It’s finally true: Mercury Plaza is closing its doors in just a few months’ time. Josie Adams and Tina Tiller went for a last meal at the iconic Karangahape Road food court.
Mercury Plaza is known for beloved restaurants like Chinese Cuisine, Maruten Ramen, and E-Sarn WOK. Delicious though they all are, it has offered far more to the masses in its 25-year history. It’s home to the only arcade in Auckland that sits in direct sunlight, a bottomless supermarket, and a mysterious hairdresser. A large, rusty spire with art-deco inspired semi-circles juts out of its roof, a la Pizza Planet from Toy Story.
The plaza is closing down later this year to make way for the long-promised Karangahape Road train station. This is hugely exciting, because it means the City Rail Link project is finally moving off Albert Street and eventually into the real world. The news is bittersweet: everyone wants to catch the train from here, but no-one wants to see Mercury Plaza go.
Chinese Cuisine was the first business in the plaza, setting up shop in 1994 and continuing to serve the best wonton soup in town today. Since word of its closing got out, business has only picked up. The public has been flocking from as far abroad as Mission Bay to experience the taste of Mercury before its doors shut.
Even before this, Chinese Cuisine had fans. The All Blacks ate there before every world cup match in Auckland. There aren’t any well-known sports patriots here today, but I can see two tables groaning under the weight of chicken, pork, rice, and the elbows of high school rugby players.
The Spinoff designer Tina Tiller and I are ready for the gains, too. Going for lunch was a good call, because Chinese Cuisine is often sold out by 4pm each day. Although the foodcourt is open until 9pm, this particular restaurant normally packs up early due to having exhausted supplies. Give them a call if you’re planning on going after lunchtime to get a heads-up on what’s available.
Barbecue pork is one of the go-to dishes here, so we put in an order. A favourite of our boys in black and a favourite of mine, this is perfectly cooked pork resting on some perfectly cooked rice. Steamed greens lie next to the dense pile, making for a well-rounded meal. If I had one criticism, it would be not enough BBQ; I want that sauce.
Next door is Sushi Bar Salmon, so Tina and I order some salmon sushi. Neither of us particularly like fish, but Tina has wise words: “when in a foodcourt, do like the names of the restaurants tell you.”
I’m no connoisseur, but that salmon was fresh out the river. The rolls came in generous portions, too. Eight pieces of lush sushi, all in the perfect size: small enough to cram the whole thing into your mouth, but big enough that you think twice about it. We knocked them down our plebeian gullets with the gusto of people who actually like salmon.
We were on a seafood roll; our next order was calamari from E-Sarn Wok. Apparently, it’s one of their best-sellers. It’s hard for anything to sell poorly at this place, because the service is so good. We placed our order and wandered upstairs for a two-minute restaurant recon, planning to be back down in a few to pick up our meal. No need. Less than five minutes after ordering a hidden door popped open from the upstairs wall and burst forth with crispy squid.
We sat down to enjoy the fat chunks, which were generously battered. They had the perfect crunch-substance ratio, and made me regret my 95% vegan diet more than any bacon ever had. Tina was clutching her stomach, which was almost at capacity. “I can do it,” she groaned. “I can do one more meal.” “For journalism,” I reminded her, “for Mercury Plaza.”
We settled on a final digestif: a hearty tonkotsu ramen from Maruten Ramen. This is one of the most popular dishes at the foodcourt. It came with a cheeky miso soup, which I gulped down straight away. I am so sorry, Tina. My thirst for miso is too strong. The tonkotso soup itself was laden with thin, round slices of seared beef and thick noodles, both of which were soaking up the buttery, marrow-derived broth.
I pull up Louie Knuxx’s 2016 song ‘Mercury Plaza’ on my phone. It was an in memoriam piece, which shows how long rumours of the plaza’s demise have circled. Now, they come into the light. We listen to sad rap over the last of the tonkotsu, our salty tears adding to the umami flavours.
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For 50c, we grab a takeaway box from Katie Chan. In goes everything left – the BBQ pork-tinged rice, a single slice of fluffy sushi, and a few calamari. Everything else is demolished.
Soon, this place will be demolished, too. Being able to catch a train from Karangahape Road will transform the city, but God, at what cost? The end of Chinese Cuisine’s BBQ wonton soup? “I hope this place never closes,” said a blissfully ignorant customer over her heaving tray.
Katie Chan, the exuberant face of Chinese Cuisine, isn’t fazed. She shook her head when we asked if she was worried about the future, and shrugged: “We’ll always be busy.”
The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.