Your guide to Auckland's food courts - a banquet of cheap eats.
When it comes to cheap and cheerful dining it's hard to go past a food court. And not those sanitised interchangeable ones you find in the big shopping malls.
Central Auckland has had something of a boom in food courts in recent times - the perfect place for a no-fuss, tasty lunch, a pre-movie dinner, or a post-drinking refuel. Here's a guide to our favourites.
Where: 106 Ponsonby Rd, Ronsonby.
What's to eat? Italian (pizza and pasta); Vietnamese; Japanese; Malaysian; Chinese; kebabs; Thai; Laotian; Indian; Mexican.
Why it's good: In the heart of Auckland's top dining strip, this food court touches every Asian base except Korean - and has three non-Asian choices too. Being more a dinner than a lunchtime destination it has a buzzy feel about it, as regular diners meet up and shoot the breeze. Most food is prepared when it's ordered - Indian and Chinese excepted - and the place is immaculately clean. It's not a bad spot for star-spotting being popular with actors and arty types. And the bar - winningly named Ponsonby Friends - serves beer and wine at good prices and makes a fabulously tart lemonade with real lemons.
Watch out for: It's hard to fault really. Parking's a hassle. Some complain the prices have been jacked up a bit in the last year, but it's still easy to get a meal for under $10. As in all cheap-eats places, I avoid dishes of chicken and pork; New Zealand lamb and beef is all free-range, after all.
What we ate and why: Lao beef green curry ($9.50), because I'd not tried the Lao place before. Crisp veges, though the beef was a bit thin. When they say medium, they mean "quite hot". Nasi lemak (Malaysian coconut milk rice with creamy chicken, anchovies, cucumber; $12) because our friend has happy memories of Malaysia: she was much impressed. And deluxe salmon sushi, rather pricey at $9.50 for a smallish box, but highly praised. It's pretty hard to lure that diner away from the sushi.
What makes the place unique: A down-to-earth dining destination that offers respite from Ponsonby restaurants whose staff (and diners) can be a teensy bit up themselves.
Atrium on Elliott
Where: 21-25 Elliott St.
What's to eat? Dragon Boat Restaurant, The Gourmet Thai Restaurant, Banana Leaf Malaysian Cuisine, Uncle Jacks, Spill Espresso, Spice of India, Bali Star Halal Authentic Indonesian Food, Hollywood Cafe, Vietnamese Delight, Wonder Wok, Umi Sushi and Umiya Japanese Cuisine, Atrium Kebabs, Master Chef Kitchen, Snow Ice.
Why it's good: It's in the heart of the CBD, so it's about location, location, location for city workers, and there's a large choice of food styles. I love the abundance of sushi and tempura, the quick service and the fact there's plenty of seating, though it's usually busy (a good sign). You can get a filling feed for about 10 bucks.
Watch out for: If you want a quiet lunch date, this is not the place. This is still a shopping mall, though the food court is more varied than most.
What we ate and why: Wonder Wok Chinese beef fried noodles ($13 with a bottle of drink, too) for a tasty, hearty meal (the leftovers were saved for a mid-afternoon snack). My gluten-intolerant hubby was a fan of Umi Sushi and Umiya Japanese Cuisine and chose a honey snapper tempura kebab and seven pieces of salmon sushi ($14.10 all up) in three different styles (the grilled salmon was best). The fish tasted fresh and the meal filled the hunger gap nicely.
What makes the place unique: The mix of international flavours. Yum.
Where: 9-11 Albert St.
What's to eat? Chinese (two types: pork buns and a fantastic hot-pot place which is a must-visit during winter), Indian, Thai (three types, including Northern), Malaysian (two types), Indonesian, Korean, Japanese (sushi), Vietnamese and two licensed bars.
Why it's good: This is the granddaddy of food halls - it's been going the longest and has long-standing stalls that have offered the same great food for years. There's a good range of cuisines and some are excellent. The second floor is the place to eat because it's about the only food court in Auckland which offers any kind of view, either of the lower CBD or a large cherry-blossom mural. Oh, and there's cheap cocktails - a pina colada costs $6.50.
Watch out for: A long-term customer might yearn for variety - but I've been going six years and that only happens occasionally.
What we ate and why: The mie goreng ($12 from Kampung Delights) is the closest we've come to the real thing since Indonesia. The chicken rendang ($10) was good - tender and nutty - if not quite as good as one tasted at a Malaysian restaurant a few days earlier, plus it was a bit slow coming out. Also worth looking for is nasi lemak from Malaysian Noodles.
What makes the place unique: It has consistently cheap and good-quality food. Plus there's a great buzz to the place on both floors, which attracts couples, families and groups of friends all hours of the day.
International Food Court
Where: 233 Queen Street.
What's to eat? Chinese, Korean, Japanese (no sushi), Malaysian/Thai, Middle Eastern (with steak and chips), Indian.
Why it's good: It feels real, from the moment you drop below street level to this basement eating hall. The air is so thick with chilli that you'll have a tickle in the back of your throat for a while.
Watch out for: Take your own water - the drinks counter will charge you $1 for two plastic cups. And while the steak, eggs and chips for $12 is an unusual encounter in a food court, the steak is not great. Don't avoid it ... but don't expect too much.
What we ate and why: Shredded pork on rice from Bai Shan for $10. I wanted something that was as hot as the chilli in the air suggested - but this wasn't it. The meal came with a soup, which wasn't great. We also had pork buns ($9 for seven) from one of the Chinese stalls, which were adequate. There are stall-holders who have been here for a long time - my memory tells me the food was better. Maybe it was just an average day.
What makes the place unique: It's underground. Forget Queen St is upstairs and you could be in Asia.
Newmarket Plaza Food Hall
Where: Kent St, Newmarket.
What's to eat: It's small and as far as food courts go, it didn't have much of a selection - a laksa house, a Thai joint, a couple of Chinese, a Korean place and one unrented booth.
What we ate: The Thai, being a food court staple, was the first thing I saw. The mixed seafood ginger was $13 and the dish was very prompt and hot, but that's where the joy ended. A few prawns, mussels and rubbery squid with plenty of veges and rice served in a chipped bowl tasted a bit like dirty water. The drinks station sold all manner of curiosities - pearl tea and pearl jelly pudding - and it did have my favourite Tsingtao beer at $6 a bottle.
Watch out for: The smell of the seafood market and vege shop, which the plaza shares a low-ceilinged alleyway with. It's quite hidden - most people would drive right past it on their way to a carpark.
What makes the place unique: It's uncrowded and you certainly don't feel like you're in Newmarket any more. If you're in a rush for a quick meal before the movies, try it out - but I wouldn't choose it for a first date. Or a tenth.
Lim Chhour Food Hall
Where: 184 K Rd, Newton.
What's to eat? Ayuthaya Thai, Sushi Bar Salmon, Chai-Yo Malaysian, Lee Hong BBQ Hong Kong Style Chinese, India Village, That Roast Place, Zheng Zong Ma La Tong Chinese.
Why it's good: The handy inner-city location and no-stress atmosphere is perfect for lunch-for-one. You can eat your fill and still get change from a tenner. Lim Chhour won't win any interior design awards and it doesn't need to because it's the food that matters. The Thai is fresh, spicy and cheap. It is best to take a mob along to the Lee Hong BBQ and share the large servings of wok-fried dishes and barbecued duck and pork.
Watch out for: The sad vacant stalls and the construction site in the centre of the dining area.
What we ate and why: Sashimi don ($9) from Sushi Bar Salmon - a pile of diced raw salmon atop steamed and crunchy rice with shredded cabbage and vegetables drizzled with chilli sauce and sesame oil - it's like redemption in a bowl. You'll be hard-pressed to find a healthier, tastier dish in a food hall anywhere.
What makes the place unique? You can pre-order sushi platters from Sushi Bar Salmon - easy, delicious, affordable catering for your next party.
Where: 23-31 Mercury Lane, off K Rd.
What's to eat? Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Chinese and Japanese.
Why it's good: The décor may be tired, but the food is fresh and tasty. Meals are cooked to order (rather than scooped out of a display counter) and there are "A" hygiene grades all round.
Watch out for: Some old favourites have recently departed.
What we ate and why: Vietnamese spring rolls with dipping sauce ($10 for eight), to snack on while we waited for our meals; Pad Thai ($12) because it's always a good bet; and chicken larb ($10) to balance out the grease. There was more than enough left over for two lunches the next day.
What makes the place unique: Mercury Plaza has a cult of followers who lovingly refer to it as "Mercs", and you can do a bit of celeb-spotting some days.
International Food Court
Where: Rialto Centre, 163 Broadway, Newmarket.
What's to eat? Japanese, Indian, Thai, Mexican, Turkish, American (Subway), Nandos.
Why it's good: This is a handy spot to tuck into some fuel during lunch breaks or before movies at Rialto on the same floor. Soak up the schadenfreude as you watch the traffic snarl its way up Broadway around midday. There are plenty of food options available and the establishments all have clean "shop window" presentations. There is also a playground in the middle to keep the kids occupied. It is not inundated with patrons, so the chance to hoe in is never far away. The Rialto theatre complex cafe is also handy - ideal for a glass of wine or a slab of tan square. Baci's books can be tested out over a coffee as well.
Watch out for: It's relatively expensive as food courts go - you're struggling to get change out of $15 for a meal and a drink. The food sampled by our intrepid trio was largely bland, with nothing to differentiate it from other such establishments in the city. But if you want to chug something (anything) back just for the purposes of survival, it's perfectly functional.
What we ate and why: I went for my favourite (if not adventurous) Thai chicken with vegetables and cashew nuts ($12). The courgettes, capsicum and cabbage were crisp and made me feel like I'd done my bit for nutrition, but the sauce was salty and watery. I would have preferred something viscous with more concentrated spice. One mate went with Mexican, mainly because the queue was the longest, which proved a good rule of thumb. His chicken chimichanga ($11) with its deep-fried, rectangular tortilla swamped in sour cream and sweet chilli sauce had plenty of flavour.
The other mate's "combo of meats with rice" from the Turkish outfit ($12) was ordinary; so much so that he said the tastiest thing on his plate was the pickled cabbage.
What makes the place unique? It's perfect for eating on the run rather than dwelling, unless you're desperate to avoid going back to work in an office cubicle or store.
Best used as a means to an end, such as going to the movies.