I THOUGHT I had just walked into a scene from the movie Deliverance. I am greeted by a picture of a large black pig amid a haze of hickory-scented smoke bellowing from the outside smoker which was imparting flavoured carbon goodness to various meaty delights within its steel coffin.
Moving inside to the bar area there, standing before me where pole dancers used to gyrate under a disco ball, was a wooden cheetah kept company by a nearby stuffed bear. It seemed a bit odd – the animals didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the Bayou backwater swamp come retro club theme which mesmerised us after the fog of the hickory smoke lifted but the bear was a handsome beast and stood proud as a stuffed animal can.
Not so long ago Oxford Tavern wasn’t the place you would go for a decent feed (of food). With a neon sign flashing “girls, girls, girls” throughout the wee hours of the morning, it was the kind of place that Sinatra would go to for a late night swill to be among bucks parties and “dirty old men types” ogling pole dances, strippers and jelly wrestlers while being served by barmaids with not much on. But one could feel safe as the local Police station is directly across the road (and possibly in pre Wood Royal Commission days The Oxford served as a “lunch room”).
The Petersham pub has thrown out the jelly wrestling tubs and while that infamous neon sign and the stainless steel dancing polls are still there it has been transformed into a groovy retro-themed pub serving micro brew beer served by guys that look as if they have come out of a truck stop on Route 66 and some pretty decent food inspired by Southern US BBQ revolutionaries and Tex-Mex rancheros.
It is now somewhere where you can go to without getting a raised eyebrow from the Mrs if you tell her you’re just going to have a quick skewy at The Oxford.*
I attended The Oxford for lunch with some colleagues after a nearby work-related site visit and if you like meat and smoke and BBQ then The Oxford is the place for you.
Inside you could be forgiven if you think you are dining in Albuquerque or, if you choose a table outdoors, in a South Carolina or Tennessee BBQ house where the smoker billows away quietly in a corner. The menu features pub meals with a twist and some American BBQ and Tex-Mex-inspired delights such as a cheeseburger ($5); chook san chou bow ($15); popcorn squid ($16); fries from $8; and then there’s five styles of tacos for $5.50 each (fried pork belly; Baja fish; Asudo short rib, BBQ Chicken and fried avocado).
On weekends they sell a variety of smoked BBQ meats per 100g until it is all gone.
It’s not all meat, there are a items for non-carnivores such as BBQ corn with a Creole mayo, popcorn and chips ($8), and buffalo cauliflower balls with hot sauce and blue cheese sauce ($14).
But it is the $10 lunch menu that is the eye-opener and was the talk of the table and the reason that we will be back (and we can’t wait). The lunch menu is available Monday to Friday from noon to 3pm and features 19 of the main menu items – BBQ pork roll; a stadium double dawg, hickory burger, Dino’s Charcoal Chicken and much more.
Thankfully the six of us all ordered something different so we could all get a feel for what The Oxford could do.
Signorina Prada (aka La Fille avec le Téléphone d’Opale), ordered the Stadium Double Dawg – a grilled hot dog that looked as if it was over half a metre long and dressed with corn relish, onions, mustard and tomato sauce and came with a side of chunky fries (which we picked at while Signorina was out on the phone for the second time). You can also get it as a chilli double dawg.
Signorina described it as excellent but:
“. . . has created issues regarding the fit of my jeans. I didn’t realise a “double dawg’ meant, quite literally, a hot dog double the size of a regular one. The brioche bun was a nice touch, and the corn relish was a cunning foil to the fat overload of a 60 centimeter long hot dog. It’s the type of meal that would be perfect to split between three kids with the promise of a “Jelly Wrestle” dessert to follow …”
More about the jelly wrestle later.
Heracles is usually a man of many words (he is, after all a contract lawyer), but when asked about his meal made this unusually direct comment:
“The steak was delicious but a little small for a man size appetite – however when coupled with the chicken salad – it was sensational – and for a combined total of $20, exceptional value!”
Obviously the plain English drafting seminar wasn’t lost on Heracles.
Next up was Me Julie’s meal. Being of Balkan origin, Me Julie can’t go past a nice crumbed and fried piece of meat. All the American style, NATO-inspired stuff on the menu wasn’t to her appetite and so she ordered the chicken schnitzel with a parma sauce (you could also choose natural, Mexican or Hawaiian). What arrived was a large piece of flattened chook, golden fried and covered in a vibrant tomato sauce layered with dripping melted cheese with a side of chunky chips. All that was missing for Me Julie was a serve of cabbage and a bottle of home-made rakia. There’s no photo because in true Balkan tradition once food appears on the table it should be immediately devoured in case:
1. You offend your host,
2. The guy/gal next to you polishes off his/her’s and eyes off yours (which may mean you have to fight him/her to the death with any utensil you can get your hands on if he/she goes for it) and,
3. A colleague might take a picture of you eating something that your trainer will hold against you.
Me Julie is more expressive than Heracles when it comes to describing her meal:
“Moist chicken encased in a delicious and crunchy crumb which was topped with a mouth-watering parmigiana sauce that just melted in your mouth. The meal was a thumbs up for me.”
Thankfully no one died in the eating of the schnitzel.
The Apprentice, as you may recall, is a man with a little tummy. He shies away from meals bigger than a 20 cent piece (that’s just over the size of an American quarter). He ordered the hickory-smoked pulled pork roll much to my amazement (I guess it was to impress upon Heracles who The Apprentice has a self-admitted man crush on). He stepped up to the challenge and devoured his pork-filled bun with ferocity. To everyone’s surprise he then enthusiastically declared that he was up to the task of sharing the Oxford’s signature dessert – the jelly wrestle – with his colleagues. Me Julie was more concerned that he may start eyeing off her half-eaten schnitzel and would have to fight him for it (sans jelly).
The Apprentice liked The Oxford and he liked the fact that one of the bar staff resembled what he would look like if he ventured out of The Appalachians (or Camden), wearing a trucker cap. He felt at home (even if that was 56.4km away):
“This place is designed for blokes. While the glory days of jelly wrestling may be gone, there remains a focus on out-of-date decor, good booze and meat. With this in mind, I opted for the BBQ Pork Roll. The smell of the meat smoker out the back of the pub made me crave a decent serving of pig, so I couldn’t go past the first item on the menu. After suffering an initial bout of food envy as I watched the mouth-watering meals of others being delivered, I was finally presented with a roll that properly looked like it had been prepared by a bloke at the pub. The burger came on one of those old school soft buns which was filled with a large helping of juicy BBQ Pork with just the right amount of garlic mayo and chilli. This alone was magnificent, but on the second bite came the flavour of a juicy pineapple ring, which even further improved what was already one tasty burger. Served with a decent portion of chips in one of those vintage chocolate-brown wooden serving bowls that everyone’s mum had back in the 80s, this will clearly be remembered as probably the best $10 lunches I have enjoyed.”
Mr Burns likes charcoal (so much he has been known to throw the odd lawyer into the fire), and so he ordered Dino’s charcoal chicken with rice and beans. In my opinion it looked as if this was going to be the pick of the meals as it smelt incredible (even Me Julie seemed as if she might fight him to the death for the leftover bones). Old Man Burns told me:
“After overcoming the doubt sown by some discouraging questioning of my choice by Heracles on the basis that it could only be a quarter chicken for $10, I was pleased I stuck to my guns when I received a large half chicken, dressed with a spicy tomato based sauce, together with lightly toasted flat bread and generous sides of both rice and beans and a slaw-based salad. The chicken was perfectly cooked, juicy and tender. The picante sauce was completed by the pepper and paprika in the slaw salad and tempered by the rice and beans. It was sensational value and motivated me to begin planning a return visit with family in tow as many other options on the menu sounded just as good.”
Out it came in a foil covered basket. It contained a moist, hickory-smoke flavoured, lean pattie with a strip of bacon topped with cheese, tomatoes, dill pickles and hallelujah . . . . . . . .mustard! It was all served up on a fresh soft bun. This is what a burger should be – not too complex or saturated with condiments. An excellent burger and fries were not an optional extra (like in other establishments). It would receive a mighty “Yee Ha!” in the Lone Star State.
A dab of El Yucateco chilli sauce or smoky Tabasco from the bottles on the tables was an excellent addition (if you want Tex Mex then that needs to include such condiments so 10 out of 10 to The Oxford).
Finally we were lucky enough to be able to order the Jelly Wrestle ($20) which isn’t usually on the lunch menu. The Jelly Wrestle is a huge wooden platter of four different flavoured jellies with ice cream, caramel popcorn and wafers all topped with chocolate and raspberry sauce and whipped cream. A couple of glace cherries make a feature too.
The dessert doesn’t come with cutlery – you done latex gloves and go in scooping out as much as you can eat.
We had to remind Me Julie that the ‘wrestle’ in the name was to do with an activity that used to occur at The “old”Oxford and not a declaration to fight over the dessert with the winner taking all (this didn’t stop her from keeping a fork at the ready).
At The Oxford we wrestled and we scoffed, and like it was like for those patrons during the halcyon days of The Oxford we left with cheeky grins on our faces.
*Note: a “skewy” is Australian slang for a “schooner of beer” and is not a reference to certain acts dramatised or suggested in the movie Deliverance.
The verdict: With 19 $10 lunch time options, smoked meats, a hot dog a long as an elephant’s tail, dancing poles, good beer and a dessert called the “Jelly Wrestle” served up by wild men in trucker hats what more could you ask for from a pub?
What: Oxford Tavern, 1 New Canterbury Rd, Petersham NSW 2049 Australia. Web: http://www.theoxfordtavern.com.au
Ate there: June 2014.