Is there a better way to start the day than a torrent of fluffy pork buns, sea-sweet prawn har gow, chewy siu mai, slippery cheong fun, silken tofu, hearty beef tendon, braised chicken feet, mango pancakes and custard tarts? Absolutely not. Here's our definitive list of the best spots in Sydney to relish this morning ritual. Bring your strongest hangovers, a whole bunch of mates and an appetite for destruction and gallons of tea.
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The 11 best restaurants for yum cha in Sydney
Holding court in the red and gold dining room of the Palace Chinese Restaurant comes with great responsibility. If you are in the power seat by the trolley channel you need to be decisive when the the extra-juicy pink-hued roast pork rolls around, served in thin slices with the right fat-to-meat ratio. Move quickly when the blistered greens beans come out of the kitchen, scalding hot, salted like the sea and dressed in garlic. And check every basket for dumpling specials. The biggest challenge here is resistance in the face of an onslaught of extremely fresh yum cha classics. Maybe you should build up your resistance slowly, with many repeat visits to this official residence for Sydney’s best yum cha.
We know it sounds petty, but leaving your yum cha brunch only to see a queue standing where there was no queue before really gives your full belly an extra golden glow. What they’re waiting for you’ve already got: it’s the ultimate reward for rising a little early to get to this super popular yum cha destination on the top floor of Market City in Chinatown. Keep an eagle eye out for the steamed dumpling trolley, it’s the most elusive one in the stable and the barbecue pork buns are worth waiting for. The prawns in rice noodles are fresh, slippery and the morsels are perfectly formed, like little crustaceans tucked into their own noodle doona. Holding out for the final act? They get a full three-pointer for their mango pancakes, mango pudding capped with a pool of condensed milk and the coconut jelly, which is intensely tropical and creamy.
The relentless busyness of Sunny Harbour means the dim sum is always fresh, with popular items barely ever making more than a single lap of the room. Prawn and spinach crystal dumplings are piping hot and generously stuffed, with skins just sticky enough to hold their weight. Fluffy barbecue pork buns reveal satisfying chunks of meat within, far from the over-sickly gloop that appears in inferior versions. Branch outside the usual yum cha hit list with the sticky rice in lotus leaf, a lunchtime gift unwrapping that reveals a fragrant bundle of joy dotted with chicken, slivers of shiitake mushroom and egg yolk. Take it one step further with stewed beef tendon, unrelentingly gelatinous lengths that deeply soak up their sweet soy, garlic and radish marinade.
The sleekest in this stable of yum cha restaurants can be found above the schmick East Village Shopping Centre in Zetland. East Phoenix is so sharp it’s almost business-like. There’s no kitschy decor here – they’re sticking to a classic black, white and red colour scheme. The steamer trolley with all the greatest hits (prawn har gao, steamed buns, siu mai) appears with happy regularity if you don’t like to change the script, but if you are drawn to the tender fatty pork ribs in an unctuous garlic sauce, don’t fight it. It’s only a short hop from there to a dessert of egg custard tarts that come in a pastry shell that’s so short it dissolves in your mouth faster than fairy floss.
If you’ve always wanted to eat at Mr Wong but never had the cash, we recommend a weekday yum cha adventure. Once you take mud crabs, whole ducks and wine out of the picture you will actually spend a not disimilar amount here on dumplings and tea than you would at the major players around the city. There are no trolleys so you order off the menu, and they get points right off the bat for offering to alter dumpling numbers to evenly split amongst your party. Very classy. Plus, because you’re ordering in one hit you’re less likely to accidentally end up with too much food because you impulse ordered in a hungry panic as a trolley blew by you. And the quality here is undeniable. It’s on the chueng fun subsection that we find our MVP, supple rice noodles wrapped around a fried dough stick so crunchy it causes a minor read on the Richter scale, and big sweet chunks of prawn meat at the very core.
Don’t feel rejected if they direct you to a seat in an otherwise empty quadrant of this Chinatown stalwart: the trolleys will not skip you (and if you have a baby in tow, they will flock so that you are rich in steamed treats). This is a quieter spot for mid-week yum cha, and they’re not in the business of hurrying you off, which is why one gentleman is doing the crossword while happily scarfing down little open-top parcels of prawn and sweet corn. They do a killer sesame prawn roll, where big chunks of sweet meat are rolled up like a cigar in crisp pastry adorned with crunchy sesame seeds, and the duck pancakes do not hold back on the filling – a full palm-sized swatch of dark, juicy meat wearing a shield of bronze, crunchy skin. The trolley ladies aren’t above spruiking their wares from a table away if they see you eyeing them off.
Marigold’s fame and central location attract a broader clientele, which they accommodate – a bottle of soy sauce on every table, polite announcements of trolley wares rather than rapid barks, and better care of vegetarians. The veg cheong fun is packed with a forest of wood ear fungus, celery, water chestnut, corn, snow peas, carrot and cabbage; the fried version is equally worth your time, tight little bundles dotted with scallions and crisped right on the trolley, arriving with a saucer of sweet peanut and hoisin sauces for happy dipping. A basket of honeycomb tripe arrives, a superlative expression of this divisive offal dish (those that love it do so with passion). It's thick-cut and full-flavoured without the dreaded chewiness, each cell acting as a little pocket for the fragrant black bean, ginger, garlic and soy braising sauce.
Lunching at the Fish Market is hectic at the best of times, so avoid all the hassle and dine upstairs at the Chinese restaurant instead. It’s a relative shangri-la of calm up there: big blue aquarium tanks of live seafood, and sunlight shining through windows offering views of the fishing boats on Blackwattle Bay. Scallops and prawns that have come off those boats are packaged up into dumplings. They also do a tasty chicken dumpling, and an excellent mushroom-packed vegetarian variation as well, yet the thin-sliced barbecue pork is a compelling argument for looking beyond the steamers. They keep a more leisurely pace here – you may have to wait to lock down everything on your hit list – but a few extra minutes is a small price to pay for seafood that doesn't get much fresher.
It's worth the trip to this Canterbury League Club just to marvel at the incredible indoor rainforest in the foyer, complete with a waterfall, artificial tiki torches, real indoor plants and a lagoon. Behind it is the Dynasty Chinese Restaurant where yum cha is served daily from 11am until 3pm on weekdays, or from 10am on weekends, when you should probably book a table in the red dining room. There’s only a couple of trolleys getting around. They come to your table, load you up with an initial serve of classic steamed dim sum and then walkie talkie any extra orders you might have to the kitchen. It might lack some of the instant gratification of looking into the steamer baskets for each dish, but it does speed up the process if you know you want a serve of the sticky soft steamed rice noodles, rolled up with tiny prawns and green onion, pan fried and then dipped into satay and hoisin sauce – which you definitely do.
Yes, there is a queue running up the stairway that leads to the Golden Unicorn from Maroubra Road, but you also need a number, so weave up one side and find the woman with the clipboard to ensure your spot in that line. Also, it’s worth noting that this is not one of those ballroom-sized restaurants, so tables of two move a lot faster than big groups. If you land an outer ring table you’ll have the best shot at first dibs on the trolleys – it’s not a high-traffic zone – and there’s no roast meats trolley on our visit, so place your order after you sit down to get it brought out from the kitchen. If you’re wanting to branch out, give the fried trolley some extra attention. There are fried taro dumplings in a crunchy, lacy shell with a savoury filling (the sweet/savoury see-saw totally works) and as a prelude to dessert you can ease into things with red bean buns, all golden and fried on the outside, with a rich gummy interior.
Efficiency is the name of the game at Zilver. This long-standing first floor establishment is quick to seat you, quick to serve you and you can pay at any time by heading up to the counter – that must be why there’s more than a handful of business lunches happening around us. Service is especially quick if you’re near the kitchen – we experience full trolley gridlock at one point with two steamer trolleys, a fried cart and a Chinese broccoli station, serving pre-cooked green bales under plastic lids, not the hot pots that they plunge the veg into as you wait. Opt for the sweet barbecue pork buns over the fried pork buns, that are so full of piping hot juice they’re a public safety issue, and sweet tacky prawn dumplings get the prize over the snowpea iterations whose skins lack the structural integrity to ferry the filling from steamer to mouth.