As the inviting dishes of tapas land on our table, a good friend and dining companion who used to live up the road reminisces about his former home town. “It was right here where, as a larrikin juvenile, I was chased out with a broom by the old Macedonian lady who owned the place for demanding back the 20-cent piece the Space Invaders machine had just taken from me,” he chuckles. “It was a convenience store-turned-snack bar and amusement arcade that attracted business from the beach and high school next door,” he explains. “This was where all the kids would hang out playing pool and pinball.”
Fast forward 35 years and the Macedonian lady still owns the property, but the pinball machines are no more. It’s now home to Café La Playa, a Spanish tapas restaurant run by Annie Ruiz and her close-knit family of sisters and friends, in the beachside southern NSW town of Port Kembla.
The family moved to Australia in 1963 from Aguilar de Campoo in northern Spain, where living conditions under General Franco were oppressive. Annie’s father, José, was a baker and her mother, Toni, worked at the famous Galletas Fontaneda biscuit factory. They arrived full of hope at Victoria’s Bonegilla migrant camp and quickly moved up to Wollongong, where José found work at Port Kembla’s thriving steel works and the family soon integrated into the town’s growing Spanish community.
Food and fiesta have always been at the heart of traditional Spanish life, and get-togethers within the community were, and still are, common. Sadly, the steel industry has died off and the main street of Port Kembla shows signs of tough times. “It’s hard to keep any business going in this area, let alone a restaurant,” responds a local when asked about the Port Kembla dining scene. “But Café La Playa has a good reputation and is held in high regard by people who live here.”
Annie opened Café La Playa in 2008 after taking a short career break to bring up her two young daughters, Savanah and Billi-Jo, who can often be seen lending a hand in the kitchen. “We were driving back from the beach one day, saw the shop was up for lease and jumped at the chance,” Annie explains.
Annie’s professional experience in the restaurant and catering profession goes back to 1986, when she started work as a kitchen hand at a busy bistro in Wollongong. This was followed by an apprenticeship, and she’s cooked at various local eateries ever since. A stint at the Wollongong Spanish Social Club kitchen, coupled with traditional culinary skills learned at home, led to a burning desire to one day open her own Spanish restaurant.
After securing two months rent-free to set up the restaurant, Annie’s husband, Bill, began remodelling the interior, fitting out the kitchen with flat grills to cater for the typically Spanish a la plancha cooking style.
“We tried a few different things at first, including cafe-style and fast food at lunch. With Bill’s knowledge of running a pizza takeaway, we even tried pizzas, but formal Spanish dining was what we did best, so we turned our attention to dinners only and that has worked out better,” explains Annie.
Out in the dining area with Spanish flamenco music setting the mood, we narrow down our selection of tapas dishes from the 15 on the menu to six -- a tough choice as they all look and sound mouth-watering. Annie’s sister, Curie, who has stepped in as waitress for the evening, brings out prawns sizzling in aromatic oil with a hint of chilli, there’s also chorizo, meatballs in spicy salsa, and vongole (clams) served in a light garlic broth. As the chargrilled octopus arrives, Annie chats about the popularity of the dish. “Customers are always asking us how we get it so tender,” she says, adding that it’s a family secret. The crispy croquettes, which come with either a creamy chicken or tuna filling, and the lightly fried calamari with tangy aioli, are also dishes worth trying.
Main courses include the ever-popular cazuela (a rich seafood dish in spicy tomato salsa) and, of course, paella. Annie points out that the only diversion from her family’s original paella recipe is a shift from cooking it with dry sherry to using white wine instead.
Like most Spanish families, paella is the highlight of get-togethers and, in the Ruiz household, everyone pitches in to make an enormous paella. Annie’s is made with prawns, fish, mussels and clams, as well as some chicken and vegetables, but each family has their own version. As she talks about its sofrito (flavour) base, one of the other cooks, Teresa Ruiz (no relation), comes out from the kitchen and, in a light-hearted barrage of staccato Spanish and excited gestures, explains the differences in her paella recipe.
Teresa is one of three cooks at Café La Playa and, like Annie, also cooked at the Wollongong Spanish Social Club. Teresa, hailing from Andalusia, and fellow cook Mercedes, who’s from Madrid, are fiercely loyal to their native regions. But in the kitchen, they meet on common ground and agree one is not better than the other – only different – and that the flavours of paella are a combination of family traditions.
“And that’s what brings diners back,” explains Annie. “Our food is simple, yet it’s the way our families have been making it for generations. The way we eat has become a big part of life. You can’t turn on the television or pick up a magazine without seeing yet another cooking show or celebrity chef. It’s all very innovative, but perhaps tradition gets lost along the way,” she continues. “The food on our menu is classic Spanish and we source the best ingredients from reliable suppliers. Most of the time, we have specials. If we’ve taken something off the menu and it gets requested, we’ll put it back on the specials board for a few nights, along with some of the other new dishes we might be experimenting with.”
Annie is upbeat about Café La Playa’s future. “I think this area will prosper again, even if we have to wait a while. As long as I have the support of my loyal customers, we’ll be here a long time.” Muy bueno!
Café La Playa, 190 Military Road, Port Kembla, NSW, (02) 4276 1818. Open evenings only Wed–Sun, 5.30–9.30pm.
Tapas around Australia
Black Bull Tapas Bar and Restaurant
Daniel Brehaut opened the award-winning Black Bull four years ago after 20 years of service in five-star hotels. While the ambience is contemporary, signature dishes include traditional favourites such as paella and Galician-style octopus, along with pork belly, morcilla and pickled cabbage and slow- cooked beef cheek. 48 Moorabool St, Geelong, (03) 5229 6100.
El Mundo Tapas Bar
Mark Schmitt runs this eatery with his partner, Carlie. After extensive travel through Spain, and a desire to replicate tapas in far north Queensland, they opened El Mundo three years ago. Classics such as patatas bravas, chorizo, croquettes and albondigas (meatballs) are popular, but it’s the monthly experiment of international themed specials from Ethiopia to Malta, that makes this place unique. 3/124 Collins Ave, Edge Hill, Cairns, (07) 4032 0550.
Legends Spanish Restaurant
Starting his career at the age of 14 in San Sebastian, owner Tony Romero has been running the show here for 16 years. Flavours are predominately Basque-influenced, with the large tapas menu featuring traditional fare such as scampi in saffron and cream, caramelised pork belly with apple cider, and duck breast with picada sauce. Also on the menu are five styles of paella. Desserts include churros and flan de nata and surtido de chocolate. 17 Franklin St, Manuka, (02) 6295 3966.
Photography Warren Clarke
As seen in Feast magazine, October 2013, Issue 25.