AMONG the slew of new eateries popping up in Melbourne, Pepper Lunch has generated quite a bit of a sizzle. Carene Chong tucks in.
After months of hype and one Facebook take-a-picture-with-our-banner-and-win-a-free-meal promotion later, which I shamelessly participated in (anything for free food!), the first Victorian Pepper Lunch opened its doors.
For the uninitiated, Pepper Lunch is a fast food franchise that originated from Japan and is quickly becoming a global favourite. It has restaurants in South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Sydney, Perth, and now Melbourne.
I live just a stone’s throw away from the new Melbourne eatery, so I’ve witnessed every single stage of its development from the demolition of what used to be a motorcycle accessory shop to the opening of the spanking new restaurant.
Suffice to say, when I heard it was finally opening its doors, I was like a proud relative impatient to get a good look at the baby. To add to the hype, the restaurant’s soft opening day was just a week away from Christmas and came with a generous 50 per cent off everything promo.
On that day, a queue of hungry bargain hunters formed outside the door before the clock had even struck 6pm. A large LCD TV was positioned above the entrance playing a looping demo video on how to enjoy your Pepper Lunch meal, which only made the wait even more painful.
After a good 30 minutes in the queue, my partner and I were finally greeted by a cheerful staff member behind the cashier.
When it comes to menu offerings, customers are spoilt for choice with everything ranging from kimchi beef to curry chicken, and premium steak cuts to salmon. For those who want more bang for their buck or have a bigger appetite than others, there are meals that combine two meat cuts in one plate. So you can get steak and salmon, salmon and chicken, and so on.
We opted for the signature steak dishes – a cheese hamburger meal for me and a Tokusen rib eye steak for the boyfriend.
While there was ample sitting space, the furniture was arranged a little too tightly, leading to plenty of awkward “sorry’s” and “excuse me’s” from customers trying to weave their way around fellow diners to get to their tables.
Oh, and a note about the noise. It’s definitely not the place to be if you’d like somewhere peaceful and quiet to enjoy your meal. The staff were banging chairs around, shouting out their welcomes and thank you’s in Japanese in the most unruly fashion.
But the whole attraction of this joint is that your meal is served on a hot sizzling plate and you play a part in cooking your food, either mixing the meat and rice together or cooking your steak on your hot plate.
For an optional $3.95, you get either a serve of rice or chips and your choice of either miso soup or a soft drink.
Kudos to the Pepper Lunch team, our meals arrived in less than 15 minutes despite the horde of hungry customers.
The Tokusen rib eye was a delight to eat. It’s surprising how a tiny dollop of garlic butter atop the steak can add so much flavour to the dish. Our meal also came with a small side of veggies, which you can opt to cook along with the meat to make a complete meal with some rice.
To add some extra zing to your meal, reach for one (or both) of the sauce bottles available on every table – choose between garlic soy or sweet sauce.
For the cheese hamburger meal, I liked the way the cheese melted into the meat when you turned the patty over. A side of bean sprouts, peas and egg accompanied by good old rice made it a wholesome meal.
A few days later, I visited Pepper Lunch a second time to redeem my free meal offer.
This time, I ordered the beef pepper rice. To make the most of your experience, you need to follow some simple rules. Mix as quickly and as thoroughly as you can.
While delicious and rather peppery (an ode to their restaurant’s namesake perhaps?), I found the paper thin slices of beef cooked very quickly on the hot plate, which stays heated even after some time. Some of the beef was therefore overcooked by the time I got to it.
But all in all, the meals we had were flavoursome, albeit not extraordinary.
Worth a mention are portion sizes and the issue of price.
Those used to Aussie-sized portions would probably find the servings at Pepper Lunch small by comparison. While I was satiated at the end of my meal, it wasn’t so for my boyfriend who has a pretty hearty appetite.
The prices may also be a barrier for students on a tight budget. While we enjoyed discounts and paid just $10 each on our visit, an average meal at Pepper Lunch would set you back by around $20, which could go a long way elsewhere, without compromising on taste.
That said, for a “hot plate experience”, it could be considered affordable since you’d be forking out in excess of $30 to dine at higher end restaurants like Ishiya Japanese Stone Grill Steakhouse in the city.