CDK is one of the more popular little hole-in-the-wall places in the Burlington Centre in Sydney’s extended “Chinatown” Haymarket precinct. It’s packed full of mostly homesick Taiwanese (TW) students longing for some TW street food or some TW comfort food as mum is a long way from their university student halls.
Despite CDK’s name there are no dumplings (and you will be told that if you ever get a seat there). An idea of what you’ll get is plastered all over the outside of CDK’s walls and windows. Big and colourful pictures of its dishes jump out at you detailing the specials and set menus. It also attracts customers using a display of small Taiwanese snacks (xiao chi 小吃) that sit proudly behind a large window – deep-fried white bait; cold pork belly with cucumber; pig’s ears; caramelised eggplant and green beans with ground pork – such small snacks are typical in Taiwan, especially in its old capital Tainan. At $3.50 they’re an inexpensive option to try a handful of xiao chi and get a pretty good idea of Tainan-style cuisine.
During my first visit to CDK I got the impression that staff gravitated to taking take-away orders or looking for seats inside for those homesick TW expats rather than newbies – maybe because they haven’t got the time to explain what TW snack food is to window shoppers and as there is always a constant mob of people lining up and vying to be seen and heard? So, if you want to be taken seriously and get noticed do what I do (and it works) – just ask the question: “lu rou fan“? Lu rou fan (滷肉飯) is stewed minced pork belly served with rice and it is a staple TW comfort food (and is served with almost everything at CDK). It got the staff interested in handing out a menu and taking my order for take-away on my first visit – a set meal of lu rou fan and TW fried chicken pieces ($10) which I then took to eat at a neighbouring food court.
TW fried chicken is actually a common snack food in Taiwan. It came in one of those usual plastic takeaway containers but thankfully the staff had the sense to puncture the top so that the steam could escape, therefore ensuring that the chicken’s fried batter remained crunchy and not subject to sweating in a small plastic sauna. The bite-sized morsels of chicken were good – soooo good! TW fried chicken batter is light (potato starch is usually used which really crisps up when deep-fried), and it is seasoned with salt and usually five spices. The meat is still on the bone (so watch those teeth), and was tender and juicy and coated with a not too-overpowering batter.
It would be extremely dangerous for CDK to stuff up lu rou fan considering it’s the national comfort food staple of Taiwan. CDK didn’t. The stewed pork belly was well seasoned with the usual soy sauce, Chinese wine and sugar combination (which caramelises the minced pork belly to give it a typical sweet and dry robustness), and the addition of garlic, mushrooms, dried shrimp and five spice give it that certain body and ‘sauciness’ that is needed. The only complaint was that the rice was a bit overcooked. Comforting? Yes!
So far so good. I next visited CDK six months later.
On the latest visit I finally got a seat at the CDK gig but I was there at 11am and within five minutes I was joined by a stranger willing to share my table for two (my table was actually the last available). Inside, CDK is a small, elbow-room-only place that only seats 20 with a small serving bar to the side and I don’t now how the five waiting staff negotiate around the tables and diners without major mishap.
As on the last visit I was told: “no dumplings” and again I had to prove my TW credentials inquiring in pidgin whether CDK had a couple of typical TW snacks. Then came the wry smile, a pot of tea and the menu.
The menu seems extensive but it offers a lot of different combinations, deals and set menus which is quite refreshing as it allows you to savour a combination of different styles of dishes. You can grab a TW set meal which is a bowl of lu rou fan plus a choice of some 12 other snacks (which reflects the happy hour meals cited below), for $10 or $11 for an upsized version. From 2pm to 5pm CDK has 10 meals for $7 each (such as cold noodles; deep-fried tofu, chicken, squid balls or fish cake; and lu rou fan). Then there are the $10 value meals where for an extra $1 you can also get a bowl of soup or a bubble tea. These meals are either bento box sets or larger versions from CDK’s main specials (like fried fish; braised beef; stewed pork and soups or noodles).
I scoured the room and saw diners mostly ordering the set meal bento boxes or lu rou fan and TW chicken along with a xiao chi. I decided to order one of the set meal lunch boxes ($10) and for an extra $1 I could upgrade to a bubble tea or the soup of the day – in this case a large bowl of hot and sour soup. I decided on the soup.
I must admit I thought the chilli fish was bland. The top fillets were thick and tender with a lovely crunchy, salty seasoned batter but the sauce was ordinary and really didn’t add anything to the fish and in some ways toned down the salty batter (and made the bottom fillets soggy and stodgy). It would have been nice just to have the fillets without the sauce or at least have the sauce to the side. The green beans with pork was typical – crunchy, stir-fried beans with sweetened caramelised pork mince (delightful)! The corn was, well just sweet corn kernels and the pickle added a needed acidic burst after munching on all that protein.
The hot and sour soup for the extra buck was huge. It was thick and full of sliced shiitake mushrooms, tofu and sliced bamboo shoots. At first I thought it lacked some flavour but I then realised that this was a very good subtle version with the sour and spicy ingredients blending harmoniously together so not to be overpowering in one particular direction. It was filling and combined with the bento box maybe too much for my shrinking tummy. The bubble tea option may have been the way to go.
As soon as I had finished out came the bill and the table was cleared. There’s no mucking around – CDK isn’t the type of place where you can linger as staff want you to eat and be gone so the next in the queue can squeeze in.
CDK may not be the best TW gig in town but it’s popular because it has an interesting variety of xiao chi for those homesick TW expats that you don’t really find in Sydney and good-value set meals that come out fast and furiously.
The verdict: You may have to prove your Taiwanese credentials to the staff but Cho Dumpling King will give you an easy and cheap (but no-thrills) insight into the world of Taiwanese snack food.
What: Cho Dumpling King, TG6/8 Quay Street, Haymarket NSW 2000 (02) 9281 2760. Open Monday to Sunday from 11am to 8pm.
Ate there: 4 November 2011 and 5 May 2012.