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The Cargo Hold (Durban, South Africa)

Our first full day in Durban was taken up doing some light sightseeing and getting a feel for the area, visiting The Kwazulu Natal Society of the Arts, the Phansi African Art Centre, and spending a nice early afternoon wandering about the expansive Durban Botanical Gardens, after a nice stroll along the Golden Mile beach (which was pleasant, but swimming was not recommended due to elevated bacteria levels from the recent major flooding), we decided to check out one of Durban’s more unique restaurants, Cargo Hold.

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Billal Cuisine (Durban, South Africa)

The next stop on our trip to South Africa was a few days spent in Durban to explore the beachfront and explore the area a bit before heading back to Johannesburg. Durban has an interesting history; it’s the third largest city in South Africa, and one of Africa’s largest ports. Now just part of the larger eThekwini municipality, it is a highly ethnically diverse city, with large Zulu, White, and Asian populations, and the metro area hosts one of the largest Indian populations outside of India. From that history, Durban has developed it’s own variety of Indian food, with one particular dish that’s become well-known: Bunny Chow. We first got turned on to bunny chow from UK chef Ottam Yottolenghi, when he did a Guardian article on the dish. It’s one of those unique fusion dishes, with a loaf of bread (usually white sandwich bread, and sold by the fraction of a load, so a “quarter Bunny” is a 1/4 of a standard loaf), hollowed out and filled with a curry of your choice. The local curries tend on the spicy-but-not-overly hot side, and it’s traditional to eat it by tearing off break and sopping up the bits of curry. There are many, many places to get Bunny Chow in the Durban area (heck, it’s pretty popular across South Africa, I saw it several times in Johannesburg, too), but they were concentrated in the suburbs. Downtown, there’s a number of well-known cafes that serve up Bunny Chow, but one of the better-reviewed ones was Billal Cuisine out by the beachfront.

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The Ocean Grill (St Lucia, kwaZulu-Natal, South Africa)

A week at Zulu Nyala Heritage Safari Lodge passed surprisingly quickly, and we soon found ourselves packed up after one last morning game drive, ready for the drive back to Durban, where we were spending a few days. Since we had most of the day available, we decided to take a bit of time getting to Durban, checking out the nearby town of St Lucia. St Lucia sits at the mouth of Big Five False Bay, and is known for both iSimangaliso Wetland Park and the large bloats of hippos in the river that occasionally ramble through the town. We weren’t around during ideal hippo viewing times, but did have a pleasant visit to Jabula Beach and Mission Rocks in the Wetland Park, and decided it was prudent to have a late lunch before the final drive down to Durban. Looking around the downtown area of St Lucia, we settled on The Ocean Grill

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Mpunyane Restaurant (Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park, kwaZulu-Natal, South Africa)

As I mentioned in the previous review of Ngweni Railroad Brewery, we did several side excursions while staying at Zulu Nyala, and one of the more enjoyable day trips was to the nearby Hluhluwe Imfolozi Reserve. Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is the oldest proclaimed nature reserve in Africa, having been established in 1895 from the former hunting reserve of King Shaka as a preservation reserve for the Southern White Rhino, and it’s a very nice reserve; in addition to having populations of all of the Big Five game animals, it also has quite a bit of scenery as well, with several high ridgelines and hilltops overlooking the Imfolozi and Hluhluwe river valleys. After a splendid morning observing sunrise, lions, and rhinos, our driver took us up to the Hilltop Camp, where we had breakfast at the Mpunyane Restaurant overlooking the valley.

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Ngweni Railroad Brewery (Hluhluwe, kwaZulu-Natal, South Africa)

After a day and a half of recovering from our long non-stop flight from the US, we took a domestic flight to Durban (on local low-cost carrier Kulula, which I actually highly recommend), and embarked on a 3.5 hour drive up to the Zulu Nyala Heritage Safari Lodge outside of Hluhluwe. Our safari visit to Zulu Nyala was configured a bit like a cruise: our visit included two daily game drives (sunrise and evening) and buffet-style meals, plus the ability to do a number of value-added excursions. Most of these were designed to take you for animal experiences beyond those of the smaller Zulu Nyala reserve, like seeing lions in the larger Manyoni reserve, a day trip to Hluhluwe National Park, or a trip into St Lucia to see the hippos. But a few of the excursions were smaller affairs that could be done during the mid-day break between the game drives, which is how we found ourselves at Ngweni Railroad Brewery.

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Olives & Plates (Hyde Park, Gauteng, South Africa)

Sometimes in our search for truly offbeat locations, Offbeat Eats finds ourselves in some interesting scenarios, like drinking Namibian beer in the back of a bookshop in a suburban shopping mall in Hyde Park, a northern suburb of Johannesburg. How we got here was an interesting story; going with friends to a charity auction for the Upper Valley Humane Society, we ended up winning a bid on a week-long safari at Zulu Nyala in kwaZulu-Natal, scheduled for April 2020. Well, we all know how 2020 turned out. Over the next two years, that trip got delayed a half-dozen times, and then more than a little drama with South Africa (riots in 2021, severe flooding in April 2022), a hotel getting sold and having to rebook, and United Airlines canceling a week’s worth of flights due to jet fuel shortage. These almost led to our May 2022 trip getting canceled. But despite all that drama, we ended up having a smooth 16 hour flight, arriving in the evening in Johannesburg and getting a driver to take us to our Johannesburg-area accommodations at the splendid Hyde Park Guest House and promptly crashing into bed. The next day, after an insightful, but historically sobering, tour of Constitution Hill, we ended up going to a quirky dinner spot that had been recommended by a fellow guest at the Guest House: Olives & Plates.

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Mon Kou (Attleboro, MA)

As I discussed in my 2018 review of House of Wu, there was a nice mid-20th century tradition toward Tiki culture, combining Americanized Chinese food and other Asian cuisine and Tiki-style cocktails in an over-the-top Polynesian theme. The result is a mix of cultural integration, cultural preservation, adaptation, preservation… as well as more than a little improvisation and occasionally appropriation, but there’s an entire two generations of Americans that grew up with this sort of joint. But while there’s been a recent resurgence in both cocktail culture and Polynesian cuisine, the last few decades haven’t been kind to a lot of these older venerable restaurants, and many in New England (Chicopee’s Hu Ke Lau, Worcester’s Ken Chin, Woonsocket’s Ho Kong, Lynnfield’s Bali Hai) have shuttered in recent years, and a few of the others like Wind Tiki in Webster, MA falling to other fates like structural fires. So it’s important to enjoy some of the places that still remain, like Mon Kou in Attleboro, MA.

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La Palapa Belga (Cancún, Quintana Roo)

Our last review in Cancún was one of the more unusual places in the Hotel Zone, La Palapa Belga. First, it’s pretty well hidden; La Palapa Belga is not on the main drag (Ave Kulkulcan), or at one of the large resorts, but instead is located behind the Hotel Imperial Laguna, one of the Hotel Zone’s smaller boutique hotels. The signage is minimal, so you have to find the Hotel Imperial, wander through the lobby to the pool area behind it, and then head for the grass-roofed palapa, with a very nice outdoor terrace looking over the lagoon (complete with crocodiles). The second unique bit is is the cuisine; as the name implies, La Palapa Belga serves… Belgian food. Yup, Belgian food. That makes it one of the more unique spots around Cancún.

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Fred’s Seafood and Raw Bar (Cancún, Quintana Roo)

One of the major dining attractions of Cancún is seafood; we really enjoyed our first night’s outing to Captain’s Cove, so when looking for another dining option, we decided that a trip to Fred’s Seafood and Raw Bar was in order. Located about a mile north on Avenue Kulkulcan from Captain’s Cove, it’s another restaurant with a pleasant terrace overlooking the lagoon, offering a seafood-centric menu with a wide variety of both raw and cooked seafood.

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Hacienda Sisal (Cancún, Quintana Roo)

For our next meal in the Hotel Zone, we decided to swing back to Mexican cuisine with a visit to Hacienda Sisal. Located at the partner resort The Royal Sands, Hacienda Sisal has a broad menu, relatively few of the surcharges for all-inclusive customers, and it was easy enough to catch the shuttle bus over there and avoid the usual taxi rigamarole. The restaurant itself is quite nice; it appears to be a converted ballroom, but it sports two large dining rooms (and possibly a third, although on our visit it appeared to have been converted to Covid-19 testing), a large bar, and live musical entertainment. Hacienda Sisal is a Mexican restaurant that’s distinctly aimed at the Hotel Zone tourists; the menu leans distinctly towards “Americanized Mexican” cuisine (for example, this is one of the few places we saw American-style fajitas on the menu) over “Authenic Mexican” or Yucatecan food, but they still had a nice cross-section of traditional moles, molcajetes, and carnitas dishes as well.

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