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Kopi-Tiam Spice Alley, Chippendale

Alex Lee Kitchen's katong laksa & Old Jim Kee's curry puffs and chicken wings

Alex Lee Kitchen's katong laksa & Old Jim Kee's curry puffs and chicken wings

Our restaurant critics' picks of the latest and best eats around the country right now: Kopi-Tiam Spice Alley, Chippendale.

Automata and Silvereye might be getting all the ink, but there's a pretty good chance Spice Alley is where the locals are going to clock the most flying hours this summer.

In stark contrast to the tasting menus of its neighbours, the Alley, an open-air hawker market that runs parallel to Kensington Street, is all about the mix and match. You want dim sum and your buds want har mee, you got it. There's a Malaysian, a Singaporean, a Cantonese and a Thai, plus Poklol, a more temporary-looking operation doing the likes of banh mi and Korean-ish tacos.

We've eaten our way through the lot now and can recommend a cherry-picking approach, opting for the light and flaky roti from Alex Lee Kitchen, for instance, over its so-so "famous" chicken rice. Old Jim Kee does rice and noodles (a heavy, if admirably porky, char kway teow among them), and Hong Kong Diner, as the name suggests, does a solid line in home-style Chinese dishes such as the decent, tendon-heavy beef brisket noodles. Bang Luck Thai has perhaps the least-adventurous-sounding menu, especially for an establishment this close to Thai Town, but the care evident in the cooking of their mussel pancake and pad Thai suggest there's more going on in the kitchen than first meets the eye.

It must be said that Spice Alley offers bugger-all respite from sun and rain, has scant-seeming seating and - odder still - a card-only payment system (you can also change your cash over for a Kopi-Tiam card). But after dark the setting is pretty under its strings of lights, and if you're passing through in the daytime, the offer of good coffee with a winning welcome from the guys manning the machine at the new branch of Glider adds significantly to the appeal.

Kopi-Tiam Spice Alley, Kensington St, Chippendale, NSW. Open daily 11am-10pm.

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