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Rival signs from rival noodle houses (Photo: Madeleine Chapman)
Rival signs from rival noodle houses (Photo: Madeleine Chapman)

BusinessApril 26, 2018

Would the real Mt Albert BBQ Noodle House please stand up?

Rival signs from rival noodle houses (Photo: Madeleine Chapman)
Rival signs from rival noodle houses (Photo: Madeleine Chapman)

Two restaurants with the exact same name operate beside each other in Mt Albert. But which is the real Mt Albert BBQ Noodle House? Madeleine Chapman eats and investigates.

Occupying the heart of the Mt Albert food district are two rival restaurants right next door to each other. Both make cheap, generously portioned, delicious Chinese cuisine. Both have loyal customer bases who treat each restaurant as their local hangout. And both have owners who are willing to stand outside their restaurant, calling in diners off the street who are confused about where they’re supposed to be eating. The point of confusion?

Both restaurants are called Mt Albert BBQ Noodle House.

In 2004, there was just the one Mt Albert BBQ Noodle House and it stood at 932 New North Road. It was popular, known for its low prices and huge portions. At the end of 2004, the owner sold the business to Huatuan Qiu and Huatuan (first names will be used to avoid confusion later on) still runs the operation there today.

When I enter his store at 11am, it’s empty. A young man is furiously chopping onions in the kitchen and another asks for my order. When I tell him I’d like to speak with someone about the story behind his workplace and the identically named one next door, his expression darkens. His English isn’t good but he tells me to wait and alludes to a manager arriving at 11:30.

While I wait I order the $10 special that’s taped to the shop window. BBQ pork on rice plus a can of coke. That $10 will buy you enough pork to feed a hungry couple and enough rice to feed a family. The can of coke is single serve.

At precisely 11:30, two older women enter and speak to the man in Mandarin before taking their seats. When he brings out their food – two overflowing plates that are almost bigger than the women themselves – he says something to the younger of the two, who turns to me, acting as translator. “He said you have some questions about the two BBQ Noodle Houses.”

Shortly after Huatuan took over the business in 2004 he was joined in the shop by his older brother or cousin Huali Qiu. Huatuan confirmed several times that they’re brothers while Huali flatly denies any relation whatsoever. A neighbouring shop owner believes they’re cousins whose fathers are brothers.

In 2015 when the lease on their restaurant ended, Huatuan and Huali parted ways and Mt Albert BBQ Noodle House shut down. But like the Greek serpent Hydra, it would soon return with twice as many heads.

It was during this shut down period where the miscommunications began. It’s hard to communicate when you refuse to talk to each other, as the two owners were.

An enquiry into why the pair parted ways in the first place only brings about speculation from the two women. “Always the money,” the younger one says. “Chinese it’s the same, European it’s the same. Always money.”

While Huatuan put up renovation notices at 932 to say the BBQ Noodle House would be back soon, Huali wandered next door and took over the lease of the much larger, more established M + M Tea, otherwise referred to as Momo Tea.

On the 17th of July 2015, MT ALBERT MOMTEA LIMITED changed its name to MT ALBERT BBQ NOODLE HOUSE LIMITED. To the casual diner, the old classic had simply moved next door. The original sandwich board was put up outside 930 New North Rd and a new sign was installed proclaiming “Original BBQ Noodle House”. Huali tirelessly manned the entrance, making sure everyone knew that Mt Albert BBQ Noodle House had moved, albeit two metres to the left.

The new sign at 930 with 932 in the background (Photo: Madeleine Chapman)

Meanwhile, next door at 932, Huatuan was working on putting in a new kitchen, new flooring, new everything before reopening as the same old Mt Albert BBQ Noodle House. When he saw what Huali had done, he sped up his renovations and reopened soon after.

“When I reopened the shop he came here to make noise and disturb so I called the police a few times,” he says through his translator. He soon goes on a tangent, explaining how Huali uses and abuses his disability parking permit to occupy all the parks in front of their stores. His friend laughs hysterically as she translates.

When I ask who really has the rights to the name, Huatuan disappears behind the counter and reemerges holding a binder filled with supporting documents. As he flicks through to the back where the business registrations are, I spot more than one letter written by solicitors on his behalf. This family feud is no longer just between family.

When he reaches a business licence from 2004, he points to the two names listed as shareholders, himself and a woman “who doesn’t work here anymore”. Then he pulls out his licence and lays it next to his name to prove it’s really him. But who is the woman? The translator explains herself. “When they first start here it was him and I thought his wife. But that woman went to the other shop so she’s the other one’s wife.”

Momo Tea already had its own customer base, so Huali did well to merge the two Mt Albert institutions. The new location took off immediately, certainly helped by his front of house manner, which was to approach diners entering Huatuan’s store and tell them no this is the original Mt Albert BBQ Noodle House. It worked more often than not. Huatuan noticed his customers being poached and soon both Qius could be found outside their respective stores at night, insisting they were the real deal, the old favourite.

They work every day mere metres from each other, often standing within arm’s reach outside their shop fronts. But do they speak? Huatuan is emphatic. “No. Not since he opened the shop.”

When I leave Huatuan’s store with a shameful amount of rice still sitting on my plate, I take a menu with me. I’d stopped into Momo Tea beforehand. They weren’t keen to talk about anything so I took a menu and left. But when I walk by a second time on my way home, Huali is outside and sees that I’ve just eaten at Huatuan’s place. He waves me over.

“I’m the BBQ Noodle House owner. The original.”

He doesn’t muck around. “He’s a new owner. He copied my name, he copied my menu.” Huali points to the food grade certificate stuck to the post at his entrance, something I’ve seen him show almost every customer who walks into his restaurant. It says “Mt Albert BBQ Noodle House”. Then he points to the food grade certificate certificate next door, which says “Mt Albert BBQ House”.

“He copied my licence.”

When I show him the business purchase agreement from 2004, he shakes his head, “no”. Then he too disappears and reemerges with a binder full of supporting documents.

“He copied my name, he copied my menu, he copied my licence.” He doesn’t know a lot of English but he has his argument down pat. He says his wife was the original owner, not Huatuan. And when they moved next door, Huatuan stayed behind and unlawfully reopened under the same name.

“Check with city council. Illegal.”

I do check with the council, and while being largely unhelpful they inform me that businesses are allowed to trade under a name different from the one on their licence. Given the cost of trademarking a name, neither man has full ownership of Mt Albert BBQ Noodle House and neither can do much about the other, no matter how strongly they feel they’ve been wronged.

932 New North Rd is both a BBQ House and a BBQ Noodle House (Photos: Madeleine Chapman)

It’s hard to say which Mt Albert BBQ Noodle House is better. At the Momo Tea one, there are more tables and, of course, bubble tea. While at 932, I’ve been told they still do their own BBQ meats. “They own their own BBQ here,” said the translator when I asked if she ever thought of dining next door. She motions to the duck carcasses that can be seen slowly spinning above the counter. “Over there I heard they buy from someone.”

What can be said for sure is they’re both good. Essentially they’re two halves of the same whole. And the food, whether in taste, portions, or price, is almost indistinguishable. So indistinguishable that a google search of “Mt Albert BBQ Noodle House” brings up just one official result. The address is listed as 930 New North Rd while a third of the images are of 932. Both places have received negative reviews online from customers who placed an order over the phone at one restaurant and then showed up to the other to find their food wasn’t ready. And reviews for one are frequently listed on the pages of the other.

For most customers, the noodle house they frequent is simply whichever one they happen to walk into first. There’s no black and white, good versus evil. It’s a classic family drama that’s simply become part of Mt Albert life. If someone were to ask which one to visit, the likely answer would be that it doesn’t matter. Except, for Huatuan and Huali, it matters a whole lot. And they’re more than happy to tell you why if you happen to be walking up New North Rd any night of the week.

As I said goodbye to Huatuan and his friendly translator, she mentioned a Chinese saying. She turned to confer with her friend before attempting to translate it into English, while Huatuan made his way back into the kitchen to prepare for the coming night’s business.

“Even the good judge can’t resolve the family problems.”

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