Asia on a plate in Chinatown
Generic gloopy sauces are about to fade into memory. Sydney offers a wealth of regional Chinese cuisines, like Yunnanese at Two Sticks (facebook.com/Twosticksaustralia) with its signature dish of ‘crossing bridges’ noodle soup (quail's egg, chicken and noodles cooked at your table in different stages). If you're lunching in Chinatown at the weekend, opt for Hong-Kong style yum cha (or dim sum) for dumplings. Try Marigold Restaurant for the full yum cha experience, with an OTT ballroom gleefully decked out with gold dragons and red lanterns. Stop the trolley ladies for har gao, prawn dumplings with their delicate skin just right.
Most Asians who eat in Chinatown dodge the restaurants with touts and go for a casual meal in one of the noisy ‘food courts’. Less like a shopping mall and more in the style of indoor hawker stalls, this is just like the street food you’d find across Asia: authentic, good value dishes. Self-professed foodies will even tell you that Gumshara Ramen (facebook.com/Gumshara-Ramen) in the Eating World food court has the best thick tonkotsu broth ramen in Sydney.
Mamak and its newer sibling, Hawker (hawker.com.au) are the celebrities of casual Malaysian food in Sydney. Come for lunch or dinner at the weekend and you can expect to queue for at least an hour. Their classic side-dishes and desserts, such as flaky roti or apam balik (crispy, buttery pancake pockets of creamed corn), are well worth waiting on the street for.
Upstairs from Mamak is La Mesa (lamesa.com.au), which has the monopoly on Filipino food in Sydney. See what this cuisine can do by trying slow-cooked adobo chicken (a marinade unlike the Spanish adobo) for the classic Filipino flavours of sugar-cane vinegar, garlic and black pepper.
Spanish tapas outside the Spanish Quarter
For a modern take on tapas, head upmarket and towards Circular Quay. Dress up a little for Tapavino (tapavino.com.au), a bar with subterranean slickness and equally good-looking and good to eat modern tapas. Meanwhile staff at Ash Street Cellar know which wines to match with your tapas.
Korea Town in the city
Korean food is hot in Sydney. Top chefs have been flying over from Melbourne to feed their addiction to KFC – that's Korean, not Kentucky, fried chicken – and posting it on Instagram afterwards. There is even a ‘Korea Town’ sign on the corner of Liverpool and Elizabeth Street, where you’ll find Korean grocery stores, hairdressers and restaurants catering to a growing Korean student and migrant population.
NaruOne’s (facebook.com/Naruone-Korean-Restaurant) Gangjung chicken is a foodie revelation with its audible crackle and rush of sweet and spicy sauce. An even better choice is around the corner at Sparrow’s Mill (facebook.com/sparrowsmill). The little dishes of kimchi tease you before the fried chicken arrives blanketed in green onions with a sweet and kicking wasabi soy. Their bibimbap (hot rice bowl topped with meat, julienned fresh, cooked and pickled vegetables, and soy bean paste) is a worthy second choice.
Australian food in Sydney
Start with the pies at famous Harry’s Cafe de Wheels, or even tastier, rustic options at the Pie Tin (thepietin.com.au) in Newtown. Alternatively, wash down some Sydney rock oysters with a Barossa Valley wine and a harbour view at Doyle’s at Watson’s Bay (doyles.com.au). For breakfast or a long brunch, Sydney is nuts for smashed avocado on toast. Slather it with love-it-or-hate-it Aussie breakfast spread Vegemite at Suzie Q Coffee & Records (suzieqcoffee.com.au) in Surry Hills.
Thai Town in Haymarket
Rubbed up against Chinatown at the crossing of Campbell and Pitt Street is where Australia’s largest population of Thais come for grocery shopping and budget restaurants. The always-busy Chat Thai is casual-swanky enough for a date, and many come just to sample the incredible khanom krok, rice-flour donut balls with a gooey coconut-milk centre. Alternatively, head to King Street in Newtown where Thai restaurants come and go, but the longstanding ruler is Thai Pothong, which even has a gift store.
Lebanese and Middle Eastern in Surry Hills
When Sydney’s evenings get balmy, salads, barbecued meat and mezze plates go down well with a group of friends. In the late 1960s, if you wanted authentic falafel in the inner city, you had to venture into grimy Surry Hills. Today the intersection of Cleveland and Elizabeth Street is a fashionable address, but the food is still traditional, saving any modern twists for fancier nearby restaurants. Many feature a wandering belly dancer on weekends – think Las Vegas more than Lebanon.
Longstanding Abdul’s (abdulrestaurant.com.au) has jumbo servings of the classics – creamy hummus, smoky babaganoush and grilled meat skewers. The standout is what Abdul’s built its name on, falafels that are a joy to bite into. For a little more swank, pop around the corner to low-lit Cafe Mint (cafemint.com.au), which is out to impress with their lamb and pistachio meatballs fired up with dill. Or go out of the area to any of the Al Alseel restaurants (alaseel.com.au).
Vegetarian in Newtown
Lentil as Anything (lentilasanything.com) has brought its Melbourne ethos – paying what you feel the vegan meal and experience was worth – into Sydney. This is no soup kitchen though: dishes like burritos and curries look pro and the vintage metal theatre seats are suitably on-trend. Upstairs is Lentils on the Rocks, a weekend bar that only serves non-alcoholic mocktails.
Practically next door is vegetarian-Vietnamese restaurant Vina (facebook.com/Vinas-Vietnamese-Vegetarian-Restaurant), which uses mock meats to doll-up stir fries, rice paper rolls, Asian salads and curries. Meat-gobbling friends can finally stop being smug about vegetarians not being able to eat pho.
Just a few doors down is Bodhi (bodhistore.com.au), which stocks books and holds events on vegetarian, Buddhist, ethical and healthy eating and living. And on the city side of King Street is the excellent Thai Blossom Lotus (facebook.com/Blossoming-Lotus-Thai-Vegetarian); look for a yellow banner declaring ‘Vegetarian Food’.
Italian in Leichhardt
Leichhardt is known as ‘Little Italy’ and has many long-standing Italian community centres and services but its main drag, Norton Street, and the Italian Forum, have seen more bust than boom of late. There are still a few long shining stars, such as Bar Italia (baritalia.net.au), a diner-style joint that was one of the first places to educate Sydney about good coffee. It’s also no-nonsense enough to lunch solo. For a modern take, hit Fratelli Paradiso, a classic trattoria worth queueing for in ritzy-grimy Potts Points.
Portuguese in Petersham
Traffic-heavy Petersham may look nothing like bohemian Bairro Alto in Lisbon, but its cluster of restaurants packs a lot of flavour into the generously named ‘Little Portugal’ of Sydney. Gloria’s (gloriascafe.com.au) carne de porco à alentejana is a bonkers mix of marinated pork, clams, baked potato, pickled carrot and coriander. It somehow works. For a takeaway with tables, try the Portuguese-style chicken (flattened, spiced and char-grilled) of Frango (frangos.com.au) or Silvas (silvas.com.au). Look out for Portuguese festivals and events in Petersham.
Vietnamese in Cabramatta, Bankstown and Marrickville
In Cabramatta and Bankstown, both an hour-long, hungry train ride from the city, grocery stores spill onto the streets with heady mints and even headier durian. Staff at restaurants may scratch their heads at foreigners mispronouncing pho (it rhymes with the puzzled utterance ‘huh?’ not ‘hoe’). If authenticity entices, make a beeline for the contenders for best pho in Sydney: Pho Tau Bay (GooglePlus page) in Cabramatta or Pho An (anrestaurant.com.au) in Bankstown.
For something more inner west, go to Phd Pho (phophd.com.au) in Marrickville. This is pho worth travelling for, the broth slow-cooked overnight with a sweet, peppery twist. While in Marrickville, join the queues at the hole-in-the-wall Marrickville Pork Roll (GooglePlus page) for Sydney's best banh mi (Vietnamese baguette loaded with pickled vegetables, pork pate and meats). They get every audacious flavour right by throwing caution – and calorie-counting – to the wind.