The section of Pitt Street between Campbell Street and World Square heaves with Korean barbeque spots. But if you’re dining alone or with just one other, the cost can be prohibitive. Instead, try the unexpected: hearty northern-Chinese noodles, ramen with handmade noodles and jewel-toned Thai sweets.
Lamb noodle soup at Sea Bay – $13.80
Laughter rings out from the kitchen at Sea Bay as cooks simmer stocks for soup and work dough into coils of noodles and flat, round skins for dumplings.
“The food comes from the north-west of China in Xinjiang province,” says manager Christine Werli. “We make everything here ourselves – dumplings, noodles, soups, everything.”
Although Werli recommends the lamb noodle soup with its hearty, umami-rich broth and handmade noodles, she says the customers’ top pick is always dumplings.
“Our fried dumplings are really popular. Inside you can have pork with some Chinese cabbage, or egg, mushroom, ginger and cabbage for vegetarians. If you like noodles, you can get dumpling noodle soup.”
Black sticky rice with longan and coconut cream at Thanon Khaosan – $5
Thanon Khaosan has a full menu, but the Thai eatery is best known for its sweets. They’re stacked in takeaway containers on a covered cart at the edge of the footpath. There are bright green and white striped cubes of coconut jelly, dense yellow orbs of egg yolk mixed with sugar and mung bean, and packs of sweet coconut sticky rice piled with glistening sliced mangos.
Manager Patcharin Phaklaksamee says the colourful selection is quite sweet and often the different iterations have similar flavours. “The egg-yolk ball is similar to the shredded one, it’s just a different texture,” she says.
There are less-saccharine options, too: the coconut pudding with water chestnuts or sweet corn is good, but our favourite is black sticky rice with longan topped with coconut cream. It’s chewy, creamy and absolutely satisfying.
Mushrooms and holy basil sandwich at Boon Cafe – $12
Although the presence of sourdough and cashew butter on the menu might make it seem like a typical inner-Sydney cafe, Boon Cafe’s sandwiches are far from ordinary. The menu is a blend of Western and Asian cuisines, which, according to Pat Laoyont, whose family owns Boon, is a combination that kids of migrants do naturally. “It’s not fusion, it’s part of the identity.”
The mushroom and holy basil sandwich is a delicious example of this. The mushrooms are whatever is in season stir-fried with sweet, fragrant holy basil and chilli.
The sandwich alone is satisfying, but adding a fried egg and rice makes it so filling that you might not have room for a red iced tea with caramelised milk. Try to fit it all in, though. The uncomfortably full stomach is worth it.
Original Tonkotsu ($14) or Tuskemen Ramen ($15) at Ramen Zundo
Nami Nagao of Ramen Zundo struggles to pick one favourite dish, but that’s because eating at this World Square institution involves a sort of evolution.
“The signature dish preferred by many newcomers is the tonkotsu original,” she says. “But once you become a regular, you’ll probably go for the tsukemen.”
Original tonkotsu is noodle soup made with thin handmade noodles and pork bone broth that’s cooked for 12 hours.
“We’re trying to replicate authentic Japanese flavours using local ingredients, so the noodles are made from a mixture of local and New Zealand flours. We mature them on premises because they’re tastier when they’re aged a little, rather than being completely fresh.”
Toppings are simple: thin slices of pork belly chosen for its balance of fat and meat, an egg perfectly boiled to the edge of soft, and marinated bamboo shoots.
The tsukemen dish is a small bowl of pork broth served with thicker noodles on the side. “They’re about half the width of udon noodles and they’re chewy. You take a portion, dip them in the ramen broth and eat them.”
Eating tsukemen is ritualistic. “When you’re finished your noodles, flag a staff member down for a ladle of extra soup. Add that broth to your leftover soup and drink it from the bowl like miso,” says Nagao.
Hotpot at Malabang – $26 per kilogram
This malatang soup is the king of cheap eats because at this ingredients-by-the-kilo shop in World Square you control how much your meal will cost. The budget-conscious might choose leafy greens and a handful of vermicelli noodles, while the big spenders might load up on sliced beef, cubes of pig’s blood and dense fish balls.
But beware: between the greens, the assortment of noodles, puffed tofu, meat and seafood, it’s dangerously easy to over-order.
The drill is the same as at any of the many malatang-style restaurants popping up around Sydney. Pick up a set of tongs and a bowl and start filling it with ingredients. Weigh your selection at the front and pay, then find a seat and wait while your soup cooks.
There are toppings like black vinegar, sugar, milky sesame paste, pepper oil and chilli. Trust the experience: ask for everything.