A mural on the second floor of Food Alley (Photo: Jihee Junn)
A mural on the second floor of Food Alley (Photo: Jihee Junn)

OPINIONKaiJanuary 28, 2020

Every great city needs places like Food Alley – but we need to back them

A mural on the second floor of Food Alley (Photo: Jihee Junn)
A mural on the second floor of Food Alley (Photo: Jihee Junn)

Our job as walkers of city streets is to continue frequenting gems like the soon-to-close Food Alley, writes Miriam Moore. 

Last week, my favourite Auckland food institution posted a plea for customers. In a video on its Instagram, Food Alley on Albert Street called for people to still visit, and included an explainer of how to get there now there’s a road diversion from ongoing works for Auckland’s City Rail Link (CRL) project.  

It seems hard to believe that this cheap-eats staple, which I first discovered 10 years ago during my first days in the big smoke, would need to ask for customers. Aside from the clinically decorated La Porchetta up the road (RIP), this was one of the only places a poor student like me could afford to eat out. After trying multiple other food courts as I wandered further from my first-year dorm, I soon learned that Food Alley is the shit. It is unbeatable. 

The Vietnamese stall at Food Alley (Photo: José Barbosa)

When I saw that video on Instagram, I tweeted my endorsement and discovered more than 200 people agreed with me. For perspective, approximately two people normally engage with my tweets. I was so happy to find that other Aucklanders feel the same way about this rundown but lovable corridor in the wall. But then, the bombshell. Shortly after that initial plea, Food Alley announced that 1 May 2020 will be its final day of operation. It’s closing due to development works on the site unrelated to the CRL. The food court has been in operation for 28 years, and it’s precisely that long lifespan that makes it irreplaceable by any new development.  

The closure of Food Alley is a huge loss for the city centre, and for the thousands of people who populate it day and night. I’ve spent many meals there catching up with friends over curry, noodles, skewers, you name it. Friends are always willing to meet you there – or else, after slurping their first pho, are shocked that they had never previously heard of it. Food Alley’s nondescript frontage, like the entrance to some long-abandoned cinema complex, makes it easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for. The bustling community inside those walls? That’s something every one of its fans will miss.

Photo: José Barbosa

READ MORE: An ode to Food Alley, 1992-2020

The joy of food courts is that there’s something for everyone, for every taste. Several dishes in Food Alley have become culinary stars in their own right. I hear the som tam (papaya salad) from Thai E-Sarn is incredible, and a laksa from Malaysian Noodles always hits the spot, so long as you remember not to wear white. Even as a sad, lonely vegan, I am spoiled for choice. With each stall representing the country from where its owners originate , the only Asian fusion there is the whirlpool of steam that leaves a slight film of oil on your face as a goodbye souvenir. Who needs a facial serum?

A more specific loss for the city centre is the Food Alley drinks counter. They do Pink Panthers, filling a rumoured void after the closure of Valentines on Dominion Road. No downtown drinks venue, even at happy hour, brings people together like Food Alley. Their famed “cocktail” menu has something for any kind of boozer, with everyone’s favourite cocktail, Jim Beam and coke, going for just $7. Beers are $5 (a small inflation on the $4 of my student days), and last time I ordered a glass of wine it was $3.80 and filled to the top. A top hack for anyone planning a BYO outing is to say screw it and go to Food Alley instead. The wine is cheaper than a bottle plus corkage, plus the variety will finally get Becky to stop whining that she’s sick of getting Thai. There will be butter chicken for Becky. There is also a karaoke bar a few doors up the road.  

Photo: José Barbosa

Everything I’ve listed above created the perfect recipe for a thriving inner-city food court. And that’s why I was so shocked and saddened by Food Alley’s initial call for customers.  A lot goes on behind the scenes with businesses affected by development; it’s a tricky technical process in which I am no expert. As a self-confessed urbanist, I admit construction excites me rather than deters me. All cities must undergo construction, especially those populating at Auckland’s rate. Currently many of Auckland’s roads (and their underground systems) are being upgraded to support the street life that fills them, and we must see through the inconveniences that brings in the interim. Businesses cannot choose their locations during construction periods, but we as customers can choose our pedestrian routes and the businesses we support.

CRL is the biggest works project that Auckland has ever seen, and a city of our size demands it. Being car-free and with the fortune of being able-bodied, construction works have never bothered me. I am a full-time pedestrian, walking 60 minutes to work daily, and to wherever else I need to go. I purposefully walk past construction to watch the diggers like a wide-eyed child, and excitedly envision the urban life that is being created before me. Walking down the middle of Albert St also allows me to discover buildings I never noticed when the footpath forced pedestrians under canopy – I get to see the city in a whole new way.

There is no denying that the construction of CRL is causing major disruption, but it is also causing huge excitement. In 2013, I was able to get tickets to Beyonce’s Mrs Carter World Tour 10 minutes after they went on sale. In 2019, within the same timeframe, tickets to the underground walk through the CRL tunnels were all snapped up and I missed out. While the business conversations go on in the background, our job as walkers of these streets is to translate that excitement into supporting gems like Food Alley.

Food Alley amid the CRL construction on Albert Street (Photo: José Barbosa)

This is a plea to those who jumped on the first announcement that Food Alley wants customers: fulfil your pledge to patronise their stalls. Let them see how much we support them in our final four months together. Food Alley’s demise is certainly not the death of the food court, but it comes in conjunction with the rise of the “bougie” food court such as Newmarket Westfield and the forthcoming Commercial Bay. A lunch for under $15 will be hard to find at any of these places. The closure of a food court that is as beloved, welcoming and affordable as Food Alley is a huge loss for Auckland. My advice is to have your next office meeting over some Kampung Delights. Take your child to watch the diggers, then get them a Pink Panther. Hell, bring someone you hate for a laksa on a day they’re wearing a new white kaftan. Let’s use these last few months to celebrate the community of Auckland in the legendary space that is Food Alley. 

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