It’s always hard for me, as a traveller obsessed with all things Asia - particularly the food - to return home to Sydney after a trip.
But it's not all bad news when I get back from a trip. Whilst Sydney doesn’t exactly have the buzzing night markets or street food of Asia it does have plenty of foodie options that help to bring back the memories of being there.
Several suburbs of Sydney resemble mini versions of Thailand, Singapore or Vietnam. In fact it is Sydney’s “ghettoization” (in a good way) of nationalities and cultures that largely contributed to my falling in love with my adopted city after leaving the U.K almost 20 years ago. The celebration of multiculturalism through food helps define Sydney’s charm.
It may surprise first time visitors to Sydney and maybe even some Sydneysiders that Sydney is home to at least 3 mini Saigons, 4 mini Chinatowns, 2 mini Seouls and an area adjacent to the CBD’s Chinatown that actually goes by the name of “Thaitown.” If you’d rather cook then eat out, all the authentic ingredients for typical dishes from each country can easily be purchased in the local supermarkets located within these areas.
I do enjoy cooking when I’m in the mood but it’s no secret that I’d prefer to eat out. Luckily there is an embarrassment of riches from which to choose from when I’m hungry and missing Asia, which is most of the time!
The first suburb I’d opt to visit is Chatswood on Sydney’s Lower North Shore. Over the last 5 years Chatswood has expanded from a shopping destination with a few Chinese duck, yumcha (dimsum) and sushi restaurants to becoming Sydney’s mini Singapore. By day it’s a shopping mecca with 3 shopping malls but by night it is a foodie's paradise that comes alive with throngs of families and couples from all over the world. Mamak, the 2nd branch of the ever-popular Malay Satay and Roti chain would be my first port of call here. I adore eating Satay in Singapore; these little sticks of bbq’d meaty goodness with bowls of peanut sauce are the delicacy I miss the most back home particularly as its hard to find an authentic version.
Mamak serves what is without doubt Australia’s best satay and at their Chatswood branch, it’s possible to walk straight in without the ever-prominent queue found in their Chinatown branch. Their Nasi Lamak with choice of sides is sensational too.
Mamak isn’t Chatswood’s only Malay eatery though. Pappa Rich is large, noisy and fun and even the local RSL (Retired Service’s Leagues Club) has its own Malay restaurant, a definite step up from the usual RSL fare found across Australia.
Recently The District - a new authentically Asian food court opened above the train station in Chatswood – the first outpost in Australia of Hong Kong’s famous Michelin Starred Dumpling joint Tim Ho Wan brings people here in droves. His dumplings are heaven in a steamer but if the queue is too long there’s many other stalls serving Asian food from all over the Asian continent; from Taiwan to Vietnam and beyond.
Walk down Chatswood’s main street Victoria Road and you can take your pick from several Korean BBQ eateries, Vietnamese (Xic Lo is one of my favourites here) and Chinese Noodle Soup shops. There’s also a branch of Taste of Shanghai in the relatively new Concourse precinct called Shanghai Stories #lovethisplace.
To digress a little, I go through phases of favouring one cuisine over another. As you may have spotted I’m in my Malay phase currently. Now one wouldn’t normally think of the Eastern suburb of Double Bay when thinking of where to go for Malay food, but last year Chinta Ria (formerly found in touristy Darling Harbour) opened a small eatery right there they call Chinta Kechil serving "Modern Malaysian Street Food". There are plenty of laksa options all over Sydney but Chinta Kechil is where I’d head to for a bowl of this thick spicy soupy wonder. Once inside, the decor is such you could be forgiven for thinking you were anywhere but the Easter suburbs.
From Malay Cuisine to Vietnamese. It has become a bit of a family tradition that on any an auspicious day in the calendar, be it Fathers or Mothers Day, Good Friday or Boxing Day my family needs its Pho fix; pho being that ubiquitous noodle soup found all over Vietnam. Sydneysiders, particularly those with Vietnamese heritage will argue over where serves the best pho. We have two favourites – Pho An in the Western suburb of Bankstown whose tagline is “So Pho, So Good” or PHD in Marrickville. Gordon Ramsay comes to mind when I’m thinking of Pho An. On his TV show Kitchen Nightmares Ramsay normally advises failing restaurants to stick to a short menu with only dishes they can pull off. Pho An only serves one dish albeit with several variations. Methinks he would approve!
Bankstown is one of Sydney’s mini Saigons. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d just stepped off a Vietnam Airlines flight when you walk down the main street. Another similar suburb is Cabramatta easily accessible by train. It’s bigger and more spread out than Bankstown and the area where hundreds of Vietnamese refugees made their home back in the 1980s. Cabramatta has a fabulous mini fish market, more pork roll shops than you can shake a stick at and the wonderful Thanh Binh, an institution for almost 20 years.
But back to Pho and our other favourite temple to Pho – that is PHD in Marrickville. Marrickville is the Inner West’s answer to Saigon with scores of Vietnamese eateries. For lunch or dinner, PHD is always packed full of soup lovers, unsurprisingingly - their pho is a wonderful stomach cleanser when you’re feeling a little under the weather. Maybe it’s the fresh mint leaves or the stock, either way its what every doctor should order. PHD prides themselves on offering a free-range chicken pho option for those, like me, who care about the quality of ingredients. It’s testament to PHD that there are photos at the counter of Sydney celebs who have eaten here, including Australia’s best Vietnamese chef and SBS TV personality Luke Nguyen who has now made his home in Saigon. Fact is PHD is so much more than Pho though. They have an extensive soup list including a spicy Bun Bo Hue and a delicious Bun Mang Vit. We searched the Vietnamese town of Dalat to find this soup, having read about it in Luke’s book only to find it in our own backyard. Bun Mang Vit (pictured) comprises of pieces of duck on the bone, bamboo shoots and rice noodles swimming in a cleansing broth – what could be better?
Other places of note in Marrickville – Yen for Viet with a super healthy mustard green noodle soup, Marrickville Pork Roll serving what has to be Sydney’s most popular Banh Mi Thit (pork roll), the consistent queues outside tell the tale, and Bau Truong which has an extensive menu of delectable little Vietnamese tapas that bring back memories of my favourite Saigon restaurant Hoa Tuc.
This talk of Vietnamese food and Luke Nguyen brings me to Australia’s best Vietnamese Restaurant – Red Lantern on Riley. Luke, his sister Pauline and her husband, Executive Chef Mark Jensen started Red Lantern on Crown back in 2002 and in 2012 they moved to bigger premises and created a restaurant that all others should emulate. From the warm welcome received as we walk through the door to the impeccable service, the gorgeous French Colonial interior décor with every detail thought out down to the floor tiles sourced from Vietnam, and of course the exquisite food. Could eat here everyday, scrap that – I just want to move in! So many dishes to mention but on the must haves list is the Banh Xeo (pictured), the best chilli salted squid on the planet (really!), Aunty 5’s Rice cake entrée (pictured) and the Soursop Dumpling with green tea ice cream desert that is so good it frankly defies description. I’m pretty confident the last 2 will never be found on a menu outside of Red Lantern, unique and every mouthful is utterly memorable.
Recently our guest "Vlogger" 11 year old Callum chatted with Executive Chef Mark Jensen and enjoyed a tour around the kitchen.
Before I move on to Sydney’s Thai offering I have to mention a fabulous little Vietnamese place that I’ve been frequenting in my own suburb of Drummoyne for over a decade. Saigon Express – another joint that I’m sure Gordon Ramsay would approve of. It has a short but sweet menu of dishes that are done to perfection, not least my absolute go to dish affectionately known as “15A”. 15A is a seafood noodle soup with large balls of crabmeat and a seafood and tamarind broth. Can't get enough of this soup.
And now to Thai. Thai restaurants in Australia are what Indian restaurants are to the U.K. Some are terrible (a Thai in Airlie Beach, Queensland had no Thai staff and frankly no Thai food I unhappily recall), some are mediocre at best where “dumbing down” is the order of the day but some are thankfully fantastic and truly authentic.
In Sydney, Chat Thai has in recent years been widely thought of as the pinnacle of Thai food and with good reason. Their flagship in Campbell St, Thaitown consistently has queues outside but I prefer to go to their Galeries Victoria Food Court outpost in George Street, CBD for my Khao Soi fix; Khao Soi being the thick curry like soup with pickles and crispy noodles on top found all over Chiang Mai but sadly not found that frequently in Sydney. Heaven in a soup bowl.
Chat Thai has recently opened Boon Café in Pitt Street, Chinatown. It’s open for breakfast thank goodness so I no longer need to go cold turkey from my Thai breakfast addiction when I’m at home. It serves sandwiches and burgers with a Thai twist at lunch time and at dinner you’ll probably not find more authentically Thai fare anywhere else in Sydney. Dtub Wan is a dish ofspicy pork livers steamed with toasted ground rice and herbs and I just adore the GAENG OHM PLA - spicy fish clear curry w/ apple eggplants in dill, lemongrass, chilli broth
Spice I am held the title for Sydney’s best Thai before the dominance of Chat Thai took over. It’s Surry Hills flagship still draws the crowds as does its spin off a few doors down, “House Thai” that should come with a warning – “if you can’t take it hot don’t come”. When I last visited House Thai it was full of Thai students, evidence of its authenticity.
However its “Spice I am’s” Balmain branch that I return to over and over. The cocktails alone are a draw card but it’s the entrée of deep fried crispy betel leaves with prawns and a tang of chilli (pictured) that is the number one reason I return. For mains, a super spicy (ped ped in Thai) crispy rice and Chiang Mai sausage salad (pictured) and a dish of crispy pork belly and spinach don’t disappoint either.
A very recent welcome addition to Sydney’s Thai Food scene is located in a very unlikely suburb of Woolwich on the Lower North Shore. Eatdustry is a secret I barely want to share for fear I’ll never get another table. The chef/owner was the Chat Thai chef for 12 years and left to open his own restaurant. The food is very similar to Chat Thai and on a recent visit his specials menu was so attractive that I didn’t need to open the everyday menu. The spicy fish soup/curry was a delight. I can also get one of my absolute favourite dishes across all cuisines here - Goong ob woon sen, Glass Noodle in a hot pot with ginger and king prawns.
There are literally thousands of Thai restaurants in Sydney and new ones are popping up all the time. Good news is they are getting better and better. A couple worthy of note are Longrain, not new but still serving sensational modern Thai fusion dishes and Thanon Khaosan in the CBD’s Thaitown with it’s very own tuk tuk by the front counter.
Can’t talk Thai in Sydney without mentioning the suburb of Newtown that used to proudly state it was home to 25 Thai restaurants. That number is even higher now but of all those, I favour the large, lively but always superb Thai Pothong. I tasted my first Somtum (papaya salad) outside of Thailand here many years ago.
I’ve only touched the surface of Asian food in Sydney here. I feel a sequel coming on very soon with much more.
My mind is already flooding with ideas to feature in the sequel - I could talk Korean in the mini Seouls that are Strathfield or Eastwood; all the little Chinatowns that are Burwood, Hurstville or Ashfield (Dumpling Central), the food courts of Sydney, the incredible Japanese that is found at Sokyo at The Star, Kylie Kwong’s simply sublime Billy Kwong’s at Potts Point and perhaps even where to go if you’re missing Singapore Chilli Crab which I am right now. Luckily I’m writing this on a plane to Singapore so I’ll fill that void tonight!
If you’re reading this and craving the flavours, sights and sounds of Asia let me know what you think I’ve missed out and where you eat when back home in Oz.
Best Restaurants to head to in Sydney when you're missing Asia
Mamak: p9/1-5 Railway St, Chatswood NSW 2067 Phone:(02) 9411 4411
The District: 436 Victoria Ave, Chatswood NSW 2067
Tim Ho Wan: 1 Railway St, Chatswood NSW 2067 Phone:(02) 9898 9888
Xic Lo: 17 Spring Pl, Chatswood NSW 2067 Phone:(02) 9412 4919
Shanghai Stories: Shop 4 & 6 The Concourse, 409 Victoria Ave, Chatswood NSW 2067 Phone: (02) 9412 3880
Chinta Kechil: 342 New South Head Rd, Double Bay NSW 2028 Phone: (02) 9327 8888
Pho An: 27 Greenfield Parade, Bankstown NSW 2200 Phone: (02) 9796 7826
PHD: 260 Marrickville Rd, Marrickville NSW 2204 Phone: (02) 9090 2869
Thanh Binh: 52 John St, Cabramatta NSW 2166 Phone: (02) 9727 9729
Marrickville Pork Roll: 236A Illawarra Rd, Marrickville NSW 2204 Phone: 0420 966 368
Red Lantern on Riley: 60 Riley Street, Darlinghurst NSW 2010 Phone: (02) 9698 4355
Saigon Express:77 Lyons Rd, Drummoyne NSW 2047 Phone: (02) 9719 3038
Chat Thai, Galleries: Lower Ground, Galeries Victoria, 500 George St, Sydney
Spice I am Balmain: 237 Darling St, Balmain NSW 2041 Phone: (02) 9555 9224
Eatdustry: 94 Woolwich Rd, Woolwich NSW 2110 Phone: (02) 9817 1001
Longrain: 85 Commonwealth St, Sydney NSW 2010 Phone: (02) 9280 2888
Thai Pothong: 294 King St, Newtown NSW 2042 Phone: (02) 9550 6277
Thanon Khaosan: 413 Pitt Steet, Haymarket NSW 2000 Phone: (02) 9211 1194
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