Two Sticks is always, always, full whenever I walk past it. It’s one of apparently very few Yunnan – a province of south-western China – restaurants in Sydney, and it seats only about 30 people. I’d been interested when it first opened over a year ago, having read terrific reviews on Grab Your Fork and B-Kyu. I wanted to make the famous Yunnanese ‘Crossing the Bridge’ noodles the subject of my next Noodle Soup Lunch post. But that proved tricky, as Two Sticks was always, always, full. Then I forgot about it and became obsessed with Vegetable Tonkotsu at Ramen Ikkyu instead.
Two things recently prompted me to try (belatedly) visiting again: a new larger branch on Quay Street which is on my route home so I’m reminded every day that I want to go there; and a repeat of the lovely Luke Nguyen’s Greater Mekong series on SBS, specifically the episode set in Yunnan Province, where he learns how to make ‘Crossing the Bridge’ noodles. Ancient Chinese legend has it (according to Wikipedia) that a scholar, studying for his Imperial Exams on a small island (why an island, I do not know) would be brought lunch everyday by his (undoubtedly long-suffering) wife, who would cross a bridge to get there. She had to lug the food some distance, so she kept the noodles separate from the soup to stop them from going soggy, and the boiling hot stock sealed up in an earthenware pot with a layer of chicken fat to stop it from getting cold. (Pretty lucky student! I hope he passed his exams and bought his wife a present after all that effort.)
Two Sticks’ modern versions are thankfully free from the extra layer of fat as they don’t involve waitresses crossing bridges to get to your table, but they are still authentically served in individual earthenware pots with the noodles and other toppings on the side. And yes, the pot is SUPER hot, just like the sign taped to the table! Rasta and I snuck in to the original tiny Haymarket branch just before 6:30pm on a Tuesday evening but still had to wait for about 10 minutes, as we were the second in the queue. With our usual impeccable timing, the queue quadrupled immediately after us! This is one very popular restaurant! We started with a scarily-named dish of Hot And Numbing Cucumber (Spicy). The roughly chopped cucumbers (perfect chunks for chopsticks) were topped with a mix of Szechuan/Sichuan pepper, chilli, sesame oil, sesame seeds, and I tasted a twang of vinegar in there too. It was indeed hot and numbing and spicy, in a delicious way, and perfectly balanced by the cooling cucumber. Rasta was very taken with the fragrant and lip-tingling ‘flower pepper’ – we will have to make a visit to a branch of Spicy Sichuan soon. During our short wait we were hungrily coveting a plate of tasty-looking fried chicken being eaten by a mother with her small boy. This was the Deep Fried Chicken Bites (Spicy) dusted with Danshan chilli powder, which were a great accompaniment to our noodle soups, as we both ended up getting the mushroom version rather than the traditional mixed meats. Then for the main event: the traditional Crossing the Bridge dish appears on the menu simply as Yunan Signature Rice Noodle Soup, but we preferred the Mushroom Rice Noodle Soup, as we’re both mad about mushrooms and this one had 5 different types: cup, shiitake, oyster, shimeji and enoki! The mushrooms were already in the hotpot with a little chicken, renkon, and some green things. Served separately (and kept nicely un-soggy) were the rice noodles and thin strands of beancurd. With the traditional meat version, you get thinly sliced frozen raw slices of chicken and beef or pork, which are added to the piping hot broth at the table and are ready after a minute’s submersion – not dissimilar to the raw beef added to Vietnamese pho. Even minus the heat-sealing layer of additional fat, this chicken soup was oily and rich, reminiscent of a chicken version of tonkotsu ramen. We both felt it could do with a little extra something, and rectified this by adding the remains of the Szechuan & sesame topping from the cucumbers. Perfect! The noodles were a surprise: fat and tubular, they looked like udon but were made from rice not wheat. I adored the long chewy strands of beancurd ‘noodle’ too. The hotpots were deep and bountiful – this was not a quick slurp but a proper adventure the bottom of the dish! We kept finding submerged gems, and the noodles seemed never ending. The soup also became tastier the longer we ate it, as the hidden ingredients imparted more flavour as they lurked below! I highly recommend a well-timed trip to Two Sticks – perhaps the Haymarket branch is a better bet given it’s three times the size of the George Street hole-in-the-wall.** There were a number of other hotpot options, loads of side dishes, and some intriguing puddings too (but we had a return visit to Aqua S locked in so were not swayed, even though the rose papaya jelly sounded beautiful). Despite the rich soup, the rice noodles make it all that bit lighter than heavier wheat-based noodles such as ramen, udon or the fat hand-pulled ones at Sea Bay. And a meal with a story behind always makes things interesting!
**UPDATE: I’ve now been to the more spacious Haymarket branch with Hubby, twice. We are addicted! He gets the traditional chicken & beef ‘Signature Noodle Soup’ and I have settled on the fish version as my favourite of the hotpots. It’s packed with juicy white fillets of fish and loads of pickled vegetables. We’ve also had the beancurd salad, which is more of those ‘noodles’ of firm tofu mixed with carrot and coriander and well flavoured with sesame oil. And they have Calpis soda, which works well to relieve your mouth from the boiling hot soup and spicy Szechuan pepper :)