The variety of food on offer in Sydney reflects its multicultural population; Asian influences are particularly strong. Let me take you on a tour of my favourite Asian restaurants in Sydney.
Sydney has been touted as having the seventh largest percentage of a foreign born population in the world. This goes someway to explaining why Sydneysiders are so fortunate in being overrun with choices when it comes to multicultural eating. Sydney boasts a plethora of ethnic cuisine, with most prices sitting somewhere between the dirt cheap and the affordable.
One of the nice things for a visitor about exploring Sydney’s world food is that it will take you to areas you would be unlikely to discover on the typical tourist trail. That’s not to say that you can’t eat well whilst sightseeing, as I aimed to demonstrate in my guide A Foodie’s Guide to Tourist Sydney, but some of the most authentic and cheaper restaurants will have you straying from the usual visitor’s path.
Most people who have been to Sydney will agree that it has possibly the best range and quality of Asian food outside Asia. This is presumably to do with proximity and, therefore, high numbers of migrants from there. Asian restaurants in Sydney are often at the dirt cheap end of the scale and most of them are BYO (Bring Your Own Bottle), charging only a small fee for corkage.
Below are listed some of my favourite restaurants from each of the major Asian cuisines available in Sydney and some general information about which suburbs are best for certain types of Asian food.
Thai food is extremely popular in Sydney, so can be found almost anywhere. Spice I am, (90 Wentworth Ave, Surry Hills, 2000; +61 (0)2 9280 0928; www.spiceiam.com/eatin-takeaway) is my favourite Thai restaurant, hands down. Watch out though, there is truth in the name; it is very, very spicy! I always think you can judge a Thai restaurant by the quality of its green curry and tom yum soup, both staple Thai foods, and at Spice I Am I have never been disappointed. Make sure you try the green papaya salad with soft shell crab if they are offering it on the specials. Starters cost around AU$7.80 and mains start from AU$13.90. The restaurant is BYO and they don’t charge corkage.
Many of the bakeries in Sydney’s western suburbs are Vietnamese and having grown up in the inner-west, Vietnamese rolls are one of my favourite lunchtime snacks. Here I refer to bread rolls (rather than summer or spring rolls) filled with pork or chicken, salad, coriander, soy sauce, mayonnaise and pate. The last ingredients may sound odd to the uninitiated, but reflect the French colonial influences on the cuisine. The further west you go (Marrickville, Burwood and beyond) the better the rolls seem to get.
Marrickville is a great place to go for traditional Vietnamese food and this is where you’ll find the best prices. It’s not the prettiest of Sydney’s suburbs, but it’s worth visiting for the Pho alone.
More centrally, the fashionable inner-city suburb of Surry Hills offers a lot of Vietnamese options, with Red Lantern (545 Crown St, Surry Hills, NSW, 2010; +61 (0)2 9698 4355; www.redlantern.com.au) a long time stalwart of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide and recognised by a number of industry awards. Despite its high profile, Red Lantern is still a family restaurant which has not forgotten its humble beginnings; you can read the Nguyen family story (and their recipes) in the book Secrets of the Red Lantern: Stories and Recipes from the Heart.
Just round the corner, a cheaper and more low key option is Non La (59 Fitzroy Street, Surry Hills, NSW, 2010; +61 (0)2 9332 1050). My friend used to live just around the corner, so this was my adopted local for a time.
Staying in Surry Hills
You will notice that three of my recommendations so far are in Surry Hills. The suburb has been gentrified in recent years and is now full of great bars and restaurants, namely along Crown St. This would be a great place to base yourself if you are young and enjoy the nightlife. It is close enough to the city to walk (approx 20mins), but has a distinctly suburban, village feel that you miss if you stay in the centre.
If you are looking for somewhere special to stay, the Adina Apartment Hotel (359 Crown Street, Surry Hills, NSW, 2010) on Crown St gets great reviews, with doubles starting from around AUD 200 in summer. If you prefer a cheaper option, try the City Crown Motel (289 Crown Street, Surry Hills, NSW, 2010).
Modern Asian cuisine is a prominent feature of Sydney’s trendier restaurants. These restaurants tend to be a little pricier, but are worth a visit, if you have a bit of extra cash to spare.
Jimmy Liks (186-188 Victoria St, Potts Point, NSW, 2011; +61 (0)2 8354 1400; www.jimmyliks.com/restaurant.html) is my favourite of these. Start at the cocktail bar, where they do innovative Asian spins on classics, such as the pandanas ginger caprioska or watermelon coriander margarita. You can also order appetizers at the bar; I suggest the smoked eel betel leaf with shrimp galangal and chilli. From the mains, the poached chicken and crab salad with lemongrass, coconut, mint and thai basil is a wonderfully refreshing dish on a hot day, while the mussaman curry of veal shank with peanut betel leaf and ar-jad dipping sauce is the perfect combination of warmth and spice for a winter’s evening.
Blue Ginger, (241 Darling St, Balmain, NSW, 2041; +61 (0)2 9818 4662; www.blueginger.com.au/), in the suburb where I grew up, has been a family favourite for many years. Coincidentally, Charlie Roberts recommendeds this at the end of my recent guide on Sydney food. Like most restaurants in Balmain, Blue Ginger has a welcoming local vibe, less pretentious than some other modern restaurants. Try a Blue Ginger favourite, like the slow braised Angus beef ribs with chilli tamarind sauce and cucumber relish. The head chef of Blue Ginger, Les Huynh, has also written two cookbooks and I can personally recommend the first, Blue Ginger: The Colours and Flavours of Asia, which I used for inspiration on a number of occasions.
Sushi has long been a staple lunchtime option for Sydney-siders. In recent years, the growing number of restaurants offering a more diverse range of Japanese foods reflects the increased popularity of the cuisine as a whole.
Crows Nest in North Sydney seems to be taking off as a new hub of Asian food. The suburb itself is not particularly appealing, but it’s worth a trip just to eat at Ju-rin. Ju-rin (316 Pacific Highway, Crows Nest, NSW, 2065, +61 (0)2 9966 5811, www.jurin.com.au/) was awarded Favourite Asian in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide 2010. The guide recommends that you order from the specials board, since that is where the best quality seafood is showcased. I did so and was not disappointed, the sashimi was some of the freshest I’ve tasted. Prices range from AU$10-27.50 on the a la carte menu, with specials sometimes costing a little more, reflecting market prices. At lunchtime they serve bento boxes, which cost around AU$10-15, a nice way to sample a few different dishes for a bargain price.
Just down the road Sakana-ya, (336 Pacific Highway, Crows Nest, NSW, 2065; +61 (0)2 9438 1468) also gets good reviews. Given the choice between this and Sydney’s “Favourite Asian”, I know which I’d choose, but it’s worth bearing Sakana-ya in mind if Ju-rin is full.
Sydney has one of the world’s largest and most vibrant Chinatowns. In Sally Rowland’s blogpost, The Best Chinatowns from Around the World, she highlights Chinatown as a top area to eat in Sydney and I concur.
In my opinion, it is a must for anyone visiting Sydney to go to yum cha in Chinatown. Yum cha literally means “drink tea”, but refers to the traditional Chinese dining experience which involves both drinking tea and eating dim sum. Yum cha is usually a lunch time event and it is advisable to get there early, as there tends to be less dim sum available after 2pm. Also, I prefer to go on a weekday, when it is quieter; Wednesday or Thursday are usually best.
My long time favourite is The Marigold, (683 George St, Haymarket, NSW, 2000; +61 (0)2 9281 3388; www.marigold.com.au/flash.htm), because they have such a great range of gowgee (steamed dumplings); any variation with prawn is good, prawn and scallop and garlic prawn being the stand outs, and the vegetarian is also nice. The Marigold is also the only place where I have found calamari done so nicely, stir fried with hoisin, soy sauce and chilli.
Another must do Sydney experience is the Golden Century Seafood Restaurant (393-399 Sussex St, Haymarket, NSW, 2000; +61 (0)2 9212 3901; http://www.goldencentury.com.au/). This is a contender for my favourite restaurant overall in any cuisine, style or price range. It is not that food is so much better than anywhere else, although it is very good, nor that the service is particularly special, indeed the waiters can be a little offhand. What makes GC special is that it is open until 4am (the late night atmosphere is always lively) and you still get silver service and great food even in the wee hours. All the seafood comes fresh from the tanks along the walls and is brought live and flapping to your table for approval. Make sure you try the two course peking duck, choosing San Choi Bau (duck meat stir fried with Chinese sausage and water chestnuts served in lettuce leaves) for the second course. Pippies in XO sauce is another great choice, as is Singapore Mudcrab, but this will take the price up a fair bit.
Staying in the city centre
The Sydney Central YHA (11 Rawson Pl, Sydney, NSW, 2000) is located in Haymarket. It is a great place to meet other likeminded travellers and is well located for exploring the sights. If you prefer to be close to the harbour, the Sydney Harbour YHA (110 Cumberland St, The Rocks, Sydney, NSW, 2000) is another option. Both are rated 5 star within the backpacker category by AAA tourism. Prices start from AUD 31 per night.
This is by no means a definitive guide to Asian food in Sydney, I could write a whole book given the space and time. These are just some of my favourites in the areas of Asian cookery that Sydney does best. For most people, this should be ample, but if you manage to exhaust these options, I would recommend buying a copy of the most current edition of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide. Incidentally, but perhaps not coincidentally, you will find that nearly all of my suggestions are in there.