Dan Hong

It’s all David Chang’s fault. Hosting the Momofuku frontman at a Sydney dinner convinced Dan Hong – a graduate of fine-diners such as Marque, Bentley and WD-50 in New York – to look within and create his own personal, new-wave Asian cooking style. The rest is history with Hong rising through the ranks of Sydney’s Merivale Group to the role of executive chef overseeing multiple venues including Cantonese funhouse, Mr. Wong. Outside of work, he and his young family live and dine in Chinatown: a rich source of both inspiration and sustenance.

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The Changing Face Of Sydney’s Chinatown

Chinatown’s changed so much. Back when I was a kid, there were so many Cantonese places: cha chaan tengs (a Hong Kong-style café); barbecue places with the ducks and char siu hanging in the window; the congee places with great wonton noodle soups. All the different places that served yum cha. Chinatown is where we went as a family. We’d go to Silver Spring. Back in the 90s, Silver Spring was like the spot for yum cha. This was before Kam Fook Seafood opened in Chatswood. I obviously grew up going to Marigold and also Golden Century. Now Chinatown is all regional Chinese: Sichuan, Hunan, hotpots. When I was a young chef, I remember having to go to Ashfield to eat Shanghainese food and other mainland regional cuisines. Not that this change is a bad thing: it’s just a reflection of all the students that have come here to study.

Growing Up With Golden Century

I still remember the first time I went to Golden Century. It was 1993 when I was 11 years old. I went with my best friend’s family and remember eating stuff like live lobster and barbecued pork. Stuff like that. I distinctly remember getting watermelon at the end of the meal and my mate’s dad was just spitting the seeds straight onto the table. Fast forward to going with my family. My mum was in the industry and we loved it. We used to go there on the weekends which is how I, before I became a chef, got introduced to all the waiters. A lot of the waiters who are still there now, I know from when I used to go with my mum. If I’m going with my family [his wife and kids] I go at lunchtime because it’s never busy and the quality’s still pretty good. But if you want to have the best meal there, don’t go during peak hours. Go for like a really early dinner at six o’clock before everyone starts walking in, or you go after 10pm. The team from 10pm to four in the morning is actually the A-team. That’s when all the industry comes in; all the people who have won big at the casino and they order all the live seafood. All the best managers that have been there from 20, 30 years ago are working those after-hours. I don’t have a special order, but I swear to God that I was ordering garlic buttered snow crab with egg noodles on the bottom before everyone else. I’m telling you right now. I first ordered that during my cheffing days. I didn’t want the e-fu noodles because they’re a little bit soggy. I wanted the thin egg noodles. That’s my steez. The Good Food Guide [influential Australian restaurant guide similar to Michelin that awards restaurants between one and three hats] did this Good Food Month dinner at Golden Century and invited chefs like me, Morgan [McGlone; Belle’s Hot Chicken] and Tetsuya [Wakuda; Tetsuya’s] to pick our favourite dishes that they would cook. Mine was that one. I still go there once every two weeks. Golden Century used to have two hats in the Good Food Guide between the years of 1996 and 2003, I think. I mean, I think it’s a three-hat restaurant, myself.

XO pippies at Golden Century, a late-night Chinese restaurant in Sydney’s Chinatown. Photography: Golden Century

A Benchmark For Noodle Soup

Sussex Centre Food Court is probably my favourite food court. It’s a little bit cleaner than others but it also has Happy Chef that does arguably the best noodle soup in Australia. They have so many different versions of a clear noodle soup. You can get wanton noodle soup. A beef one. Chicken with prawn. Seafood combination. You get all these different noodles soups, but they all use the same clear broth, which is like liquid gold. They have other branches but the broth is the best at Sussex Food Court. It’s like the most perfectly seasoned broth. I’m sure there’s like a mixture of pork and chicken. There’s probably some dried shrimp in there. Even Jowett [Yu; Ho Lee Fook] who just came back from Hong Kong for a few days in Sydney was like: “I need to go back to Happy Chef”. Even living in Hong Kong, with all the noodle soups over there, he still craves Happy Chef. I’m at Happy Chef once a week. My order is the Phnom Penh noodle soup, the number one. It’s based on the Cambodian hu tieu nam vang which is like a noodle soup with dried rice stick noodles. And it’s got blood jelly, pigs heart, pigs intestines, a pork patty. There’s a prawn. It’s got minced pork with dried shrimp. It’s glorious. What I do is I get extra tripe and tendon. There’s another noodle soup, which has spicy tripe and tendons – the same sort of braised tripe and tendon you get at yum cha. They put that on top and it’s like offal heaven.

“The Chronic”

Eating World at the end of Dixon Street is another sick food court. It’s really popular because it’s home to Gumshara Ramen. It’s still the richest tonkotsu-based (a rich, pork-based broth) ramen in Australia, for sure. I just stumbled on it. I used to just go to Eating World to have the usual sizzling platter or whatever and just ordered things from random stores. But, then I saw that and I was like, “interesting. I’ve had tonkotsu before”. Then, once I ordered it, I was like, oh my fucking God, this shit’s like gravy. Like, next level tonkotsu. I went there every few weeks and started tweeting about it. I called it “The Chronic” and then it sort of picked up. That was probably 10 years ago. These days, I’m only having it every six months. It’s just so hectic. These days I’ll probably get a paitan (chicken-based broth) ramen or a Hakata-style tonkotsu that’s a bit thinner, you know what I mean? I’m a food court guy. I like sharing what I like to eat. If there’s something I love more than cooking, it’s actually eating. I love trying to discover new places on my day off and then letting everyone know about them.

A Classic Chinatown Breakfast

Super Bowl is like your typical Hong Kong barbecue, wonton, noodle shop and congee shop where I’ll sometimes go for breakfast. Growing up in the 90s, places like this were everywhere. You’d have one anywhere there was a Chinese community. What I’ve noticed is that over the years as a lot more Chinese people have migrated or come here to study, we’re losing a lot of these Cantonese places. That’s why I still really appreciate Super Bowl. It’s still doing delicious Cantonese in the heart of Chinatown. It’s almost like an ode to what Chinatown was like back in the 90s. Besides Golden Century, East Ocean and Marigold, it’s one of the only places that’s still there.

World Class Hotpot

The biggest trend right now in Sydney is hotpot. A hotpot place opens up in Chinatown every two months. The king of hotpot in Chinatown – in Sydney – is The Dolar Shop at the top of Market City shopping centre. It’s a chain but it just has such impeccable service. It’s unbelievable. It’s like a three-hat hotpot restaurant. The way they look after you. If you have to wait for a table, they’ll give you watermelon and candy while you’re waiting. I come with my baby and they’ll look after my baby and take her for a walk around the restaurant while I’m eating. It’s crazy. And the hotpot is incredible, especially the produce they use. Usually when you go to hotpot, the produce is terrible: things like thinly sliced beef roll that’s frozen. It’s wack. These guys use the best Australian wagyu beef. There’s a live seafood tank. You can see them kill live garupa in front of you and slice it. I go to The Dolar Shop at least once every two weeks.

Ho Jiak, a new-wave Malaysian restaurant in Haymarket. Photography: Ho Jiak

Sydney’s Best (And Most Creative) Malaysian Food

Ho Jiak is, in my opinion, the best Malaysian food in Sydney. The owner Junda Khoo is a friend of mine and is really trying to take Malaysian food to the next level, and not in a bad way. I’m not saying he’s trying to do modern Malaysian food – he’s not – but he’s just trying to do Malaysian food with the best produce he can. He does a scarlet prawn har mee (prawn noodles). You should see the broth, it’s like bright red. It’s a $45 bowl of har mee but it’s fucking incredible. He’ll do an abalone bah kut teh (pork bone soup) with baby abalone through it. He does the best char kway teow (stir-fried rice noodles) in Australia. He got some marron in and I was like, “I want a marron char kway teow” which he made for me. Now it’s become one of his signatures. When truffles are in season, he does an amazing three-egg custard that’s like a Malaysian chawanmushi (Japanese egg custard) with salted egg, and century egg. He’ll cover that with black truffle and it’s so delicious.

An Impressive New Korean Barbecue Restaurant

There’s a new Korean barbecue spot called Bornga that’s opened in Sydney. I think it’s a chain, but it’s really fucking good. It has this patented cut of meat that’s copyrighted or something like that. It’s wagyu brisket that’s really thinly sliced and marinated. You cook it really quickly on one side and eat it ssam-style (wrapped in lettuce leaf) with a special sauce. I go there with my family and they love it. It’s really delicious. The restaurant also has crab jiang – raw marinated crab – which is a rarity for a lot of Korean restaurants. That’s why my wife loves it so much. There are two types of marinades: soy crab jiang or chili crab jiang. The chili crab Jiang is my go-to. You’ve got to start with the freshest crabs and then halve them, dunk them in this marinade for four or five days which, in essence, cures the crab so you can eat it. And then you literally just suck the meat out of the shell. It’s fucking glorious. If you’ve never tried it before, it’s a little bit weird at the beginning because the texture of raw crabmeat is almost creamy.

“The Best Sushi Experience In Australia”

The sushi omakase at Sokyo with Sano [Sokyo’s sushi chef Takashi Sano] is the best sushi experience in Australia but it’s really hard to get a booking. The waiting list is probably about six months. It’s a lot like the introduction system in Japan where if you went to somewhere like Sushi Saito or Jiro, you’d have to be a friend of a regular to make another booking. The philosophy behind Sano’s sushi is, he wants every single piece to blow your mind. And that’s what it does. He’ll rarely serve just a slice of fresh snapper brushed with soy and give it to you: that’s not his style. He’ll make sure that piece of snapper has been marinated between sheets of kombu for two days. That it’s garnished with some shiokombu (kombu marinated in soy) and then a bit of chive and finger lime. It’s a bit more modern. If you can’t get a booking in front of Sano, ask to be in front of Alex. He’s the sushi sous chef and Sano’s protégé and his sushi creations are also incredible.

Dumplings at Mr. Wong. Photography: Nikki To

Australia’s Ultimate Cantonese Restaurant

Mr. Wong is a big Cantonese-inspired restaurant. It’s my take on Cantonese cooking and we have about 60 chefs on the roster. We specialise in dim sum during the day and barbecue meat. When we decided to do a Chinese restaurant, we wanted to create the whole package for the customer. Most Chinese restaurants have delicious food – there’s no doubt about that – but there are always other areas in the restaurant it could improve on whether it be the service, the quality of products or even just something like having a good wine list. When we opened Mr. Wong, we wanted to make sure that we had all those bases covered. The beautiful thing about Mr. Wong is that there’s no way we could do another Mr. Wong anywhere else in the world. The heritage-listed building that it’s in. The fact that you have to enter a little alleyway to get to the restaurant. And then, once you’re inside, it’s actually this humongous beast of the restaurant. The dim sum team is huge. Michael Luo is the head dim sum chef, there’s 10 people in the team and they make something crazy like 10,000 dumplings a week. Everything’s done from scratch, every single morning. There’s nothing that’s kept because the dumplings don’t last. The way these dumplings are made is just so artistic. They’re not good the next day, so we have to start from scratch every morning.

My Favourite Trolley-Style Dim Sum

Because I run Mr. Wong, I’ve got an amazing dim sum master and eat amazing dim sum every day. But, for a trolley-style yum cha with the best service and the best dumplings, it’s definitely Palace. All the tables are in pretty good positioning for trolleys to go past, there’s no forgotten tables. There’s nothing worse than getting sat at a table right in the corner where no trolley’s going to come by. They have the best fried stuff. Usually, when you get fried stuff, things have been sitting there for a while. You don’t know how long ago it’s been fried. Their fried stuff’s always usually freshly fried and chock-a-block full of prawn. You know those fried sesame prawn rolls that are like a little spring roll wrapped in rice paper and crusted in sesame seeds? They have an excellent version of that. They also have an excellent version of youtiao (fried bread) stuffed with prawn mousse. You can either have that dry, on its own or you can also have that wrapped in the cheung fun (rice flour roll). That’s what makes them different from other places. They’re very, very good with anything that has the prawn mousse inside.

Selected Works: Mr Hong (2014)

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