Behind Bars: Mongrel

May 29, 2023, by Mick Wust

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Behind Bars: Mongrel

When Gabs, Henry and Annie first called their business Mongrel, I wonder if they knew they’d need the tenacity of a tough mutt that could survive any circumstances.

A week after the 2022 floods put their street underwater and caused a week-long blackout that kept away customers and caused them to lose their fresh ingredients, Mongrel posted on their Facebook page: “Definitely not what we needed after the last 2 years… but we're so lucky to have stayed dry. We've been open longer in a pandemic than out of it but we'll be slingin' salchipapas and pisco sours until the ground opens up and swallows us whole.”

The ground hasn’t swallowed them yet, and when I rocked up to Mongrel for this article, there was a buzz of creative excitement in the air. The team – or, I suppose, the collective noun for mongrels is probably "pack" – were planning the menu for an upcoming degustation. With all the postponed and cancelled events of the last few years, this was only the second degustation they’d held since COVID first hit in 2020 (they managed to squeeze one into a window of opportunity in 2021).

“We’re all waking up from hibernation,” Annie says, her fringe died pink and tiny chef’s knives dangling from her ears. “There’s all these exciting things to start doing.”

In these post-pandemic and price-hiked times, it’s hard for hospitality venues to put on events, since they’re not sure if people will come to them or not. Annie and I talked about how it’s similar to when you want to ask someone out, but aren’t sure what their response will be.

“I’ve been hurt before!” Annie laughs, referring to events they’ve had to cancel over the past couple of years. “It’s tricky. It’s a gamble. COVID’s everyone’s toxic ex.”

 

Mongrel's dining events are known for their creative menus, and get packed out.
Mongrel's dining events are known for their creative menus, and get packed out.

 

Now, three years after we all learned the C-word, Annie says they’ve finally just had a couple of months of business that was steady. Not busy, but steady.

“That’s the first time it’s been any kind of sameness in years. At least it’s not a rollercoaster! But it’d be great if it was a slightly faster car.”

If you haven’t been, Mongrel is perched on the corner of Park Road and Railway Terrace in Milton, standing sentinel over the intersection 270 degrees view thanks to the gorgeous wraparound balcony. It’s a great spot, but it has a reputation in the area for being cursed: for some reason no previous business lasted longer than a year or two, and it had been sitting empty for a while when Mongrel took it over in 2018.

But since the bar and kitchen has been running for almost five years now, perhaps the Mongrel crew have broken the curse. Or maybe they’ve just leaned into it; they do have a skeleton in their venue, after all.

The venue is dripping with the creative personalities of the owners: married couple Annie Bingley and Gabriel Escalante-Gafau (who work in the business) and Henry Wu (who’s now a brewer at Ballistic).

From the street, you’re met with a painting of a slobbering punk dog with bloodshot eyes. Once inside, you’ll notice the same aesthetic in the neon green mural of Cerberus watching over the bar (Mongrel is basically a gallery for the Freak Street’s art). The shelves behind the bar are lined with curios, the tap list is made from skateboard decks, there are monster heads on the wall, and José Bones (the aforementioned skeleton) is always sitting around somewhere.

 

Freak Street's painting of Cerberus stands guard over the beer taps at Mongrel.
Freak Street's painting of Cerberus stands guard over the beer taps at Mongrel.

 

“This is kind of what our lounge room would look like if we could paint it,” Annie says. “Henry and Gabs and I all lived together; that was where Mongrel started, when we were all sharehousing together. So we wanted to keep it very personal, and make it look like we would want to look, and a place we would want to hang out.

“We love it to pieces. It’s our favourite place to be.”

It’s a fun place full of fun people: the close-knit team make Mongrel what it is, and Annie can’t sing the praises of their staff highly enough.

“We all hang out outside of work,” she says. “We want to make this the best place they’ve ever worked. People look after you when you look after them.”

Mongrel’s practically sandwiched between Milton Common and The Scratch, forming a beery ménage à trois, and beer-loving locals do tend to frequent all three of them. But Mongrel also draws people from further afield specifically for its food. The creative menu makes Mongrel stand out from the other beer spots in the area – and pretty much everywhere else in Brisbane, too.

Gabs is Peruvian – and the head chef – and over half the menu is Peruvian, though most items have a Mongrel twist. You’ll see some Japanese highlights sprinkled in there, thanks to the culinary influence of Japanese immigrants in Peru in the early 1900s. (Have a read about Nikkei cuisine sometime – fascinating stuff.) Probably the closest thing to standard pub grub would be the salchipapas, which could be described as Peruvian loaded fries. (To Annie’s delight, Facebook always auto-translates ‘salchipapas’ to ‘sausage daddies’. “I can’t do anything about it, and I don’t want to do anything about it.”) And then there are completely non-Peruvian items like the tongue taco and the popular Rooben, Mongrel’s take on a classic Jewish deli sandwich housemade kangaroo pastrami.

The ceviche (a Peruvian seafood dish, where the fish is "cooked" with citrus juice) has a bit of a cult following, too. Annie and Gabs have a side project called Urchin, a pop-up cevichería for which they set the place up a bit fancy – as close to fine dining as you can get with paintings of drooling dogs on the wall.

  

The Rooben sandwich and the ceviche are both fan favourites at Mongrel.
The Rooben sandwich and the ceviche are both fan favourites at Mongrel.

 

On the drinks side, pisco sours are the house cocktails – usually a couple of kinds – and the bartenders find themselves having plenty of conversations about pisco with curious punters, and see more than a few converted to the Peruvian spirit.

While there are six taps (plus tinnies) of Aussie craft beer, Mongrel’s known for having a broader repertoire of beverages.

“I feel like when we first opened we were like, ‘We’re going to be a craft beer bar – that’s what’s going to happen’… [but] our demographic was interested in a wider range than what we were offering,” Annie says.

“I guess it’s a craft drinks bar? We’ve got good cocktails, we’ve got nice wine, and people often come for those as well.”

In August, these inked-up, salchipapa-slingin’, self-proclaimed flavour pimps will have been keeping it weird for half a decade. Their birthday weekend will be celebrated with Mongrel beer on tap (brewed by Henry) and live music on the Saturday, followed by a Sunday of pork adobo soup for breakfast (a specialty in Gabs’ home city), hangover jazz and cake in the afternoon.

Mongrel is truly one-of-a-kind. Even if they wanted to grow, Annie doesn’t think they couldn’t replicate it.

“There’s too much personality of the people who are working here in the venue,” she says. “This is Mongrel, and it’s here right now, and this is what it is right now. Who knows what five years from now looks like?”

Before things get too hectic in the coming months (this writer will be sleep-deprived on paternity leave in July and August), we thought we’d get Behind Bars for a chin wag with the Mongrels to hear their thoughts on the Aussie beer scene.


MONGREL

Owners Annie Bingley, Henry Wu and Gabriel Escalante-Gafau setting up Mongrel's kennel in 2018.
Owners Annie Bingley, Henry Wu and Gabriel Escalante-Gafau setting up Mongrel's kennel in 2018.

 

What was the intention when you launched your venue?

Mongrel was born out of a pit of beer and frustration: we would sit on the deck of our share house after Gabs and Henry had worked another 60 hour week and wax lyrical about how we would do things if we had it our way. Gabs was a chef and Henry a bar manager and then brewer, and they both had these awesome ideas for food and drink offerings that were creative and exciting. I’m pretty good at organising and doing paperwork, so between the three of us we had most aspects of Mongrel covered. We wanted the freedom of creativity, and wanted to offer unusual options for food and drink that reflected that creativity and were uncompromising on big flavours.


How has your venue evolved over the years?

After the first year or so, Henry put down the tools and picked up a bag of hops and has been brewing up a storm ever since; his brewing career started a bit before we opened, when he was working at Brisbane Brewing Co. Since then he’s worked at Slipstream and Ballistic as lead brewer – as well as brewing specialty beers for Mongrel. I took over the bar; I was doing nursing as my main gig, but ended up loving running the bar way more and have hung around like a bad smell ever since.

Then we hit the pandemic. I definitely don’t think we saw ourselves being a table service dining establishment, or a deli, but we did what we could to stop ourselves from going mad. Things still haven’t quite come back as they were pre-pandemic, but we feel like normalcy is slowing creeping back in.


How has the beer scene around you changed?

A great change we’ve seen is more female brewers in Brisbane! Women were the original brewers after all – if anything beer is a girl’s drink, but industrialisation forgot that. The beer scene definitely feels less like a boys’ club.

 

The Mongrel crew aren't entirely normal.
The Mongrel crew aren't entirely normal.

What's proving popular with punters at the moment?

The mighty lager! Lager fell out of favour for such a long time, but it’s the perfect kind of beer for Queensland weather. I think we even refused to have lager on tap when we first opened, and for the life of me I can’t think why – it’s a great beer. 


How you seen a change in your customers or their tastes over the years?

Mid-strength and non-alcoholic beers have become increasingly popular; people are keen to come and engage in a bar environment without the goal being to get drunk. It’s better for them and it’s better for us – especially in an industry where you’re constantly surrounding by alcohol, it’s nice to see the culture changing and being more inclusive for people choosing to drink less, or not drink at all.

More and more people are choosing to consume plant-based food and drinks too, and we’re getting more questions than ever about whether beers are vegan. Sometimes it’s not so easy to find that information out, especially for kegs.


How do you see your venue evolving over the next five years?

We’d love to put on even more live music. There’s so much talent in Brisbane and it’s great to be a platform for it.

We’re excited to get back to our degustations too. We took a massive break from them over the pandemic years because the idea of that much planning and prep getting cancelled last minute made us want to cry.

It took a little while for us to get inspired creatively again too after COVID burnout – I never want to hear the word "pivot" again. Honestly, we’re just ready to get back to business; it feels like Brisbane is still thawing a bit after COVID and the energy isn’t quite what it was, but we’re ready for it.

 


What beers and local breweries have been blowing your mind recently?

I’m a massive fan of Sea Legs: I think they have one of the most cracking pale ales around. Such lovely people too. We’ve always got something on from Black Hops and Brouhaha, and jump on any chance we can to get a Brewtal Brewers keg on the taps. Down south, we love what Bridge Road and Bodriggy are doing, and there’s plenty of talent coming out of the Sunny Coast like 10 Toes, Moffat Beach Brewing Co and Blackflag Brewing.


Are there any hidden gems – beers, breweries, venues, events – you feel deserve more attention?

It may not be so much hidden as it is out in the burbs… but The Woods in Mitchelton always has something great on the taps. Zero Fox has a great lineup of beers – and wines – too. We’re excited to see what Working Title will be doing with the new space at Doggett St – one of our beloved kitchen Mongrels, Sam, is head chef there now – and with the dynamic duo of Luke Shield and Mark Howes at the helm the beers will be top notch.

Range are always crushing it with their beers, and we’re excited that they’re opening up Patio later in May – just down the road from us! And, of course, Scratch are obviously our greatest love and biggest crush.


What styles and trends do you see taking off? Or, for that matter, fading away?

Hazy beers seem to be less popular than they used to be – we get way less questions about hazy IPAs and NEIPAs than we used to. Same with pastry and milkshake beers. Sours and West Coast IPAs are still going strong. Mid-strength pales are proving super popular for us, too.


Any thoughts on where beer in general is heading?

I think the trend towards drinking less alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks will continue, and I’m keen to see what breweries will come up with. There’s already a rapidly growing non-alc beer scene and we’re always excited to see what people do with flavours and styles.


If you had the power to guide the Australian beer scene with a benevolent hand, what one change would you make?

It would be good to see some kind of funding for small and medium breweries while they face the hardships of cost of goods going up off the back of the pandemic years, something to bolster them while everything gets back on its feet.

A financial incentive for bars to buy local and independent craft beer would be sick too, though in this hypothetical world I would get to suggest these kinds of ideas without having to figure out how any of the details would work.


If anyone wants to figure out all the details and whisper in the ear of the state government on Annie’s behalf, I’m sure she’d be grateful!

For local pints and pisco sours, live music and art shows, ceviche and sausage daddies, get on down to Mongrel on the corner at 1/12 Park Road, Milton.

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