At Sydney’s latest malatang joint, 张亮麻辣烫 Zhang Liang Spicy Hotpot, chilled mist cascades from gleaming refrigerated shelves of ingredients.
I’m told there are over a hundred soup ingredients to choose from, but I can’t say I counted them.
Named for its founder, Zhang Liang, this is the second of China’s biggest malatang restaurant chains to reach Sydney; Yang Guofu’s brand, Yang Guo Fu Mala Tang, arrived here quite a few years ago. Well at least we thought it did - turns out it was a fake, and a lawsuit has seen these non-affiliated stores change their band name to No.1 Malatang.
In term of the real chains, both founders came from the same village, Wanfa Village, Heilongjiang Binxian Village in Harbin.
Professionalising the spicy street food soup from a fixed dish into a do-it-yourself buffet where you pay by weight, has seen both chains sharply rise in popularity inside China, with the number of their stores overtaking American giants like Starbucks.
While Yang Guo Fu was first to venture overseas, Zhang Liang began their path to world domination with a restaurant in Japan in 2016.
At the beginning of 2020, they opened their first Sydney restaurant right in front of the new Chinatown Light Rail stop.
The process at all of the Sydney malatang restaurants I’ve been to is pretty much the same.
Basically, you collect a bowl and tongs; proceed down the conga line of ingredients choosing what you wish to eat; and pay at the end and receive a buzzer that tells you when to collect your soup.
Zhang Liang’s main points of difference include particularly good labelling – no more “mystery balls” for me.
They also provide sauce dishes at the sauce station.
This means, rather than transporting your steaming bowl of soup to the station and applying sauces directly, you can take your tray directly to your table.
Once there you can add the sauce you have carefully prepared during the agonising wait between deciding what will be in your meal, and actually eating it (which to be fair, was about fifteen minutes, with a completely full restaurant).
In the Zhang Liang soup ingredient range, there were all my usual favourites, including fried mochi nuggets and rice cakes, including colourful pumpkin and taro versions.
Both of these items are texturally wonderful in the resulting soup, providing great contrast to fresh vegetables like enoki and king brown mushrooms, and the upper row of snapping fresh leafy greens.
One of the big differences in the Zhang Liang range is it includes a lot of dumplings.
They run from stuffed egg rolls, to shrimp har gow, to wrinkled pink cooked prawn dumplings.
I found some dim sum worked well in the soup, while others weren’t as good as the multiple types of noodles, different iterations of tofu, and wide variety of no-longer-a-mystery balls.
Meat and seafood options are also plentiful, and here they feel particularly well temperature controlled.
While the usual frozen thinly coiled slivers of lamb, pork and beef are available, there are also signature fresh chicken and beef options that went well in the soup.
Don’t be put off by adding raw proteins into your bowl, including the lovely green prawns - after weigh-in they’re going to be cooked properly in a steaming pot of soup.
This is my dining companion's selection, which weighed in at a hefty 1.05kg Malatang ($28.14).
With ingredients here are priced at a reasonably competitive $26.80 per kilo, this was the most pricy oversized bowl of malatang he's ever ordered.
My 480g Malatang ($12.86) provided a reasonably sized complete meal for one person, including some of the more unusual ingredient additions, like bacon and an over-hard egg (fried).
If I’m honest, neither of these oddities worked very well in Zhang Liang’s signature collagen-rich spicy soup – making it possibly the first time ever adding bacon wasn’t a good idea.
The opaque flat sweet potato noodles also came up nicely in the broth. The heat level and complexity of the broth here is less good than fake Yang Guo Fu, so you are going to need to add a good amount of middle in your sauce. I suggest XO, chilli and fermented bean curd paste, as there’s already a reasonable amount of sesame in the soup.
The thing Zhang Liang definitely do better is cutting up the soup ingredients, from leafy greens to those balls, so it’s much easier to eat.
The drink range is small, but it does contain Calpis ($3.50) which is my favourite (cooling) malatang accompaniment.
If you’re a rooky malatang eater, Zhang Liang is a good place to start your spicy hotpot journey. My best advice is to choose small amounts of many things – the best malatang has lots of variety - without going overboard. I actually managed to almost finish my soup...
张亮麻辣烫 Zhang Liang Spicy Hotpot
Shop 1B & 1C, 718 George Street, Haymarket
Ph: (02) 9281 9137