It’s been two years since two of Auckland’s most beloved foodcourts shut, and plenty of us are still missing our favourite stalls. But some of those spots have since been resurrected elsewhere – here’s where to find them.
When Food Alley opened in downtown Auckland in 1992, it was the city’s first Asian food court. Two years later, another Asian food court, Mercury Plaza, opened at the other end of the central city, just off Karangahape Road. They were linked by proximity, affordable and tasty meals, nondescript frontages and fondness in the hearts of Aucklanders.
Since then, food courts have become part of the fabric and identity of Tāmaki Makaurau, and while Food Alley and Mercury Plaza are surely our most famous, their descendants are dotted all over the city.
I embarrassingly spent my single-digit years contemptuously lugging bags of McDonald’s into Mercs while my parents slurped down generous bowls of tom kha soup and plates of smoky Malaysian noodles. It was only in high school, and then again later when I moved to cities lacking perfectly gritty food courts, that I truly came to appreciate how lucky we were in Auckland. While at university, Food Alley, with its charming murals, hidden dining areas and $3.80 glasses of wine, became a regular haunt, and most importantly – my happy place.
It’s hard to recall sometimes, but before the pandemic we did have other (admittedly smaller) problems. In July 2019 it was announced that Mercury Plaza would close that October to make way for Karangahape Station as part of the new City Rail link project. Then, in January 2020, another hit for Auckland diners: Food Alley announced on Facebook that it too was closing down. May 1 would be last orders at the food court, which was to be bowled down for an apartment block. That anticipated date was cut short by a month when the country went into lockdown on March 25.
It was the end of two eras. And while each of their physical buildings are gone, the number of times Mercury Plaza or Food Alley pops up in conversations tells me they’re still lamented. They occupy a special place in the shared food memories of many, a nostalgia steeped in ramshackle interiors and cheerful food.
Knowing this, we’ve compiled a list of joints from each food court that have reopened with their own standalone shops since the closures, plus maps of where they were in each foodcourt before they closed, drawn by Toby Morris. My hope is that the list will be updated and evolve as more places (fingers crossed) reappear.
Sushi Bar Salmon
Famous for its generous bento boxes, and boasting what was often described as “the freshest sushi in town”, Sushi Bar Salmon was nestled in the upstairs level of the food court. Owner Chul Han Lee spent time in Japan to learn the cuisine, which led to stints in the kitchens of Japanese restaurants in the UK, Korea and New Zealand, before opening his own place in Mercury Plaza.
In March this year, Lee reopened a new sushi shop called Gurume at the Three Lamps end of Ponsonby Road, with a cabinet of eye-catching sushi, along with nigiri and donburi.
Gurume: Shop12/282 Ponsonby Road, Ponsonby
When Mercury Plaza closed, Chinese Cuisine was its longest-running business. Tony and Ming Chan opened their stall in 1994 and began selling their barbecue pork wonton soup and roast pork, duck and chicken on rice, which were famously popular among the All Blacks.
Earlier this month, to the delight of their original fans they reopened as a standalone 40-seat restaurant in Epsom (although they’re only doing takeaway at the moment). Tony and Ming’s daughter Katie Chan is continuing her parents’ legacy with their help at the new premises. Despite a two-year break from the kitchen for the family, I’ve heard through the grapevine that their kai tastes just as it always did.
Chinese Cuisine: 17 Pah Road, Epsom
With its chewy handmade noodles and perfectly developed broth, it’s not surprising there was often a long line at the till at Maruten. The spot was opened by Takeshi Mizuta six years before Mercury Plaza closed and in that time became a favourite of chefs from some of Auckland’s best Japanese restaurants.
They’ve since reopened on Dominion Road with a space that boasts a streetfront table and a long counter-bench like you’d find in ramen shops all over Japan. Crowd favourites like their tonkotsu charsyu ramen and syo-yu butter corn ramen are happily still on the menu.
Maruten Ramen: 466 Dominion Road, Mount Eden
It’s E-Sarn Wok’s chicken laksa and duck noodle soup that spark the fondest memories for me. While their perfectly 1990s cerulean blue signage and illuminated picture menu are gone, their menu favourites remain at the new location in Mission Bay opened by original owners Kris and Nancy.
E-Sarn Wok: 35 Tamaki Drive, Mission Bay
Ruang Thong occupied a spacious corner stall in the plaza for 10 years ahead of its closure. In the bustling open kitchen, chef Cyaowapa Chompooppuek pumped out chicken larb, lava pork and kao kling to hungry customers. Owner Ophas Phetbamrung and Chompooppuek reopened Ruang Thong last year in Mt Albert. The menu looks pleasingly familiar, but with a number of additional Isaan dishes.
Ruang Thong: 942 New North Road, Mount Albert
New Gum Sarn
While somewhat concealed by the surrounding food stalls, for supermarket aficionados, New Gum Sarn was legendary. Whether you were after fruit lanterns, industrial-sized pots, steamers, joss paper or fresh vegetables – or simply a single can of beer to accompany your meal – it was the place to go.
The supermarket reopened last year in Panmure. And while it’s no longer selling fresh produce, everything else looks impressively similar to the original headquarters.
New Gum Sarn: 151 Pilkington Road, Point England, Panmure
When Food Alley closed Thai E-Sarn had been open for five years, and had quickly developed a reputation not only as one of the only, but the best place to get Isaan (northeastern Thai) cuisine in Auckland. Few weeks go by where I’m not feeling melancholy that I can’t meet my friends for a plate of som tom pu (spicy papaya salad with pickled crab) with a $3.50 glass of dry white wine from their neighbouring stall, Alley Cats, to accompany it.
So I was delighted, and may or may not have happy cried, when Thai E-Sarn was resurrected as a standalone shop down the opposite end of Hobson Street last year. They’ve maintained their extensive Isaan menu and I can vouch that their som tum salads remain unbeaten – sadly no $3.50 glasses of wine these days though.
Thai E-Sarn: 3/205 Hobson Street, Auckland CBD
Malaysian Noodles and Rice
It always seemed like every second table in Food Alley had a serving of Malaysian Noodles and Rice’s chicken laksa, mee goreng and hokkien mee, or the popular kurt teaw, a plate of noodles heaving with chunky prawns, pork and squid, with the all-important smoke element having found its way into the dish through an extremely hot wok.
Devotees can revisit that at their new shop in West Auckland, which was opened shortly after the first lockdown in 2020.
Malaysian Noodles: 301 Lincoln Road, Henderson
Bento are a food court necessity, and Umaiya delivered. Their boxes made up of teriyaki and katsu, sushi, salad and dumplings with a side of miso soup were a favourite among the crowds of pekish workers who would descend upon the food court at lunchtime.
At their new location in Parnell, the menu remains relatively unchanged with udon noodles, donburi and, of course, bento ready to be eaten there or taken away.
Umaiya: 100 Parnell Road, Parnell
Know of any other Mercury Plaza or Food Alley reopenings? Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org