11/537-551 George St
Sydney, NSW 2000
I love a good cheap feed. Even though eating frugally has long since stopped being a necessity (Can you believe I used to think anything above $10pp is pricey?? But then again, I was 18, and the year was 2011), there’s nothing quite as gratifying as filling the tummy with good food for loose change. So between scoping out the fanciest places in Sydney to visit whenever I can think of a good enough excuse, I’ve also spent quite a bit of time digging up the best cheap eats around town. And one of the places that consistently made the list was Mappen Noodle Restaurant.
It took me a bit to find Mappen; instead of being just along the street as I had expected, it was actually located in a cluster of food court-like restaurants in the Skyview Shopping Plaza. But simple as it may be, I really liked the effort that was put into giving the restaurant a retro Japanese diner vibe – it went a long way to making this feel like a proper sit-down meal, rather than just a quick stopover for a bite.
Mappen may seem quite intimidating for those who haven’t come across this format of dining before; luckily, I had previously eaten at a similar restaurant, so the concept wasn’t too unfamiliar. Here’s how you do it: firstly, decide what you want to eat – this is very important, and you’ll soon see why! Once you’re ready, hustle your way to the counter, where not only will your order be immediately taken, but you’ll find a bowl of freshly-cooked udon placed before you within seconds. Now this is where it gets fun. Scooch your way down the line, and try and resist picking up every single piece of tempura you see. For the more health-conscious, there’s also a selection of small cold appetisers. Finally, grab some complementary tempura flakes and scallions for your udon if you’re so inclined, pay up, and don’t forget your cutlery on the way to finding a seat!
In order to gauge quality, I usually like to start with a simple order – in this case, the Kake Cha-shu Udon ($8.9, regular). This featured a bowl filled to the brim with noodles swimming in a clear broth, topped with slices of marinated pork belly. The udon was as good as you’d expect freshly made noodles to be – devilishly slippery with a satisfying bite.
Equally as well executed was the soup, which was a moreish blend of sweet and savoury. It was only the pork that wasn’t quite up to par, tasting on the drier and blander end of things, and just not of the same quality as the noodles and soup.
On the other end of the udon spectrum is the Tonkotsu Red ($8.9, regular). Instead of being light and delicate like the kake udon, this featured a pork-based broth, topped with minced pork and a fiery slick of chilli oil. The flavours of this dish were actually quite overwhelming, the numbing, smoky qualities of the chilli more reminiscent of Sichuan cuisine than Japanese cooking. Although I love a good spicy bowl of noodles, I found this one to be just too heavy-handed, with no room to appreciate the quality of the noodles themselves.
As for the fried goodies, it also fell on the less impressive end of things. The Takoyaki ($2) were soft from sitting around (though to be honest I prefer them that way), and didn’t have enough sauce, and whilst batter around the Tempura Fish Cake ($2.2) was impressively light and crunchy, there’s just not enough flavour in it to make me want to eat a 20cm-long piece.
Likewise, the Fish Tempura ($2.2) wasn’t all that great either. It tasted more like a bland, reheated frozen fish fillet from the box, rather than freshly made tempura made from a decent piece of seafood.
I’ll admit I’m baffled by the rating that Mappen has garnered. Zomato has it sitting at a whopping 4.6/5, which is higher than most fine-dining restaurants you’ll find in either Sydney or Melbourne. And whilst I agree that it is certainly good for what you pay for, it’s nothing remarkable, and exists mostly for when you need a quick, cheap, and filling meal. And now that it’s no longer 2011, and I’m no longer 18, I’d much rather pay another $5, and have a proper sit-down meal in a proper Japanese restaurant instead.
Rating: 12/20 – meh-ppen.
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit.