Forget over-priced tourist traps – Sydney is packed with hidden flavours of a far more exotic kind, says food critic Stephanie Clifford-Smith. Pack your tastebuds for the city’s best ethnic eats…
North Eastern Chinese
Tangy vinegar is the first aroma to hit on walking into this modern little place in Parramatta’s CBD. Servings are generous, so the mostly Chinese diners at compact tables manoeuvre platters with the precision of chess champs. Bouncy steamed dumplings filled with coarse pork mince and pickled Chinese cabbage are a substantial start and a good contrast to fine strips of burnished pork, wok tossed with glossy green beans, heady with garlic, ginger and sesame oil. Toothpick lamb is the hero though; tender slices of meat encrusted with cumin and chilli while long coriander stems woven throughout add flavour and crunch. Swift service and teapots that pour cleanly are bonuses. Where: Shop 6/103 George St, Parramatta (entry through Charles St). 02 9891 1225.
Jugemu and Shimbashi
Muted Jazz helps set a tranquil tone at this place famous for grinding its own buckwheat for soba. The two-stage pleasure of kamo seiro soba (cold noodles with warm duck fillet broth) is hard to beat. The Jugemu and Shimbashi menu instructs diners to first taste the soba unadorned to appreciate the nutty flavour, then to dip subsequent mouthfuls into the hot broth. Once the tangle of noodles and slices of duck breast are finished, the waitress appears with a tea pot of hot water from the soba cooking with which to dilute the broth to drinking strength. Heaven. Where: 246 Military Rd, Neutral Bay. 02 9904 3011.
This might be one very simple place, but it serves some of the best Malaysian food around. Laminated tables, plastic picture menus and specials scrawled on wall-mounted cardboard show Albee’s efforts are focussed on the kitchen. Sambal petai prawns are firm and juicy, the pungent petai (or ‘stinky beans’) providing contrast in both colour and flavour. The fish head curry’s not to be tackled solo, a massive soupy bowl of spice and tender flesh, while the char kway teow, that hawker classic, is good and smoky. There are curry puffs as well as sambal ikan bilis (crunchy fried anchovies with peanuts) for sale to take home too. Where: 282 Beamish St, Campsie. 02 9718 8302.
Song Fang Khong
Salads and sticky rice are the things that really distinguish Lao food though there’s plenty more on offer from this extraordinary cuisine. In their own country, these lovely, laid back people will eat almost anything nature offers, including all kinds of insects and, in mountainous areas, rodents. Fear not, the protein most likely to be found in Lao restaurants here is more orthodox and invariably includes a variety of offal. Even offal-phobes would enjoy the grilled tongue but there’s always the tangy som tam – green papaya salad – and sticky sweet Laotian pork sausages. Where: 7 Anzac Ave, Fairfield. 02 9728 4552.
Faheem Fast Food
Faheem is a fluoro-lit, no-nonsense, tiles-and-laminate type of place that delivers on the ‘fast’ promise with its food. Chicken pieces wait under a glass counter up the front to be plunged into the tandoor while young waiters bring steaming plates to hungry cabbies. It dubs its version of haleem the ‘King of Curries’ and uses four different kinds of lentils, as well as whole wheat and boneless beef. It’s heavily, though expertly, spiced, has quite a bit of chilli heat and the traditional garnish of julienned ginger, chopped coriander, chillies and fried onions adds flavour and crunch to this deliciously soupy affair. Where: 194-196 Enmore Rd, Enmore. 02 9550 4850.
At one of Cabramatta’s poshest looking eateries, with chocolate leather upholstered chairs and muted metallic (albeit laminated) tabletops, the crisp Vietnamese pancake known as banh xeo is a hit with its thick wedge of iceberg lettuce as well as perilla, mint and laksa leaves. But it’s hard to resist rubbernecking to check out all the other good-looking dishes whizzing down the halogen-lit runway at Bau Truong, such as the ubiquitous pho and sizzling meat plates. Chopped-up fried spring rolls on a bed of vermicelli noodles with pickled vegetables and chilli sauce make a standalone meal full of textural contrasts and zingy flavours. Where: 42 John St, Cabramatta. 02 9727 4492.
There are a couple of noteworthy things about Janani: there are separate kitchens for preparing the meat dishes and vegetarian dishes, and the dosas are great. Customers can see dishes being handed from the kitchens through pokey holes that look like they’ve been hacked into the magenta walls with a chainsaw, if they can drag their eyes away from the Bollywood music clips screening on high rotation. Most dishes come on metal thali plates with puddles of sambar, dhal and coconut chutney and the spicing is uncompromising. Finish with wattalapam, the Sri Lankan version of crème caramel then wander the local grocery stores for spices, rice and chutneys. Where: 32 Burlington Rd, Homebush. 02 9763 2306.
The surest way a Thai restaurant can set itself apart from the crowd is to make its own curry pastes, and that’s what Let’s Eat does. It’s a simple, modern place that jumps even on a week night and the menu offers some unusual dishes. Nam khao tod is a salad of crunchy roasted rice with herbs and tangy pork sausage. Glutinous rice appears in finer form in nam tok, cubes of tender beef, zinging with chilli, fish sauce and lime. If the luxurious masaman duck curry is on, it’s a must, heady with cloves, cinnamon and coconut. Diners after dumbed-down, cookie cutter Thai need not apply. Where: 352 Illawarra Road, Marrickville. 02 9558 9508.
This fluoru-lit, utilitarian space serves customers including cabbies and students with a minimum of fuss and expense. Typically for a Padang Indonesian restaurant in Australia it’s a bain-marie operation with none of the dishes labelled. Customers pick two or three dishes with rice for a set price by pointing to whatever takes their fancy. Liver and lung are among the many dark, mysterious offal options but there’s also salty, chewy skinned fried chicken and bright, spicy belachan kangkong tossed with onion. Table service runs to clearing. Where: 140 Anzac Pde, Kensington. 02 9663 2296.