We're halfway through lunch when the Westpac chopper swoops in over the lines of boiling surf and then drops from view. A few minutes later, as we're tucking into sardines, mulloway and flathead, three burly blokes dressed in overalls and wetsuits wander in, sit down, and order rolls and coffee to go.
Eat your heart out Bondi Rescue.
Bombora, the kiosk-plus-deck that nudges into the sand dune above Goolwa Beach, is the real deal. While the eateries that face the quietly lapping waters of Gulf St Vincent might have better wine lists and more padding on their seats, Bombora captures the rough-and-ready beach culture Australians hold dear.
This is seaside dining for people who prefer a rickety shack to a glass palace; a sea breeze to climate control; thongs to boat shoes; and a pine-lime Splice to panna cotta.
Bombora is still a kiosk at heart and dispenses take-away food, soft drinks and ice creams to a steady stream of sandcastle builders, surfers and cockle collectors. But you can also sit down to some of the most enjoyable seafood you'll find anywhere.
Owner Olaf Hansen is a surfer at heart (the specials are written on one of his old boards) and came to this wild stretch of beach after selling Aquacaf, the little eatery he started on the river's edge a short drive away. Chef and now co-owner Joel Cousins is another surfer. Perhaps it is their connection to the water that has helped nurture relationships with local fishermen to get access to some of the best catch not long after it hits land.
So rather than the usual barramundi flown in from up north, here there is mulloway, a beautiful fillet of pure white, delicate meat, with a light crust from a short time on the grill. A chunky salsa of mango, cucumber, tomato and (too much) red onion is strewn over the top and there's also a heap of chips and salad with a balsamic dressing that could be toned back a few notches.
It's not a huge piece of fish, and the presentation is straight out of the pub handbook with everything piled on top of the chips, but for $26 it's good value.
A nicoise-style salad of sardines is more of a looker, with fillets fried to the mahogany colour of an inveterate beach bum, egg, potatoes, beans and strips of prosciutto all tumbled together on a rectangular plate. The dish is top-notch (particularly for $16.50) and the sunny, salty flavours work well together.
A big bowl of whitebait turns the fish into chips - the little critters golden and crunchy but still tasting of the sea.
They make a great nibble with a dip of aoli or squeeze of lemon. And strips of flathead fillet in a beer batter are further evidence that the variety makes gold medal fish and chips.
All this written in chalk up on Olaf's surfboard - along with the Goolwa Super Bowl of cockles, prawns and fish in a pernod broth I've enjoyed on a previous visit, and Coorong mullet with garlic butter - but there is also a standard menu including fish and chips, an excellent burger and selection of baguettes.
We finish with a large wedge of a custard-filled cake topped with thin slices of cinnamon-dusted apple. The recipe is Olaf's mum's, but I don't think she'd have approved of it being zapped in the microwave so the custard is hotandcold. Still, at $5 it's only a skerrick more to buy than the Magnums the boys are eating.
For holiday-makers on the South Coast, I can't think of anywhere better to celebrate what our beaches are all about.
HOW IT RATED
- FOOD 30/40
- STAFF 7/10
- DRINK 5/10
- VALUE 17/20
- X FACTOR 17/20
Bombora's nicoise salad with sardine fillets; Superbowl of cockles, prawns, scallops and fish in a pernod broth.