If you’re a coeliac, a vegan, or both, Yum Cha is forbidden territory. In fact, food intolerances aside, it’s enough to give anyone a bad stomach. But when a Yum Cha sets up in Bondi, Sydney, it’s a different story. Opening its doors today is Australia’s first vegan-friendly, coeliac-accommodating Yum Cha and bar: Cha Li Boi.
Developed by Nahji Chu—the founder of cult Vietnamese chain, MissChu, whichclosed its doors in Sydney in 2015—Cha Li Boi has little in common with your typical Yum Cha. Sure, the trolleys and dim sum remain but instead of poor-quality meats and cornstarch, you’ll find free-range pork and organic tofu, clean ingredients and sustainable produce. It’s farm to lazy Susan at its best.
Taking over the space once occupied by the Oriental Jewel in Bondi Junction, Cha Li Boi kept little from its former tenant—no lanterns, no carpet, no gold cats and certainly no MSG.
“The intention was to redesign the space but when I saw how beautiful the walls were (when we gutted the previous ‘Oriental Jewel’ restaurant design) I thought, let’s just let it be a beautiful, raw, honest and conceptual space—no names, no designer labels, no egos—and that’s what the food will be too. Clean living, great food and wines, it’s just to be enjoyed,” says Chu.
It’s a modern take on a traditional Yum Cha hall, and so too are the dishes. Along with the cult classics—like Peking duck pancakes and sang choi bao—you’ll find the more inventive fare. Pork buns are on the menu alongside their vegan counterpart, the Man Bun, made with tempura okra, silken tofu, enoki, muntries, mange tout and cashew nut paste; and Xia Long Bow comes with meat in or out, too.
As for the dumplings, they’re far from your average pairings. Scallop and ling fish mix together in Ling My Bell while crayfish and scampi form the base of a goldfish-shaped Cray Cray. The Duck Wonton comes with tangerine peel and the Leather Jacket has curried pumpkin in a gluten-free squid ink skin. And of course, we can’t forget the Pac Man, which you’ll have to try for yourself. There is also a focus on native ingredients like karkalla, a native succulent, and other exotics such as saltwort and warrigal greens.
While the names may be playful, there’s nothing gimmicky about it. The space is modern and the food is exceptional—unsurprising since Chu recruited Kylie Kwong’s right-hand dumpling man, John Leong aka Dim Sum Johnny.
And then, there’s Chu’s favourite: Phoenix Claws—a euphemism for chicken’s feet if ever we’ve heard one. “It’s how I judge a good yum cha venue quite frankly. It’s intimidating for most I know but hey, Australia was once also intimidated by Pho and now everyone’s a Pho expert. Just down the claws with a Crown Lager and know that the tendons are what will save you from arthritis in old age if you eat enough of them,” she says.
So, we took it from the master herself and tried the Phoenix Claws, and the verdict: it’s darn good Yum Cha.