One door down from the Cantonese dining institution Golden Century is another longstanding mecca for delicious eats. Inside the unassuming Sussex Centre shopping arcade you’ll see a sign by the escalator declaring “Best Asian Food Court” – a bold statement, sure, and also the only indication there’s a food court here.
Head to the top level and you’ll find good regional Chinese food and Korean fried chicken. Sadly Ramen O-San has closed and taken its delicious tonkotsu soup with it, but there are still plenty of other cheap eats to be had.
Salted chicken with fried rice at Minh-Hai – $11.50
Vietnamese spot Minh-Hai was on George Street across from World Square for 20 years until problems with the landlord forced the move. “We have a lot of customers who followed us here,” says Michelle Tee, who works at the shop.
“The salted chicken is very famous. You can eat it with white rice, tomato rice or fried rice. And customers can add a fried egg or some veggies. It’s up to them,” she says. The dish consists of chicken Marylands cooked in a salted, spiced poaching liquid. “The traditional recipe, it’s a secret,” she says. “When the chicken is cooked, we clean it up, take out the bone. Then we mix it up with some garlic oil and more salt.”
Szechuan beef sizzling at Good Choice Sizzling & Hot Pot – $11
Good Choice Sizzling & Hot Pot is known for its sizzling hotpot plates. Owner Jess Tan recommends the Szechuan beef, which comes with Cantonese chilli. “[It] isn’t like Sichuan chilli. It has a little bit spicy, a little bit sweet, a little bit sour taste,” she says.
The dish is a simple stir-fry of capsicum, onion, bok choy and beef brisket, served on a piping-hot black clay plate that keeps the ingredients sizzling all the way from the wok to your table. Rice is served on the side and completes the meal.
Spicy stewed beef noodle soup at Wide Alley – $11.80
Wide Alley manager Jeremy Bi says spicy stewed beef is a traditional dish from Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province: “Every day this one is freshly made. It’s the most popular one on our menu.”
Although Bi says it can be quite spicy, the soup base doesn’t actually have fresh chillies in it. The heat comes from a chilli sauce that sits at the bottom of the bowl waiting for the hot broth to be poured over the top. The fresh chilli is added later, depending on the customer’s spice preference. “The most traditional way to have it is with three chilli and three Sichuan peppers, but for customers who don’t like spice they can do mild chilli, mild Sichuan pepper,” he says.
The soup is served with slices of tender beef brisket, noodles (either flat, thin or rice), and a side of bok choy and Sichuan pickles. “The pickles aren’t that spicy, it’s just our normal habit: when we eat noodles we have pickles,” explains Bi.
The final accompaniment is unexpected. Bi pulls out a container of single serve Mentos mints that are provided to customers. “You know, after people eat spicy, garlicky things, they have to go back to work.”
Vegetable soft tofu soup at Sparrow Mill – $11.80
At Sparrow Mill it’s easy to get sidetracked by the ICG, or the Incredible Chicken Guangzhou. But at $16 a plate, the fried chicken is too pricey for this list. Instead, order from the soup menu.
Hayley Kim, daughter of shop owner Julia Kang, says the vegetable soft tofu soup is her top pick. The broth is red and delicately spicy and salty, similar to the fermented flavour of kimchi. Soft pumpkin, onions and cabbage provide a sweet foil to the broth, and as you eat, the tofu breaks into silken chunks that slowly get incorporated into the soup.
“We normally crack an egg and stir it through the soup so it cooks,” says Kim. “It’s a typical Korean soup that you’d find all over the country.”
Seafood wonton soup at Happy Chef – $13.80
Yes, this dish costs a smidge more than $12, but even cheap-eats lists deserve a splurge – and this one is worth it.
The queue at 11.45am – when the rest of the food court is still quiet – gives a clue to how good the food is at Happy Chef. The fact that chef Dan Hong of Mr Wong favours it is another clue.
For the record, this Happy Chef isn’t affiliated with the Newtown institution that burned down last year, nor with the nearby Market City Happy Chef, says Kevin Su, who works behind the counter.
Su’s favourite dish is the seafood wonton soup. “It’s a very light soup with a mix of squid, fishcake, fish ball, wontons and noodles,” he says. The affordable soup is packed with so many ingredients, Su later realises he’s missed one and adds prawns to the long list.
Four types of noodles are on offer, depending on your mood. There are fresh thick rice noodles, vermicelli, thick egg noodles and skinny egg noodles. The thick rice noodles are the best choice – they’re tender and substantial enough to hold up next to the abundance of other ingredients.
Looking for more cheap eats? Check out our guide to Circular Quay dishes for $12 and under.