Itouched down in Auckland just as the local magazine Metro published its annual listing of the city’s Top 50 Cheap Eats. I grew up in New Zealand’s largest city and I have my own roster of favourite places for a good feed that won’t break the bank. But who wants to get stuck in a rut, even a tasty one?
Auckland’s ethnically and culturally diverse population means that the affordable dining scene is a playground for adventurous eaters. Not all the Cheap Eats (defined by Metro as a sit-down meal that costs $20 or less) listed arise from the immigrant community but with Europeans accounting for less than half of all Aucklanders, the majority do, with Asian cuisine leading the pack.
I started at Tianfu Noodles in Newmarket, a bustling suburb with a retail district that rivals downtown’s Queen Street, and a mix of restaurants that range from simple, formica-table eateries to hipster cafes and upscale restaurants following the latest culinary trends. Tianfu falls into the first category but Metro praised its “terrific Sichuan cooking” and hand-pulled noodles. I chose the pork and chive dumplings in spicy soup, heat level #2 (from a menu scale of #1 to #4). I now know the formula (<#2 = incendiary!), but the tongue blistering fire was a worthwhile price to pay for plump dumplings with tender, slippery skins and just-made fillings that burst with freshness and flavour.
Equally delicious were the morsels from Baifu Dumplings, located next door. Metro recommended the “most unusual” mussel, pork and chive dumplings with a green skin, which were exceptionally tasty, as were the pork and sauerkraut (with white skin). While I waited for the dumplings to be pleated and steamed to order, a smiling ‘auntie’ urged me to enjoy a complimentary pot of rice tea “very good for health.”
Among the many more Chinese options on Metro’s list was Tasty Noodle, commended for “bold, spicy hand-cut noodles” and a “Chinese burger.” The latter was disappointing – discs of dry, dense bread overwhelming a tasty-but-meagre braised pork filling. Stir Fried Shredded Pork Hand-Pulled Noodle, on the other hand, was excellent – almost greaseless, well seasoned and a single portion generous enough to feed two.
Next, Korean, and the weirdly wonderful sundaeguk, specialty dish of Teolbo restaurant on the downtown Auckland waterfront. Sundae is not ice cream but a sausage, “made by steaming a pig or cow intestine filled with blood, vegetables and glass noodles. It is served in a simmering soup of offal and vegetables,” I learned from Metro. I was the only non-Asian in the busy, sleekly modern restaurant and the menu was in Korean. But it had photos so I pointed and smiled hopefully. “Eat here or home?” the server barked. “At home,” I answered, unsure of what, exactly I was ordering. In the privacy of my kitchen, I emptied little pots of garnish (pickles, green onions, chile, spices) into a steaming bowl of milky broth chock full of offal. (There’s tripe, intestine, kidney, and that is… lung?) The prize, a single fat piece of sundae, resembled a miniature lady’s hat box sprouting with worms. It was a fine, gutsy tasting blood sausage with the noodles adding a pleasing, springy texture. The broth, with its zesty garnishes, was fabulous, but that mountain of chunky animal parts was more than I could…. stomach. But for fans of offal, sundaeguk is absolutely worth seeking out.
At BannSang, another Korean restaurant, I was led astray by tteokbokki (pounded rice dumplings with fish sausage) which I first tasted at Miss Kim, a restaurant in the US helmed by chef Ji Hye Kim. Unlike Miss Kim’s delightfully chewy morsels, slicked with a lip-tingling sauce, BannSang’s version, with its overly spicy, gluey sauce and stolid dumplings was a poor representation of this Korean comfort food. I’ll give BannSang another shot but next time I’ll heed Metro’s advice and order the pork bone stew or spicy grilled chicken.
Burger Burger, one of a few non-Asian establishments on the list, lived up to Metro’s hype, delivering a mighty fine Beef and Cheese Burger with brioche bun, juicy, grass-fed patty cooked medium rare, topped with aged cheddar, pickles, mustard, mayo and house-made tomato jam. With a frosty house lager, sizzling sunshine and a patio table at the Newmarket location, life at this hipster burger joint is good. A bonus was discovering premium Duck Island Ice Cream next door with flavours like Blackberry, Sage and Honey; Cinnamon Smoked Apple Pie; and Salted Coconut Mango.
“Go now,” urged Metro. Where? To Uncle Man’s for Malaysian classics, especially Chicken Curry Roti Canai, “a thing of utter beauty.” I’m always wary of ordering Malaysian food outside of Southeast Asia because, having lived there, I don’t want it dumbed down. But Uncle Man’s pulled it off. The chicken curry, with coconut rice and garnishes of hard-boiled egg, peanuts, fried anchovies and sliced cucumbers, is as spicy and fragrant as it should be. And the roti is, indeed, “perfectly fluffy.”
Metro’s criteria for inclusion in the list included the ability to sit down for an evening meal, which disqualified most food courts, food trucks and farmers’ markets. But they gave honourable mention to a few places that didn’t make the cut for that reason. Among these, The Māori Kitchen food truck, usually located on the downtown waterfront, offers a uniquely New Zealand cheap eat. Hāngi is an indigenous method of pit cooking that you’re not likely to experience unless you’re invited to a traditional Māori celebration. But this food truck lays down a pit of hot rocks every day and you can have The Works — pork, chicken, potato, pumpkin, kumara (a native sweet potato), cabbage and stuffing, with a side of watercress salad. And the day’s leftovers are turned into a flakey-crusted pie, for just $7. Brilliant.
In addition to Metro’s excellent list, I offer a few of my own recommendations. Thai Friends is an unassuming place in the Parnell Village heritage district, with a few patio tables and a take-out window. This family-run eatery serves authentic, homestyle-style Thai cooking. I love the Prawn Wonton Soup — a generous bowl of delicate wontons floating in a clear, fragrant soup, garnished with spring onion, crisped garlic, fresh coriander and bean sprouts.
For coffee, one of the best value deals in Auckland is La La Café and Bar, also in Parnell. Great coffee is easy to find in New Zealand but you’ll pay NZ$5.00 -$6.50 for a cappuccino at most Auckland cafes. But not at La La. At this hidden gem an expertly crafted cup with fancy foam art costs all of $2.50. And it’s a pleasant, casual space with indoor and outdoor seating, friendly staff, an all-day menu and a full liquor license.
St Pierre is a much loved chain for take-out sushi. Three fishmonger brothers opened a store in 1984 and in 1992 introduced New Zealanders to the Japanese food that has taken the world by storm. Their many outlets offer a huge selection of affordable sushi and sashimi that is always freshly made. You’ll see people all over town at lunchtime enjoying their little trays, or lining up after work for a healthy take-home supper.
And seafood lovers should not miss the revamped Auckland Fish Market, in the Wynyard Quarter waterfront dining district. In addition to a fresh fish retail store and a cooking school, there’s a food court tenanted by offshoots of some of the city’s top seafood restaurants. This is white-tablecloth dining at food truck prices, a true bargain.
Finally, there’s The White Lady. This vintage food truck has been dishing up the goods to Kiwi night owls since 1948. Many was the time during my student days that I remedied an excess of partying with a ham, cheese and tomato ‘toastie’ (toasted sandwich) in the wee hours beneath the Lady’s neon glow. The White Lady only comes to life after dark. For years she was parked curbside in Newmarket, these days she is in Fort Street downtown.