Hong Kong effect: It's not just the menu that pushes the nostalgia buttons at Old Town Hong Kong Cuisine. Photo: Steven Siewert
Those steamed pork buns aren't going away any time soon. What other crazes kick-started in 2004 have lasted this long? The Incredibles? Franz Ferdinand? Momofuku's Dave Chang may have popularised the new-generation pork bun nearly 10 years ago, but it's still setting off bun-fights all over town. Even Luke Mangan is doing a tempura prawn steamed bun with pineapple salsa at his new wine bar Mojo in Waterloo.
And why wouldn't you? Northern China's mantou bun is a great one-handed, three-bite snack. Steamed and not fried, it's fresh, light, and not as heavy or meaty as a burger, leaving room for more fun things to eat.
That is the Hong Kong effect - to lighten and refine the dishes of regional China - promised by Old Town Hong Kong Cuisine (snappy name, guys) down the non-Canto end of Dixon Street. So yes, There Will Be Buns - in fact, the first thing you see upon wandering in is a single, sample bun displayed under a tall glass dome as if it were a precious relic.
Sneaky treats: Peking duck steamed buns are the pick of the bunch. Photo: Steven Siewert
The food of Hong Kong means many different things to many different people, and all those things are here in the big-picture menu, from barbecue meats and crabs and lobsters from the tank, to pig's ear cold cuts, honey and soy trotters, dumplings and noodles. It makes for one of the most crazy, mixed-up menus in or out of Chinatown, but you're guaranteed to find something you want, whether it's ye olde chow mein, a late-night bowl of pork and egg congee, or salt-and-pepper fish, served on its own deep-fried bones.
It's not just the menu that pushes the nostalgia buttons. The upstairs/downstairs dining rooms do the same, with their exposed brick, wood and stone decor , mix-and-mix chairs and stools, old electric fans, stone dragon water fountains, and some pretty darn amazing crank-handled tables.
What's good? The buns, of course, with not one but three different steamed buns on offer, filled with char siu ($7 for two), barbecue pork ($8) or Peking duck ($8). They're a sneaky, top-value treat, with the duck ones taking the prize. In fact, this is one of the better places to have Peking duck. A half duck ($32) has enough crisp skin and tender meat for six or eight pancakes. The plate is piled up with extra skin, scraped of excess fat; and the cucumber and spring onions are shredded, rather than in batons. A bonus second course of minced duck san choy bao is also an improvement on most second-course duck renditions.
Hard to overlook: Pan fried pork dumplings in a bird's nest. Photo: Steven Siewert
BYO is $3 a person, and probably wise. The dozen-strong wine list is limited, although a light, bright 2012 Baby Doll from Marlborough ($33) does the pinot noir/Peking duck thing with ease.
The ''Hong Kong effect'' continues, with Sichuan's hot and sour soup ($7.80) glossy-thick and balanced with pepper and vinegar. Shanghai's xiao long bao soup dumplings ($6.80 for six) are terrific, with skins so thin, the Hong Kong-sourced chefs claim there are 28 pleats in the pursed-tops of each little money-bag. They also do a decent job of what they call birds' nest dumplings; pot-sticker-like pan-fried dumplings (eight for $14.80), joined by a lacy crown of crisp wheatstarch like a deep-fried doily.
What's not so good? I've had bland, over-steamed har gau dumplings ($6.80), and oily premium sauce fried egg noodles ($11.80).
To end, whiffy green durian pancakes ($6.50) are like eating squishy cream puffs beside an open drain, but with the awesome N2 Extreme Gelato across the way, there's no real pressure on the dessert menu.
With its Hong Kong chefs, barbecue kitchen and nostalgic ''dai pai dong'' food stall-style, Old Town puts a little spring in the step of an ageing Chinatown. It's fast, casual and very likeable, especially when caring manager and menu-whisperer Louise Kwok is on the case. And especially if you have the buns.
Best bit It's cheap, cheerful and fun.
Worst bit Food arrives at random.
Go-to dish Peking duck steamed buns, $8 for two.
- 02 9264 3888
- Cuisine - Chinese
- Prices - Around $50 for two, plus drinks
- Features - Licensed, BYO
- Opening Hours - Mon-Sun 11am-2am
- Author - Terry Durack