Auckland displays it's ethnic culinary excellence
Food Alley (Auckland, New Zealand)
Member Name: larsbaby
Food Alley (Auckland, New Zealand)
Advantages: Great food, great variety, outstanding value for money
Disadvantages: I ran out of time to try even more stuff!
Why go to 1 restaurant when you can go to 20? Food Alley provides such possibilities in the centre of Auckland. The concept of food halls seems to be one that is very popular in New Zealand; various stalls of different genres of food mingling in a hall with seating shared by all of them. I think it's a great idea, and although we see vaguely similar kinds of food courts in shopping centres in the UK, these are usually just branches of generic restaurant and fast food chains. In New Zealand though, it's something quite different; apparently owner run ethnic food stalls. I'm a big fan and you're just about to find out why.
In the city centre, near to the end of Albert Street towards the harbour, lies an unprepossessing looking entrance to the food hall. There are a couple of signs suggesting that in the recent past it was voted best food hall in Auckland but that's about it; you could easily pass it without really noticing it. We had actually taken an active interest in finding it, as it was lauded in the Lonely Planet. As you enter, you're greeted with a small shop to the right and some stalls to the left including ones serving Korean and Turkish food. In the middle of the stalls are some tables and benches for seating. Carry on into the next section of the building and the number of crammed together stalls multiplies, and your possibilities include Japanese, Indian, Malaysian Thai and Chinese. There are many more benches and tables here, the seating mostly being wooden benches with metal base chairs with wooden seats fixed to the grey tiled floor. Most of these benches seat 6 people, but we always found room to get a bench to ourselves, despite the popularity and buzzing atmosphere, with a good variety of people dining here, from business people grabbing a quick bite to eat to tourists like ourselves. It looks like there won't be enough seating, and perhaps there isn't at the lunchtime peak hour, but we never dined at that time. An escalator leads to the upstairs section, which is quite sparse at the moment, having only 3 or 4 stalls. A sign indicated that this was new and so I'd expect that to change in time. Near the escalator is a fun mural depicting various world landmarks. In total I counted about 20 stalls in the worn looking building. Personally I think this gives the place character; it isn't just another gleaming, sanitized looking place. It's somewhere which has been used a lot, but make no mistake it's hygienic. The whole place to me looked loved and lived in.
Most, if not all, of the stalls had pictures of many of their dishes to help you choose which one you fancied. I am usually quite cynical about this, as what you get can bears little relation to what they advertise, but every dish I ordered here bore close resemblance to its picture, looking as good if not better that you hoped. Only one stall served drinks, both alcoholic and non alcoholic and including things such as freshly blended juices, which I tried and which were pretty good. The form was to order your drinks from here if you wanted any, and dishes from the food stalls; for each stall you ordered from you'd be given a number board, each seemingly tailored to each vendor so that it would be clear to them who had ordered. For example, one Korean stall had them in the shape of a traditional (I assume) pointy roof Korean dwelling; I thought that was a nice touch.
The staff were very friendly, although at first when you walk around, they eye you up in a bored kind of way; then again people pass by all day so you can't blame them. When you order though they come alive and a big grin usually accompanies your order and subsequent delivery of it.
We came here 4 times in the 5 days we were in Auckland, so clearly we were impressed! On my first visit, I spotted an interesting looking Korean stall, and I hadn't had many opportunities to try this kind of cuisine before. I chose Korean BBQ squid. This came included with a side dish of rice and a small bowl of clear soup; I have no idea what it was but it was probably some kind of meat broth. This was a fantastic introduction and a big reason for my returning; the strips of squid served on a sizzling metal hotplate were cooked to perfection; still firm on the outside and soft on the inside. The piquant, spicy and sour thick, dark sticky sauce it was served in was delicious, tasting quite unlike anything I've ever had before. Ms Larsbaby had fried fish with rice, which was big chunks of white fish in batter, lightly spiced and served with steam rice; equally delicious.
On the next visit I was tempted by a Chinese stall which had many pictures of delicious dishes. I plumped for the Chinese pot with duck and rice. This was a large clay pot, quite traditional looking, filled with chopped pieces of duck on the bone, complete with crispy skin. Mixed in was spring onion, broccoli and carrot. Some of the rice stuck to the side, which was a throwback to me of my childhood where I used to hope there would be bits of burnt rice in the pot. This particular burnt rice was just as good as I hoped; caramelised, crispy and slightly blackened with the taste of the pot. The duck was quite salty and slightly spicy; perhaps a bit too much effort to get off the bone but nevertheless very tasty indeed.
The next visit was time to try Japanese, and so I had chicken teriyaki noodles. These were a big portion of thick Udon noodles mixed in with lots of sweet, rich sauce that turned the noodles brown. Mixed in were delicious pieces of chicken, broccoli, carrot, and onion. The whole thing had a teriyaki taste of soy sauce. Ms Larsbaby had chicken katsu with rice, which was sliced, breaded chicken breast with some sweet sauce drizzled on top, with steamed rice on the side. The chicken was pleasantly crunchy, excellent with the sweet sauce.
My final visit led me to try another Chinese rice pot, this time chicken and Chinese mushroom. Again, this was in a large clay pot, with all the flavours merging together very pleasingly. Another excellent dish.
Unfortunately by then we were coming to the end of our stay in Auckland, and I never got the chance to try some of the other delights such as Malaysian Laksa, Thai green curry or the Chinese chicken stall which has various hues of chickens hanging over the top of the counter, offering delicacies such as soy chicken on rice. I am pretty sure I could have eaten there every day for a couple of weeks and not got even close to being bored of the food there.
I'm told that there are several food halls in Auckland, with one apparently even better, but I just couldn't see past the excellence of Food Alley. The fun, informal atmosphere and focus on the food was something I always welcome; I'm not one for fine dining and lingering, I just like to be served and scoff it down as quickly as I can! The consistently tasty food, huge range of dishes to choose from and value for money are all factors which counted hugely in its favour. At around $10 per dish (about £5 at the moment), it really is outstanding value for money. Voted Auckland's best food hall in 2008 by readers of some local newspaper, this accolade is well deserved and just as relevant in 2009.
9 - 11 Albert Street,
Summary: New Zealand's food halls showcased