Hainanese chicken rice at Malacca Straits - $12
The menu at Malacca Straits is extensive and tempting, but the best dish is also its simplest. "I reckon our Hainanese chicken rice is the best in town, maybe in Australia," says Kun Tan, son of the now-retired founder Chef Tan. "You know why? Because we're Hainanese. You get the real deal."
No matter where you go, the components of the dish are the same: poached chicken, rice cooked in stock and lemongrass, chilli paste, and a small bowl of broth. The simplicity means there's nowhere to hide, and amateur Hainanese chicken rice is obvious.
"You have to have experience to poach the chicken for the right length of time. The other component of a perfect chicken rice is the chilli sauce. The ingredients are simple - just chilli, garlic and salt - so it's all about technique."
The origins of chicken rice are up for debate. Malaysians claim it as theirs, so do the Singaporeans, but perhaps the truth is in the dish's name.
"When migrants came from [the southern-Chinese island province of] Hainan they brought the poached-chicken technique with them, but when they arrived in South East Asia, the preparation changed to include ingredients like lemongrass that you don't find in China," Tan says.
Nourish Bowl at Soma - $10
Before it was called Soma this cafe was part of Mecca Coffee, which was founded in 2010 by Sam Sgambellone and Paul Geshos. In January this year, Sgambellone sold Soma to Jun Chung.
And although Soma is known for its coffee, this Ultimo spot does a solid lunch trade. Many are here for the $10 Nourish Bowl. It's the most affordable substantial dish on the menu and it's often sold out not long after lunch begins.
"It's vegetarian, dairy free and gluten free," says Chung. "In this area, people are into healthy things, so we sell out fast."
The base of the bowl is a mixture of spiced cauliflower rice and brown rice. It's topped with kale, pumpkin, mixed beans and finished with a house-made sesame dressing.
Number two bakmi at Lestari - $10
Sure, dishes with prawns, barbeque pork or crisp pork cost more, but otherwise almost everything at Lestari can be bought for a tenner. Co-owner Warsih "Chacha" Suyanti's favourite dish is the number two bakmi, a deconstructed noodle soup.
Noodles are served dry topped with minced pork and a bowl of soup on the side. The savoury noodles are good on their own, but better with chilli sauce, and the helping is generous, so you can eat some noodles with soup and some on their own.
"It's the meal I grew up with," says Suyanti. "My mum served it once a week, on a relaxing Sunday. Other food revolved around it. Sometimes my mum would put beef balls or fish balls in the soup, and maybe we'd have fried chicken on the side, but the staple was the bakmi."
Smoked duck with rice at Chulin - $12.80
You'll have to add an extra 80 centres for this one, but Chulin's food – which comes from the north-eastern Chinese province of Harbin – is worth it. Sandwiched between Korea, Russia and Mongolia, the region's cuisine has been influenced by those countries and the result is unlike anything you find elsewhere.
"I grew up eating sourdough bread, butter, cheese, sausage," says Carly Jin, who with her husband Tim Zhao owns Chulin and the recently opened Ginkgo Bar, an upscale Harbin eatery in Darlinghurst.
Smoked duck is both crisp and juicy (like roast duck) but with, unsurprisingly, a slightly smoky taste. A sauce made from mouth-numbing Sichuan peppers is drizzled over the pork, and the dish is served with steamed rice and greens.
Beef noodle soup at Fast Pho - $10
This dish's name gives an indication of the speed at which the chef can pull together a delicious beef noodle soup. A wall stacked with bottles of Sriracha separates him from the simple dining space, but you can peek over to see chicken being chopped and herbs being added to the flavourful star-anise-scented broth.
Trays of condiments - fish sauce, hoisin, Sriracha - are on every table, and on one side of the room there's a shelf where more chilli sauces are stacked. It's best to taste the soup before adding these because once the powerful Sriracha has reddened the broth, the delicate flavours of the bone and sweet coriander seeds are lost.
A better tactic is to use Sriracha as a dipping sauce for the tender morsels of beef. For heat, just add fresh chilli to the soup.
Chunky beef pie at Hannah's Pies - $5.40
Harry's Café de Wheels franchises can be found all over Sydney, but Hannah's is the mother ship. The space occupies a corner of Harris Street across from the Powerhouse Museum, and behind the deceptively small takeaway-focused shopfront is one of the last inner-city factories. This one supplies pies, hotdogs and mushy peas to all the Harry's outlets in town.
The chunky beef pie is a classic; flaky pastry encases generous cubes of slow-cooked beef in a rich gravy. Topped with mushy peas it's a quintessentially Aussie lunch.
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