing a game there a few years ago, I’d never have been down to NSW’s other steel city (the first being Newcastle) prior to Friday night’s festivities.

The cause for this weekend’s visit? My old friend Stuart and his girlfriend Laura were planning to celebrate their birthdays in Laura’s hometown. It was a bit of a reunion for our motley crew of high school goofs – with Magro from Art of Conversations and my best mate, Dave also in attendance for the festivities. I left work at 5pm and was on the 5.25 train down to Wollongong, prepared for the two hour ride with my iPhone for entertainment and hoping to get some much needed sleep along the way.

Dinner for the evening was at Amigos. I’d never heard of this particular Mexican restaurant, but friends who had been there in the past seemed inordinantly excited when I mentioned I was headed there. The locals seem to treat Amigos with a kind of mystic awe, and as I weaved my way through its maze like interior to find my friends upon arrival – the crowd of diners certainly indicated the place had a great reputation amongst locals.

We sat outdoors, which sounds like a death sentence given the recent cold snap, but heaters meant that we were able to enjoy the quaint gardens without any risk to our health. Well, no more than the risk I was taking by exposing my lactose intolerance to cheese and sour cream laden food for an evening.

I’ll say this up front – Amigos is not cheap. The average main course sits between $25 and $30. Desserts are more affordable at the sub $10 mark, and there’s a very affordable litre of beer that my friend Dave was quite excited about. Beer officianados will be pleased to know that the whole range of Mexican beers are on hand – and I’m not just talking about Corona and Dos Equis either. There are sangria jugs, a variety of wines, and the typical selection of expensive cocktails as well.

The birthday boy enjoys a delicious buritto in all of his pimp finery. Photo by Anthony Magro.

There’s an almost dizzying array of foods on offer. From traditional Mexican recipes to the more accessible Tex-Mex selection. But when a humble burrito weighs in at $24 – you find yourself scouring the menu for a bargain rather than getting that frijole burrito you’d been daydreaming about all day at work. I ended up settling on a mixed plate that came with fantastic fiesta chicken, plenty of beans and salad, a chili, and a pretty unappetizing beef taquito.

While I ploughed through that in record time – my mate Magro polished off the ominously named Moctazuma’s Mountain – a towering combination of beef, chicken, corn chips, jalapeno, and cheese that was more than a little intimidating to behold. While Magro made short work of his mountain, I saw at least one other diner surrender to its size and send back plenty of leftovers.

Our entertainment for the evening were the reactions of people around the table as they tried the various kinds of hot sauce on hand. Even Dave, a man who seemed to have unfailing confidence in his ability to stomach spicy food, cried out in girlish agony as he met his match. With red rimmed eyes and plenty of coughing, I doubt he actually tasted any of his meal as he tried desperately to douse the flames in the back of his throat with everything at the table. He even tongued sour cream right from the bowl.

Full but not yet ready to call it an evening, we ordered up some drinks and dessert. I’ve put myself into a kind of Dry July, but did indulge in a Tequila Mockingbird – a tequila sunrise with passionfruit liqueur and passionfruit pulp in place of grenadine. Not a bad drop at all.

Dessert was an entirely more decadent affair. Every single local I’d spoken to had recommended the banana and chocolate chimichanga and they weren’t wrong! Full of chocolate sauce and banana and served up with a side of vanilla ice cream and toffee – the $9.90 dessert is almost a meal on its own. Definitely worth a visit even if you’re not a fan of Mexican cuisine.

Absolutely mouthgasmic banana and chocolate chimichanga. Photo by Anthony Magro.

My experience, while pricey, was entirely positive. The staff were friendly, the food was mostly excellent, and the atmosphere was great. I’ll definitely be heading back to Amigos next time I’m in town.

From Amigos it was time to hit up the Wollongong night life, and I began to regret my Dry July commitment as those around me went from jolly to drunk in record time. Still, I had a good night.

Our first port of call was the aptly named Grand Hotel. While it was a little quiet, I really dug the vibe of the place. We entered through a pool hall, passed by an arcade with a few games for drunken revelers, and settled into some comfortable couches in the lounge area. I had originally planned to skip out of town on the 11.30 train, but Dave cunningly distracted me with video bowling and an aborted attempt at House of the Dead.  The arcade has definitely fallen prey to the depredations of drunks over time.

Just as I was starting to enjoy the Grand, it was time to head off on a lengthy walk to the Harp. The locals informed me that the place was ‘Cougar Town’ and they weren’t far wrong. It’s not often a group of 27 and 28 year old guys still feel like the young whipper-snappers at the bar.

Our time at The Harp wasn’t bad at all. It was definitely an interesting experience to be out at a bar sober. It’s not something I’ve done in recent memory. People watching definitely offered up the best form of entertainment for me, and the karaoke was a mixture of the terrible and a few talented people who hogged the microphone. One girl got in four songs before Dave finally went up to the DJ and complained that we’d been waiting over three hours for our chance to sing. I’ve actually never encountered a worse pair of karaoke DJs. Nice guys, but bloody hopeless when it came to keeping things moving.

Dave and Stu tear up the dancefloor. I'm not drunk enough for this shit. Photo by Laura Simpson.

When we finally did sing – we brought the house down. Between my ‘Tribute’ and Magro’s ‘What About Me’, there were back slaps all round. We also got just a little star-struck when we realized that State of Origin players Brett Morris and Ben Creagh were on hand to cheer on their teammate Jon Green as he butchered Daryl Braithwaite’s ‘The Horses’. Good times.

With 3am fast approaching and the veritable sea of cougars reduced to a small herd of wilderbeast, it was time to call it an evening. With no trains until the morning, Dave and I opted to take a room at the very fairly priced Kiera View hostel. We got in late and left early, so I can’t attest to the facilities overmuch, but $20 for a comfortable bed isn’t a bad deal at all. The courtyard also looked like it’d be a fantastic place to while away a sunny day. There was no shortage of hardwood chairs covered in cushions for lolling about in the sun, but we had a train to catch so there was no time for such indulgences.

I left Wollongong sans hangover and with a newfound appreciation of the place. I daresay I’ll be back again sometime soon.

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