We’re sitting with Jeremy Bi, the owner of Wide Alley, a small Sichuan noodle stall in Chinatown’s Sussex Centre. The food court around us is full of appetising options: thick tonkotsu ramen at O-San; fried chicken at Sparrow Mill; and laksa at Happy Chef. We ask Bi if he eats at any of the other stalls. “I have tried them, but I just love [Sichuan] noodles,” he says.
“I eat them every day. That’s why I started this restaurant, because I’m in love with noodles.”
Bi’s stall specialises in noodle soups from Chengdu, Bi’s hometown and the capital of Sichuan, in southwest China. The most famous and recognisable soup is a rich pork and chicken broth flavoured by adding an intimidating amount of Sichuan-pepper-laden chilli oil. This is not the only soup sold on the Chengdu streets, though. “Not everyone in Chengdu likes spicy food,” Bi says, expecting our surprise. The streets of Chengdu are littered with stalls and (unashamedly) austere restaurants selling not just the typical chilli-spiked soups, but also soft mustard-coloured soups filled with preserved vegetables, pork and chitterlings (the small intestines of a pig); dry noodles topped with pickles and minced pork; creamy soups with wontons; and one with a tomato-y stock and enormous pork meatballs.
Many of Sydney’s small Sichuan community say Wide Alley is the original and best Sichuan noodle joint in Sydney. Bi again seems unsurprised when we tell him the accolades we’ve heard; he says it’s because of the quality of his stock and the way he serves it. “It's very traditional. We use a basic stock of chicken bones, pork feet and pork bones. We cook this for nine hours to make it white and thick. I do this everyday with fresh bones.” To that he adds either a fried mix of Sichuan pepper, chillies, meat and aromatics, or for a different soup, pickled vegetables, tomato and meatballs, or wontons. On the latter he adds a serve of spicy pickled cabbages – a traditional Sichuan side. “The quality of the ingredients is very important. I have to get my chillies, peppers and noodles from Chengdu.”
Although Bi gives the impression of being obsessed with authenticity, not everyone will be served noodles as they are in Chengdu. “If a Sichuan customer is here, we will make it really traditional,” he says. He’s not just talking about the spice, or numbing Sichuan pepper factor – he also adds a layer of oil to the soup that comes from the nine-hour bone broth. If you’re white or Cantonese speaking, though, you’re not likely to get any of that unless you request it. “If anyone asks for extra spicy, we know they want it traditional. We give them the chilli and the oil,” he says.