Sydney has the largest Chinatown in the Southern Hemisphere (sorry, Melbourne) and with over 200 restaurants, choosing a place to eat can be daunting. You might have a favourite Sichuan joint or a Sunday yum cha spot, but how well do you know the hidden hole-in-the-wall eateries, the back-lane dumpling joints, and the family-owned restaurants that have existed here for decades?
“It can be overwhelming,” says Justin Steele of Local Sauce Tours. “People can live in Sydney their whole lives and not know these places. But they don’t think to outsource that to someone else – they just don’t go there. And that means places like Chinatown struggle.”
Steele runs a number of small-group tours in Sydney, and his latest is a two-hour deep dive into Chinatown. It’s designed to support restaurants, share Chinese-Australian history and bring both locals and tourists back into the area. It helps that Steele, a Brisbane native who lived and studied in Taiwan, speaks fluent Mandarin and is something of a savant.
As we wind our way from Dixon Street through lanes and arcades, past the Chinese Garden of Friendship, Steele peppers the walk with fascinating backstories. He weaves tales of Chinese Australians – from the first Chinese settler to come to Australia in 1818 to the characters behind Peter Drew’s “Aussie” posters – with pub trivia-style games.
On the day Broadsheet joined the tour, we stopped at five places for regional Chinese snacks.
The first stop, down an arcade that links Sussex Street to Dixon Street, is lined with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them LED artworks by Shanghai-based art collective Liu Dao. At Kowloon Cafe, Western elements are incorporated into traditional dishes, for example cheeseburger spring rolls and spam noodles. Our group samples Indian-influenced curried fish balls, using green and gold chopsticks Steele painted himself.
“There’s very much an old and a new Chinatown,” Steele says. “The big names at Darling Square have really thrived while the older ones on Dixon Street aren’t feeling as much love.”
Alan Chu, the third-generation owner of the 30-year-old Dixon Street stalwart agrees. “People who come to Chinatown at night tend to stay closer to Darling Harbour. They think it’s too dark over on this side, there’s no light, and nothing to take photos of.”
Chu greets our group with refreshing house-made sweet soy milk, and Taiwanese-style rice rolls which he describes as “Asian burritos”. The classic Taiwanese breakfast food is designed for people to grab on their way to work and is made with glutinous rice, pork floss and pickled radish wrapped around a crunchy fried bread stick. “It gives you the energy and the protein you need for the day,” Chu says.
What’s a trip to Chinatown without dumplings? Nanjing Dumpling is located next to artist Jason Wing’s Astro Boy-esque figures in artwork In Between Two Worlds on Kimber Lane. Nanjing Dumpling is one of the only places in Sydney where you can find Nanjing-style tangbao, a thicker, soupier and overall bigger type of xiaolongbao, Shanghai’s famous soup dumplings.
This mother-and-son-run restaurant on Hay Street is the perfect spot to sample rou jia mo (literally “meat between bread”), one of Xi’an’s most famous dishes. It’s made with a pork and spice mix encased in thick white bread – like a mini burger. Tip: you’ll need napkins. Many napkins.
There’s no better place to finish than at one of Sydney’s sweetest hole-in-the-wall spots. Wedged between Emperor’s Garden Restaurant and the bakery next door is a window where golden dumplings filled with egg-custard emerge. And with the sweet golden balls costing just 50 cents each, it’s no wonder there’s always a fast-moving queue out the front.
96-100 Hay Street, Haymarket.
It’s a fitting spot to end the tour, as it’s also beneath the gates of Chinatown which are emblazoned with the words: “Towards Australian and Chinese friendship”.
“It’s a pertinent place to finish,” Steele says. “We can see how the area has developed and changed over the years. It’s a place we should celebrate.”