8-12 Sydney St
|opening hours||Lunch and dinner Wed-Sun|
|Features||Bar, Licensed, Groups, Outdoor seating|
|payments||eft pos, Visa, Mastercard|
For years, I have dreamed of touring the country and documenting the stories, decor and shopfronts of Australia’s Chinese restaurants. The tasselled lanterns and the moon gates; the palatial ceilings and the prawn toast. The history of Chinese migration told through sang choy bao.
Like countless Australians who share a fondness for jade dragons and pink serviettes, my love for suburban Chinese restaurants stems from a childhood spent eating spring rolls dipped in neon-red sauce. Australian-Chinese hits the same nostalgia catchers as Ken Done, Viennetta ice-cream and Matilda the kangaroo – not to mention Labor leaders skolling beer at the cricket.
Small wonder, then, that throwback Chinese eatery Lucky Prawn is Marrickville’s, and potentially even Sydney’s, most popular new restaurant. On a recent weekend, the line to get into the building was pushing 20 meters. Considering that Lucky Prawn is part of the new Bob Hawke Beer & Leisure Center – also home to a pool room dedicated to Australia’s most dinky-di, people-pleasing PM – I’m half surprised the queue didn’t reach Newtown.
Inside, it’s like the early 1980s never left. Bearded men in Akubra hats and old footy jumpers – some worn ironically, some not – drink lager and stand shoulder to shoulder around tall bar tables. Carpet recycled from Petersham Town Hall is sympathetic to local dogs (who are allowed inside) and Midnight Oil is on high rotation. Richie Benaud cricket commentary plays in the bathrooms, which also offer complimentary fragrances: Brut for him, Elizabeth Arden Red Door for her.
Two former advertising creative directors launched Hawke’s Brewing Co. in 2017 after securing the larrikin king’s blessing. Hawke granted his endorsement to the company in perpetuity before his death on the condition that 100 per cent of his royalty be donated to Landcare Australia. Almost $400,000 has been raised to date.
The Leisure Center opened in April and it’s essentially a big tap room for the brewery’s new $5 million production facility, which makes beers that go beyond a gimmick. They’re poured at the kind of wood-paneled bar native to regional bowling clubs, and my pick is the fresh and crisp session lager ($8.50 a schooner), which suits any style of Chinese cuisine.
Groups of four or more can book a restaurant table in advance, but smaller parties will need to join a waiting list on arrival. Mercifully, there’s also a snack menu of Lucky Prawn highlights which can be enjoyed in the pool room, public bar or streetside picnic table.
There’s prawn toast ($14) on the bar carte and it’s everything you want prawn toast to be: golden-fried and ever-so-slightly greasy, made with no-frills white bread from a bakery across the road.
Sichuan-spiced chicken wings are fragrant and crunchy, and top value at six for $10. They’re even better with a cooling cucumber salad ($9) on the side and eaten surrounded by photos of Hawke in his Speedos.
Back in the main-event dining room, in the center of the space partitioned off from the bar, a “Chinese Meals” sign is hand-painted in a way that says, “We have air-conditioning and sweet and sour pork.” Talented chef Nic Wong is in the kitchen, working at an electric pace to send out elevated riffs on Australian-Chinese classics that are never too fancy for their own good.
That sweet and sour pork ($25) is less cloying than is traditional, and properly balanced with pineapple juice and soy. Crab omelette ($29) is yolky and lacy in all the right places, and steamed prawn har gau dumplings (four for $14) have the requisite amount of bounce.
Sizzling beef ($30) arrives at the table hissing and smoking (“Kids, get away from the plate, it’s hot!”) and you can actually taste the meat through black bean sauce. It’s tender, too, largely thanks to shin braised in a soy masterstock for more than five hours.
Pipis ($49 for half a kilo) are a must, drenched in a dark and mysterious XO sauce of savory depth and served with donut-y fried bread for dealing with the remains.
Honey king prawns ($35) are the only letdown: they could do with more sweetness and seasoning.
Let’s hope the reservation rules change so smaller groups can book dinner without lining up. Otherwise, queue-averse couples should consider waiting a few weeks for their prawn toast party.
The crowd will subside when the next hot bar comes along; I hear Keating’s Center for Merlot and Mahler is opening just around the corner.
Vibes: A lazy-susan spin of cold beer and kitsch
Go to dish: Pipis in XO with fried bread ($49)
Drinks: Eight different Hawke’s Brewing beers on tap, plus cocktails and a handful of natural wines
Cost: About $130 for two, excluding drinks
This review was originally published in good weekend magazine