Asian restaurants dominate the cheap eats scene in multi-cultural Sydney. Here’s our pick of the best, plus a couple of Middle Eastern gems and a great new burger joint
Lao City Thai, Haymarket
The large number of students from Asia has revitalised the Sydney CBD (central business district) and created a market for affordable, authentic Asian food. Lao City Thai, on the western end of Chinatown, is packed with young Thais but is still relatively undiscovered by everyone else. Skip the bain marie and ask for the menu; beef salad (A$10.90) is tart and zesty with fresh mint, garlic chunks and thin slices of green apple, balanced perfectly with liberal squirts of fish sauce. Chilli chicken basil (A$10.90) packs a raging, spicy punch with bamboo strips adding an interesting woody after taste – make sure you sip the addictive sauce, the richness will leave your head spinning. Grilled chicken (A$10.90) will cool things down – simple, well-cooked chook that comes with a mild chilli sauce.
• Shop 10, 37 Ultimo Road, +61 2 9212 1080, Facebook page
Pho Tau Bay, Cabramatta
Thi Nhu Pham, whose pho (Vietnamese noodle broth) is regarded by critics and foodies as the best in Sydney, originally opened her restaurant in 1980 as Sunday pop-up in the garage of her family home, and relocated to the current location two years later. Beef bones and a dozen Asian spices are cooked for six hours to extract a profoundly complex broth, which sets Pho Tau Bay’s Vietnamese dishes apart. There’s chicken, fish or seafood options, but the beef pho (A$10, around £5) is by far the most popular. Order pho tai if you like your beef tender; thin slices of red beef arrive on top of your bowl ready to be dunked into boiling broth, or pick pho nam if you prefer your meat well cooked. Wash down with an intensely rich glass of Vietnamese ice coffee, made with condensed milk (A$3.50).
• 12/117 John Street, +61 2 9726 4583
El Jannah, Granville
From Granville train station, west Sydney, follow the aroma of charcoal-grilled chicken. Barbecue chicken is usually oily, with shiny, slippery skin but an El Jannah bird is dry, from the high heat that slightly burns the skin for a bitter smoky taste. Half chicken (A$5.90) will keep couples contented and whole chicken (A$10.90) will satisfy the whole clan. Flat bread and fluoro-coloured pickles come as sides, as well as toum – the famous Lebanese garlic white sauce with a moreish, nose-clearing intensity. The irregularly sized, super-crunchy falafels (A$5.50) are another crowd favourite and are particularly good with lashings of spicy tahini sauce.
• 6 South Street, +61 2 9637 0977, eljannah.com.au
Island Dreams Cafe, Lakemba
Mention Christmas Island and most Sydneysiders think of the asylum-seeker detention facility, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean. Few know of Alimah Bilda’s Island Dreams Cafe in south-west Sydney, the only restaurant in Australia that serves up food from Christmas and the Cocos Islands, which is influenced by Malaysian, Indonesian and Chinese cuisines. Satay sticks (six skewers A$10.50) are popular; the meat is marinated overnight in garlic, chilli, turmeric and lemongrass paste and cooked over charcoal. Everyone loves Alimah’s lemon chilli chicken curry (A$9.50), the mildly spicy chicken falls off the bone and the curry is a perfect dip for their homemade roti. There’s a decent selection of veggie fare, including moreish fried tofu in peanut sauce (A$8) and lightly spiced dhal curry (A$8). Alimah’s lurid-coloured fish crackers (A$2) are sent over by relatives in Western Australia – grab some if they’re on the counter, they sell out fast.
• 47-49 Haldon Street, +61 420 335 548, Facebook page
Chur Burger, Surry Hills
“Chur” is New Zealand slang for awesome and Kiwi chef Warren Turnbull’s Chur Burger, barely a year old, has been an instant, runaway hit. All brioche-bun burgers are $10, which is a steal, according to the happy punters. The beefburger is tall and pretty; grilled beef, cheese, rich red tomato jam, a light mustard mayo and pickle, cut thinly length-wise. Pulled pork burger is so tall you’ll need a knife and fork to cut through the mountain of tender pork, crunchy “red slaw”, fennel mayo and runny barbecue sauce. Thick-cut, chilli-salt chips ($5) make the perfect side.
• 48 Albion Street, +61 2 9212 3602, churburger.com.au
Ramen so good and full of collagen that it keeps you looking youthful? Gumshara ramen is cooked in the Tonkotsu method, where huge quantities of pork bones are cooked for up to 12 hours until marrow and cartilage break down to yield Sydney’s thickest, collagen-rich broth. On a busy day chef Mori Higashida goes through 200kg of bones. Sydney must be vain, because the queues for these Japanese noodles are legendary. Standard Tonkotsu ramen ($10.50) comes with tender pork slices and pickled bamboo; for extra protein add boiled egg with gooey yolk ($1.50) or spice it up with a fiery chilli bomb ball (A$2). Hakata ramen (A$10.50), with a lighter broth, is a tasty option, too.
• Shop 211, Habour Plaza, 25-29 Dixon St,+61 4 1025 3180
Duy Linh, Cabramatta
This Asian vegan establishment opened the same month as the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the menu, with almost 200 dishes, is a gold-medal performance, unmatched by any other vegetarian eatery in town. The value is jaw-dropping given most dishes are under A$13. For lunch, try their yum cha ($3.80) and mock-pork rice rolls ($4.30). Dinner favourites include Vietnamese fresh rolls (A$6.50 for four) and vegetarian canh chua (A$9.50), a flavoursome sweet soup that also has a sour kick thanks to tamarind and fresh pineapple. This is veggie nirvana.
• 10/117 John Street, +61 2 9727 9800
Chinese Noodle Restaurant, Haymarket
The recent influx of migrants from China has transformed the cheap-and-cheerful Chinese restaurants in Sydney – sweet-and-sour pork has been superseded by handmade noodles, dumplings and steamed buns. This tiny Chinatown eatery is a squeeze to get into but worth it for the zany decor: red-and-green plastic grapes suspend from the ceiling, while giant tapestries of European landscapes adorn the walls. The restaurant specialises in northern Chinese; lamb soup (A$8.90) overflows with thick handmade noodles, and a stir fry beef noodle dish (A$9.80) is slippery, spicy and satisfying. A dozen juicy steamed pork and chives dumplings are just A$8.90, or choose from seven different types of fried dumplings for A$8.90. Free bottomless Chinese tea nails the deal.
• Prince Centre, Thomas Street, +61 2 9281 9051
Al Dhiaffah Al Iraqi, Fairfield
The walls of Sydney’s first and most popular Iraqi restaurant are almost entirely covered with faded posters of old Bagdad and the fridge is packed full of exotic soft drinks, the packaging in Arabic script. This place is a meat lover’s heaven. The popular bread curry stew (A$15) is a belly-busting bowl, almost overflowing with hearty, tomato-based casserole, thick with chickpeas, torn pieces of flat bread and huge chunks of lamb on the bone. The mixed shish/skewers plate (A$15) includes tender barbecued beef, lamb and chicken pieces, marinated in Middle Eastern spices. They come with bright green and pink pickles, raw onion, still juicy grilled tomatoes and hot fluffy flat bread fresh from the kitchen.
• 13 The Crescent, +61 2 9755 0870
Marrickville Pork Roll
The French showed Vietnam how to bake bread rolls (banh mi). Then the Vietnamese raised the stakes by shoving in all manner of different fillings, including three types of meat (thit), pâté, mayo, pickles and sauce. 2013 was the year of the banh mi thit, or Vietnamese pork roll, as Sydney fell in love with this addictive east-meets-west delight and there’s no signs of abatement. Marrickville Pork Roll is often considered the best in town. Their banh mi thit (A$4) strikes a unique, mouth-watering balance, with crusty bread that’s fluffy soft inside and thick chunks of barbecued pork, home-made chicken liver pâté, zesty pickled radish and carrots, and an exquisitely flavoursome soy sauce. Day and night, Sydneysiders queue outside this hole-in-the-wall to get their favourite fast-food fix.
• 236A Illawarra Road, Marrickville, +61 (0) 4 1116 7169
This article was amended at 11am on 15 January. The Californian in Potts Point was replaced by Marrickville Pork Roll, as the former has closed.