Hu’s Inn in Chatswood.
“Try the crab,” suggests David Thompson, with the tone of senior student offering year-seven kid a cigarette drag.
I’m wary. Not just because of the grin sported by Thompson, but because the crab is a Dulux shade of grey.
I’m upstairs at Chat Thai Haymarket with Thompson, his business partner Simon Dewhurst, and ex-Longrain chef turned Cooks Co-op producer and gardener Martin Boetz.
Tucking into Red Lea from Cabramatta.
It’s the first stop on a evening of street-food eating and beer swilling in Sydney.
Thompson is one of the world’s most respected scholars of Thai cuisine. The Australian-born chef had Sydneysiders in a larb-lather when he opened Darley Street Thai in the early ’90s. Sailor’s Thai followed in 1995 before Thompson packed his knives for London and opened Nahm in 2001.
Now located in Bangkok, Nahm is ranked No. 13 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, higher than any other restaurant in Asia.
Lemon chicken at Chow Bar Eating House.
“C’mon give it a go, you might like it.” Thompson shoves the pickled crab in my face.
It tastes like a stagnant rockpool.
Thompson takes a swig of his Singha. “It’s appalling, isn’t it? Absolutely appalling. I can’t eat it.”
A roti dish from Mamak.
Salty crab is no blight on Chat Thai. It’s there to add backbone to spicy noodle salad and Westerners probably shouldn’t be eating it unaccompanied.
The food at Chat Thai is fantastic, particularly the mhu bing (grilled pork skewers).
“Mhu bing are classic Thai street food”, Thompson says. “Although you wouldn’t find this cut of meat in Thailand and the taste is different from anywhere in Bangkok.”
Mhu bing at Chat Thai.
Thompson says variance in taste between countries is almost unavoidable.
“The taste is different because the pork is different. The vegetables are different. The same species of vegetable will change in taste from country to country, just like a pinot noir changes in taste depending on terroir.”
I ask what else is different about street food in Sydney compared to south-east Asia.
A Chat Thai chef.
“In Sydney the street food movement is manufactured,” Thompson says.
“In south-east Asia and China in particular, it’s something organic that’s evolved over 200 years. It served the need to feed people well, quickly, happily and cheaply.”
Asian street food is hybridised cuisine, Thompson says.
Hot-Star Large Fried Chicken.
“It’s a food that comes mostly from Chinese immigrants coming to south-east Asia so most of the street food, particularly in Bangkok, Singapore, and Malaysia, has a very strong Chinese element.”
The diversity of Asian culture in Sydney means you can find some of the best street food in the world here, although you’re more likely to find it in a food court or restaurant than sizzling on kerbside hot plate.
Thai, Malaysian, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Japanese and everything else you can think of. It might have some Western influence but due to the hybridised nature of street food it doesn’t mean that laksa or pho is any less authentic.
Thompson says street food is about having fun and discovering new and – importantly – accessible food. It’s also traditionally designed for one person and eaten in a bit of a hurry.
Eating on Sydney streets only became popular about 20 years ago.
“Just before Clover Moore, there was only two or three areas where you could legally eat on the street. But now Sydney has food trucks, for example, which is great. It’s a discarding of the unnecessary affectation that surrounds food.”
We head up to Hot-Star, a Taiwanese hole-in-the-wall on Liverpool Street specialising in deep-fried chicken breasts bigger than a yeti’s foot. It’s a welcome addition to the itinerary for Boetz.
“We both cook Thai for a living,” he says “The last thing we want to do when we go out for dinner is eat more bloody Thai food!”
Thompson is enamoured of Hot-Star’s Crispy Chicken. “I love trash” he proclaims.
“Is street food just trash food?” I ask.
“In this instance, absolutely,” Thompson says.
“Sometimes it’s good to get down and dirty with street food like this. Not in that dude-food type of contrivance but where food is what it is. These guys are cooking fried chicken. They’re not trying to dress it up as anything more.”
Rain is belting down. I suggest heading for the warmth and wonder of Chinatown’s food courts. We head to the Sussex Centre Food Court. The difficult part about eating here is choosing between Ramen Ikkyu and Happy Chef. The offal-heavy “Number 1″ soup at Happy Chef wins.
A very large bowl soup arrives (Thompson comments that Australian portions are always huge) and we slide it over to the fixings tray.
“Seasonings are important, otherwise the soup’s not finished,” he says adding fish sauce, chilli and other condiments.
Thompson thinks Happy Chef’s noodle soup is the most legitimate food we’ve eaten that evening.
“The owners are not trying to do anything else but what they know. There’s no aspiration other than to provide themselves with a living [so] there’s no need to adapt or refine.”
We head to Redfern’s ultra-hip Moon Park, where the food is seriously good. Zucchini pancake laced with mussel and squid, smoked eel and puffed wild rice cupped in nasturtium leaf, and deep-fried rice cakes with peanuts and gochujang (a fermented Korean chilli paste).
There’s shades of street food on the menu, but is it still street food if you’re eating it in a restaurant? Or when a share-plate of fried-chicken costs $40 (not that Moon Park is that expensive). “Yes and no, I suppose. The key to street food is its accessibility,” Thompson says.
“A $40 share plate sounds more like avenue food than street food to me.
TRACKING DOWN SYDNEY’S BEST STREET FOOD
Marrickville Pork Roll “The best banh mi Sydney,” says Dan Hong (chef at Mr Wong, Ms G’s). “Even better than the ones in Cabramatta. They’re generous with the fillings and smear on a nice amount of pate. There’s also a big stick of pickled radish, which you don’t see too often on pork rolls in Sydney.” 236A Illawarra Rd, Sydney, 0420 966 368.
Hot-Star Large Fried Chicken Hot-Star’s Sydney outpost opened in March. “It’s the ultimate chicken schnitzel,” Hong says. There are no seats, no eftpos, and very little else on the menu. About as street food as it gets. 96 Liverpool St, Sydney.
Kaysone Sweets “It’s a weird shop,” Hong says of this Cabramatta stalwart that sells everything from Lao sausages and beef jerky to taro fritters and papaya salad. Hong recommends one of the design-your-own fruit juices. “It’s the original Boost Juice,” he says. 59/53-61 Park Rd, Cabramatta, (02) 9755 5759.
Chow Bar Eating House Chui Lee Huk (ex Claudes) opened this Chinese street food bar in Surry Hills. It’s hard to go past the fried lemon chicken, especially with a can of Pistonhead lager. 320 Crown St, Surry Hills, (02) 8095 9058.
Mamak It’s probably quicker driving to the Chatswood branch of the Malaysian hawker food hotspot than lining up at the Haymarket original. Not that the queues at the Chatswood store are that much shorter, mind. You’re here for the roti canai. What you choose to dip it in is optional. 15 Goulburn St, Sydney, (02) 9211 1668 (also at Chatswood).
Istanbul on King Newtown booze hounds are well served in the wee hours by Crispy Inn pies and Istanbul kebabs. Dan Hong’s secret sauce advice: “Order a kebab and ask for the sauce they put on the Portuguese chicken burger. It’s legit.” 159 King St, Newtown, (02) 9519 9100.
Red Lea Cabramatta Hong claims these are the best chips in Sydney, with “awesome seasoning like a mix of paprika and chicken salt”. . “You can be so full from eating all the noodle soups in Cabramatta but on the way home you’re still like, ‘Let’s get some chips’.” 57 John St, Cabramatta, (02) 9726 3017 (also at other locations in Sydney).
Clem’s Chicken Shop There’s a reason why Clem’s has been going strong for more than 30 years. It barbecues a chicken like no one else. The quarter-chicken-and-chips-pack with a can of Coke can cure the mightiest of Newtown hangovers. 210 King St, Newtown, (02) 9519 6000.
Happy Chef There’s a Happy Chef in Newtown, but you want the one at Sussex Centre Food Court in Haymarket. “You can’t go past number one on the menu,” says Hong. “It’s a Cambodian-style noodle soup. Full of things like pork liver, heart, shrimp and blood jelly in an unbelievably good broth.” Shop F3, 401 Sussex St, Haymarket, (02) 9281 5832.
Ramen Ikkyu Not far from Happy Chef at the Sussex Centre is this noodle temple from former fine-dining chef Haru Inukai. Let’s not open the best ramen in Sydney debate, however it should be noted the Ikkyu variety strikes a Goldilocks level of just right between the rib-sticking tonkotsu at Haymarket’s Gumshara and the lighter stuff at Ryo’s in Crows Nest. Shop F1A, 401 Sussex St, Haymarket, (02) 9281 0998.
Sun’s Burmese Kitchen The editor of the Good Food Under $30 Guide, Angie Schiavone, says the fritters made with whole prawn and onion strips at this understated Burmese restaurant are a street-food version of lacework. “They’re audibly crunchy and addictive, too, especially when dipped in tangy tamarind sauce.” 10 Tulloch St, Blacktown, (02) 9676 2837.
Hu’s Inn Inspired by the street food stalls of Taiwan, Hu’s has a fun menu of xiaochi – aka, snacks – aka “deep-fried delights”, Schiavone says. “Don’t miss the sweet potato fries and jalapeno cheese sticks. Then zip to Bao Dao Taiwanese Kitchen for top-notch steamed pork buns.” 84 Archer St, Chatswood, 8065 2876.
May’s Laksa House A low-key cafeteria-like eatery, May’s is one of North Sydney’s busiest weekday lunch spots. It stakes its reputation on its Hainanese chicken rice, and the chicken laksa deservedly has a big following, too. Shop 18b, Level 2, 77 Berry St, North Sydney, 0401 468 740.
Philippines Takeaway Blacktown is a go-to suburb for Filipino street food, with a raft of no frills eateries lined up alongside the train station. There are plenty of classic savoury options but the toffee-covered banana and jackfruit spring rolls here are a highlight, Schiavone says. 24 Main St, Blacktown.
Hai Au Lang Nuong Head to this gaudy Canley Vale stalwart Friday to Monday when they crank up the charcoal barbecue out front and roast suckling pig and organic chooks, served with sticky rice. “Smells good, tastes great,” Schiavone says. Then head to one of the Vietnamese cafes in the ‘hood for coffee and condensed milk. Shop 2, 48 Canley Vale Rd, Canley Vale, (02) 9724 9156.
Do you have a favourite street food spot in Sydney? Leave a comment.
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