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Sydney's Chinatown means cheap eats, Australian seafood, famous noodles
That's the sound of me, arriving at Chinese Noodle Restaurant (Shop 7, 8 Quay St.), in Sydney's Chinatown/Haymarket district. Two years I'd waited, eight thousand miles I'd traveled, to feast upon my beloved #4 pork noodle combo. Instead I found the following handwritten sign:
"Dear Customers, We will be closed...for kitchen renovation. We apologize for any inconvienience" The restaurant was scheduled to re-open the day after I returned home. What the hell was I going to do?
The answer, it turned out, was drown my sorrows in roti and cendol (an addictive concoction of coconut milk, palm sugar, and rice flour jelly) at Mamak, a newish, affordable Malaysian restaurant down the street. And it was good. So good, I returned three times in as many days. As the song goes, "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with."
I don't know about post-remodel, but in the seven years that I've been eating at CNR, the small, dingy dining room didn't have much else in the way of decor, aside from some plastic grapevines--the kind you see in cheap Italian joints--festooning the walls. Because that totally makes sense in a Chinese restaurant. Anyway, it didn't matter, because it's all about Cin's food. It's not just me: one friend, a business traveler, is manic about getting her pork dumplings en route to and from the airport, and another, a chef from Port Macquarie up north, also hits the dumplings whenever he's in town.
While CNR obviously has a cult following, there is something to be said for an open relationship. I've often referred to Haymarket as the "Disneyland of Chinatowns," because of its wide, clean streets, tidy shops, and orderly throngs of locals and tourists. Sussex St. is the main thoroughfare, but the compact district has dozens of great markets, food court stalls, and restaurants to choose from. I lived in the Bay Area for many years, and while San Francisco's Chinatown is a must-visit tourist attraction, it's not where you'll get the best Asian food (that would be the Richmond district), and the heaving crowds are off-putting. Oakland's Chinatown has some fantastic Vietnamese holes-in-the-wall, but it's seriously lacking in atmosphere. And other Chinatowns across the planet--New York, Vancouver, Honolulu, Buenos Aires--all are fascinating in their own right, but to me, Sydney trumps them all.
It's not just the close proximity to Sydney's CBD, and many other city attractions like the Opera House and Harbour Bridge (both a 15 minute walk away), because San Francisco can rival that. And it's merely a bonus that Haymarket has a lot of hostels ("backpackers"), some of them excellent and geared toward a more diverse demographic than the college crowd. FYI, Haymarket really comes alive at night, so it's nice to have digs nearby, even if you opt for one of the high-end hotels in the CBD.
Aside from how pleasant it is to just wander the streets without being trampled or skidding out on a giant phlegm glob or errant puddle of urine, it's the seafood that makes Sydney's Chinatown special. Australia is famed for its indigenous flora and fauna, and that applies to seafood, as well. Australians and visitors alike prize sweet, meaty, mud crabs from Queensland, blue swimmer and spanner crabs, Moreton and Balmain "bugs" (slipper lobsters), freshwater crayfish like yabbies and marron, mild Sydney Rock oysters, King George whiting from South Australia, wild and farmed barramundi, farmed abalone and Australian salmon.
As an aside, if you visit the Sydney Fish Market in nearby Pyrmont, browsing the stalls can be likened to a jewelry store (if, like me, you prefer crustaceans to carats). Rows of brilliant, gem-colored catch glitter under the lights: sapphire-hued crabs, tiny, emerald-striped pipis (mollusks), ruby Coral Trout dotted with neon blue, psychedelically-splotched parrot fish. Over 100 species and 50 tons of seafood are auctioned and sold every day at the world's second largest seafood market (next to Tokyo's Tsukiji). There's also a cooking school and tours of the auction floor and sashimi pavilion--something I highly recommend.
Back in Chinatown, Golden Century (393-399 Sussex St.) is the place for excellent, Hong Kong-style seafood, like salt-and-pepper squid and braised abalone. You select your dinner from the many tanks lining the front windows. Be prepared for your waiter to bring still-wriggling sea creatures to the table for your approval before dispatching them to the kitchen (I hope PETA isn't reading this). This is the place to indulge in some first-rate Australian seafood, if you can spare the cash. Golden Century is also open until 4am, and a popular late night chef's hang, should you have a drunken craving for congee and some local color in the wee hours.
Speaking of local color, the infamous B.B.Q. King (18 Goulburn St.) is a post-shift tradition for many of Sydney's chefs and cooks. It's also the ultimate drunken, post-clubbing/bar-trawling restaurant (open until 1am-ish, which might mean 3am), where plates of fried rice and roasted and barbecued duck and pork are cheap and plentiful. It's located next to a porn shop, and the irony of the hanging carcasses and sides of meat in the restaurant windows never fails to amuse me. It's an utter pit, the waiters are beyond surly, and the food is mediocre. Yet, I adore it. It's one of those places that should only be patronized whilst ripped to the gills, but it's a great little slice of late-night Sydney.
For cheap, no-frills, snacking, there's Mother Chu's Taiwanese Gourmet (86/88 Dixon St.). This family-owned restaurant is at the lower end of the Dixon St. pedestrian mall. It's all about the outrageously delicious, made-to-order scallion pancakes, which are about a buck fifty a pop. I've never had luck with the entrees, but it's popular with noodle soup and congee-loving locals. The staff are wonderful; you can watch women rolling out dough and stuffing dumplings. They're not above giving you a bit of sass, either, so take some time to chat with them.
For higher end yum cha (dim sum, but the term technically refers to the full experience of drinking tea while dining on it), I loved the Regal. In June, it merged with Marigold (883/689 George St.), which I've consistently heard is very good.
You'll find an array of more spendy, touristy restaurants along the mall (as well as annoying hawkers trying to lure you with menus). Save your dollars and instead head to Dixon House Food Court (corner of Dixon and Little Hay Streets.) or the Sussex Centre Food Court (401 Sussex St.). You'll find the usual suspects in both: greasy steam-table Chinese noodle and rice dishes, but also tasty street food items, hot pot, Korean, and Malaysian food. In Dixon, try the pressed-to-order sugar cane juice, and bubble tea/Asian dessert stall.
Thai Kee Supermarket (399 Sussex St.) is great for any Asian ingredient you might desire (think canned and dried goods for souvenirs), as well as snacks like delightfully squishy rice and mung-bean sweets. Paddy's Market is of historic importance, in that it's been a Haymarket landmark for 150 years. Unfortunately, its current incarnation is a jam-packed, cacophonous multi-story mall/produce/household goods/souvenir market. If you feel the urge to purchase a fake Akubra hat or tacky t-shirt, this is the spot.
Whatever your budget, Haymarket is a vibrant distillation of the many Asian immigrant cultures that have made Australia their home, and for that alone, it's worth a visit. I'll see you at the noodle joint.