Bodega Cantina, Bennetts Hill, Birmingham

South American flamboyance and flavours.

Bodega is a Midlands based, South American inspired, small chain of restaurants, with branches in Birmingham, Leicester, Sutton Coldfield and Worcester. We became big fans of South and Central American cuisine after a visit to Costa Rica, so after reading some great reviews, decided to give it a try.

Bodega is near the bottom of Bennetts Hill in the city centre. We didn’t book as we dropped in early on a Wednesday evening and didn’t expect it to be busy. I’ll be honest, we were both pleasantly surprised to find the place was absolutely heaving, and disappointed that it looked as though we weren’t going to get a table.

However, the door host was charming. She told us two bookings that had been due at 18.15 had not turned up, and she would give them fifteen minutes grace before she would give their tables away. After fetching us a couple of Classic Margaritas, which were two for £9 as it was Happy Hour from 4 till 7, true to her word she showed us to our table at 6.30.

The interior is a bright and colourful long narrow space. The tables are crammed in, so don’t expect a lot of privacy. To be honest, it’s so busy and noisy anyway that this was not a problem. Anyway, everyone is so intent on their food and drink that conversations were pretty perfunctory anyway!

The menu consists of street food, small plates, large plates, sides and dessert. In our view the best approach is a bit of pick and mix sharing. The vast drinks menu includes all the South American specialities such as Cervezas, Tequilas, Mezcals, Rums Piscos and Cachacas as well as a Gins, Wines, Ciders and Soft Drinks.

We had Chipotle Beef Brisket Nachos to start, followed by Peruvian Ceviche, Fish Tacos, Jalapos, the Brazilian Moqueca and Sweet Potato Fries. After our delicious margaritas, we washed it all down with a couple of Estrellas. We didn’t have room for dessert and, on reflection, would have skipped the moqueca (tasty as it was) and stuck to a selection of sharing plates, leaving space for some churros, which looked amazing.

The nachos were divine, light crispy nachos and melt in the mouth beef, topped with just the right amount of mixed melted cheese, slightly acidic soured cream and soft, cool avocado. The ceviche, while it couldn’t match the best we’ve ever had at a roadside café in Costa Rica, was a perfect balance of sweet and sour, and the fish “cooked” but still firm. These, and the fish tacos were the highlights for me, but it was all delicious.

The service was excellent. The staff were patient, chatty and cheerful, despite being so busy. The menu was so extensive and interesting that I can’t wait to go back and try some of the other dishes, but I have a funny feeling that I’ll be unable to resist the ceviche and fish tacos again though!

Food 4/5
Service 4/5
Ambience 4/5
Overall Value 4/5

For the Lost Soul, Michael Andrews

Sorry, Potential Spoiler Alert!

Published in 2013, this is Michael Andrews’ first novel. A twisting and turning adventure of angels and demons battling for the Soul Key, that will unlock the gates of heaven to the Fallen Ones. The Lost Soul himself, Joe, a bullied, teenage suicide victim, currently in Limbo, has been assigned Protector of the soul of an innocent child, Adam. If he can save Adam from Satan’s’ clutches, he will also save the souls of every other child who has taken their own life as a result of bullying.

The opening of the book immediately grabbed my attention and made me want to read on. It was intriguing and set the context well. I really wanted to settle down find out what had happened to Joe to make him do what he had done.

I wasn’t expecting what would happen next, as I was quickly immersed in a supernatural world of angels and demons, more intricate and complex than I could ever had imagined. We even ended with a bit of a Sci-Fi twist! For me, this is one of the great strengths of Andrews’ writing. His imagination is incredible, as evidenced in his series, The Alex Hayden Chronicles, a teenage fantasy tale, rich with vampires, werewolves, pixies and witches.

I enjoyed the refreshingly irreverent and humorous take on God and his gang of celestial creatures. Some of the characters are extremely well-crafted. I loved the little demon, Durchial, and hated Gill, Joe’s evil sister, in equal measure. I’ll be honest, I was really looking forward to meeting the Big Man himself and was a little disappointed when we met everyone else but him.

The book touches on some difficult subjects which the author handled sensitively. Bullying and child abuse were central themes of the novel. The thoughtful exploration of youthful sexuality was particularly well handled.

This is Andrews’ first novel and it did show in places. At times it was overwritten and clunky, with a tad too much tell and not enough show, leaving the reader feeling a little bit patronized. I also found the middle third of the book a bit slow and had to force myself to push on through.

However, I’m glad I did. The closing chapters were fast-moving and exciting. Poor little Adam encountered some horrible people and got into some truly awful situations. I greedily consumed the last few chapters, as it built to a spectacular climax with a plethora of unexpected plot twists.

So, did Joe save Adam’s soul? Did Satan win the Soul Key? Was Joe damned to hell?
You’ll have to read the book to find out!

For the Lost Soul is available on Amazon at £10.99 for the paperback edition and £2.99 on Kindle.

The Parting Shot

burger-cheese-dinner-161674 (1)It was close to seven on Friday night when Nick told Dan to set up the outside board, to promote their special weekend offer for the Angus Burger. Dan scowled, as Nick handed him a crumpled print-out of the copy for the promotion. This was really not cool. His shift finished at seven and the job would take him at least half an hour. He had places to go, things to do, people to see. More importantly, Stu had scored some righteous weed and was waiting for him under the bridge down by the canal.
He muttered under his breath, just loud enough that Nick knew he was pissed off, but quiet enough to make sure he wouldn’t get into trouble again. Nick stared at him and pointed outside towards the sign in the car park. He wasn’t actually smiling but there was a distinct hint of smugness lurking around his mouth and eyes. He knew what he was doing. There was no way he hadn’t noticed the time and Dan’s excitement about getting off. This was pure spite. Prick!
Dan shrugged and turned away. He slouched over to the store cupboard and pulled out the ladder and the plastic box of letters. In normal circumstances this was a job that he would spin out for as long as possible, anything to get out of that stinking kitchen and Nick’s beady-eyed gaze. He would usually take two leisurely trips to carry the ladder and then the letters outside. Tonight though, time was of the essence and it was amazing what you could do when you had to. Aware that he might be setting himself up for more grief in the future when Nick saw that he could do it in one trip, but prepared to take the risk anyway, he dragged the ladder along the floor with one hand and juggled the box of letters in the crook of his free arm.
The ladder made a disturbingly loud metallic clatter that set even his own teeth on edge. A few startled customers turned to look as he passed through the restaurant and Nick shot him a warning glance. In a half-hearted gesture of concession, he hoisted the ladder up under his arm as best he could but continued with his mission to get both items outside in one trip.
It was a warm, still evening. When he stepped out of the air-conditioned building, a wave of humidity washed over him; perfect weather for chilling, for getting stoned. What the hell was he doing here, flipping burgers and kow-towing to that bastard, Nick? Letting the ladder drop again, Dan dragged it across the car park and positioned it against the frame that the promo sign was mounted on. He climbed up until he could reach the letter board and balanced the box of letters between his knees and the top rung.
The pegging system reminded him of the picture boards he had played with as a child. His thoughts drifted to the many happy hours he had spent rummaging in the box of coloured pegs to construct detailed images of cars and trucks on the little white plastic mesh boards. The best part was evoking the pleasing “Oohs” and “Aahs” from Mum and Dad when he showed them each of his masterpieces in turn.
Dan snapped his fingers and shook himself. No time for daydreaming today! He was on a strict timeline. For once, he needed to focus on the job in hand. It was already five past seven!
He looked at the note Nick had given him. It was covered in greasy fingerprints. That geezer was totes disgusting. His job was to replace Double Cheeseburgers, Two for £5.99 with Angus Burger, Weekend Deal, Only £2.99 plus Soft Drink. For Christ’s sake! Who even wrote this? Why use one word when two hundred would do? He was going to have to remove all the old letters one by one and replace them with the new ones. There were going to be no shortcuts on this occasion. The new wording was completely different. Damn Nick to hell! He had done this on purpose. This was going to take forever! Fuck him!
Dan looked at his watch. It was now ten past seven and he hadn’t even started yet. He looked back over to the restaurant. Through the big windows he could see right through to the counter where Nick had his back to him. He was now picking on Gina, the new girl taking the Drive-Through orders. She was watching the supervisor with a wounded expression as he aggressively shook his finger at her and looked as though she was on the verge of tears. Bastard!
Dan looked at board and then at the box of letters between his knees. He looked back at Nick and Gina, then again at the board and then back to the letters. He took one final glance back toward the restaurant. It was the sight of Gina’s pink, tear-stained face that was the final trigger. He would show him! In a sudden burst of energy, he began to pluck the existing letters from the board.
When he had finished, he descended the ladder and, after taking a moment to admire his handiwork, hurried back inside. It was twenty-five past seven when he finally shoved the ladder back into the cupboard. He tossed the box of letters onto the shelf, slammed the door and, with a nod to Nick, who had lost interest in him now that he had had his fun, grabbed his bag and left.
Later, he and Stu shared their last spliff in the bus shelter across the road from the restaurant, giggling uncontrollably as they read the words on the board out loud, over and over again and again, each time using a different voice, mimicking different imaginary character’s reactions as they read the sign. A high-pitched woman’s voice was full of surprise that turned into disgust, a deep male drawl lingered in bawdy amusement on the offending word and a child’s confusion was followed by innocent questioning.
The next day when his alarm went off Dan silenced it then turned over and went back to sleep. An hour later, it was his mum who took the call from Nick telling him he was fired and not to bother going in. He smiled to himself under the covers as his mum stood in his bedroom door, lecturing him about losing yet another job. He waited for her to finish and go back downstairs before he got out of bed and pulled the curtains. It was another glorious day and it was all his. He had places to go, things to do, people to see. Why, he might even call into the restaurant and grab an Anus Burger…


Dragonfire, Michael Andrews

dragonfireDragonfire, the fourth and latest book in The Alex Haydon Chronicles, was published in October 2018. It continues the tale of Alex, a thousand-year-old, teenage vampire who is caught between his past as a notorious warrior, and his present as a reformed character and “adopted” nephew of a Blackpool police officer.

The novel is a fast-paced, easy read, that exudes imaginative supernatural fantasy, but is set in modern-day Blackpool.

Alex is an authentic and likeable character. In this book, the darkest in the series so far, we are shown, for the first time, glimpses of his violent nature, but because we know him so well, we are somehow able to forgive him.

Unlike many Science Fiction and Fantasy books, Dragonfire does not take itself to seriously making it an enjoyable read for the less avid fan of the genre. It is peppered with gentle sarcasm and tongue in cheek humour. I particularly enjoy the way that Alex sardonically dispels long-accepted human myths about vampires, and corrects ill-informed versions of history, as someone who was actually there as events unfolded.

Dragonfire is available on Amazon at £3.99 for the Kindle edition and £9.99 for the paperback.

The Cauldron of Fire, Michael Andrews

Cauldron** spoiler alert **

This was the best so far for me in The Alex Hayden Chronicles. The quality of the writing has improved with each book, making the characters even more engaging and the story flow more naturally. However, part of the enjoyment came from having read the first two books in the series and getting caught up in the story.

I love how the supernatural world is expanding exponentially! In book one we just had Vampires and Witches. Book two, introduced werewolves, and now we have even more powerful witches, bramble pixies and ogres!

I enjoyed the way the flashbacks are integrated into the story, gradually revealing Alexander’s past and, indeed, the past of all of the supernatural characters and how they are linked. This book brings a lot of plot lines together in a very satisfying way and there is a sense that events are reaching their conclusion.

There were some real moments of tension in this book and I found myself afraid for Alex and wondering how on earth he was going to get himself out of a situation. Of course, he always does. A tiny criticism is that the relatively easy way he always extricates himself, is not always worthy of the build up and feeling of extreme danger that is created.

In this book we see Alex feed on a living human for the first time and this adds some realism to the story – he is a vampire after all!

Looking forward to reading book 4 now

The Howling Wind, Michael Andrews

51l+eY1WolL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_** spoiler alert **

Despite it not being the type of book I would usually read I enjoyed the second book in the Alex Hayden Chronicles.

The characters are developing well, particularly Alex. The plot is deepening and becoming more intriguing. I really want to read the next book to find out what happens next.

I’m enjoying the budding romance between Petra and Alex and asking myself if Alex will chose to remain a vampire or not?

The introduction of werewolves to the cast of supernaturals was fun!

I am also enjoying the gradual revelation of Alex’s back story.

The style of writing is pleasing – a modern take on the vampire genre with a dose of humour and irony.

Looking forward to reading The Cauldron of Fire now!

Under a Blood Moon, Michael Andrews


I really enjoyed this book.

It is not the genre I would usually read but I was pleasantly surprised. It was an easy read, light, fast-paced and imaginative.

I particularly enjoyed the mix of vampire lore with other fantasy concepts and modern day crime fiction.

The characters were unexpectedly engaging and I read quickly wanting to find out what happened to them.


I loved the idea that there is an intricate underworld of vampires, vampire hunters and witches just beneath the surface of our ordinary lives.

I would recommend it, especially for young adults, and plan to read the others in the series when I get through my current reading list. For the genre, I would have given 5 stars were it not for the fact that on occasion it felt a little rushed and some incidents were glossed over a little as the story jumped to the next stage.

Pho, Grand Central, Birmingham

pho-263127_1920 (1)

Fresh, clean, authentic and good value.

Stephen and Juliette Wall fell in love with pho after a trip to Vietnam and came home and built a brand around it. Their first restaurant opened in London in 2005 and they now have branches all over the country. Pho reached Birmingham in 2015 when the successful Vietnamese street food chain opened a branch in Grand Central.

Like the Walls, we became pho-lovers following a trip to Vietnam. We knew about Pho but were put off by our snobbish assumptions about the likely poor quality of chain restaurant food. How wrong we were!

Situated on the upper mezzanine, overlooking the concourse, the restaurant is always busy. Expect to queue, but turnover is fast so it won’t be for long. As we waited, our fears about the food were instantly dispelled as we watched a couple of young chefs deftly rolling a batch of handmade spring rolls. The menu is simple. A few appetisers and sides, broken rice, a couple of additional rice and noodle dishes, salads and pho, lots of pho!

I started with summer rolls. Fresh, cool, crunchy vegetables wrapped in a soft, wafer-thin rice paper with nuoc cham dipping sauce, a mixture of fish sauce and lime. My partner had light, crispy chicken wings with sriracha, a fierce garlic and chilli paste. We both had pho to follow. He had spicy chicken and I tofu and mushroom, big bowls of steaming sweet, sour and salty broth, and soft slippery noodles. You can choose between flat pho or round bun noodles. Personally, I think the flat noodles are easier to negotiate with chopsticks reducing the splash factor.

The selection of condiments on the table is essential to the experience. A key principle of Vietnamese cooking is to make your food taste the way you want it to by adding sauces, garnishes and seasoning. Options include fish sauce, sriracha and homemade garlic and chilli paste or vinegar. Every bowl of pho is served with a side of fresh chillies, herbs and beans sprouts.

To drink, my partner had Saigon Beer and I had mint tea. Handfuls of fresh mint packed into a mug and covered with boiling water to create an explosion of palate-cleansing flavour. My real guilty pleasure in Vietnam was the coffee. Rich, strong coffee served with condensed milk in a battered metal mini drip-filter over a glass. Not how I would usually have my coffee, but utterly delicious and indulgent. Even here, Pho did not fail. Apart from the pristine, shiny drip-filter, I could have been back in Vietnam.
The service is good and the staff friendly and helpful, especially for diners who are new to Vietnamese cuisine. Pho is a fast food concept and there is a certain expectation that you won’t want to hang around. Our bill was presented to us before we had a chance to order our coffees.
If I was to choose one word to sum up Pho it would be authentic. Everything smelled and tasted just as I remembered it in Vietnam. The two Vietnamese girls at the table next to us, live-streaming footage of their food back home, were a testament to that.

Food 4/5
Service 4/5
Ambience 4/5
Overall Value 4/5