From fine-dining newcomers to kebabs over smoking coals and ice-cream like frozen marshmallows, the food scene in western Sydney is firing.
The Emporium opened in Parramatta last month, a huge multi-level restaurant, bar, bakery and coffee roastery with plans to open a champagne and oyster bar on the rooftop in the next year. It sounds like the kind of enormous establishment that Justin Hemmes opens about 50 of each year in the eastern suburbs. But this is Parramatta, and opening a restaurant here that cost $4 million is unheard of to a majority of Sydneysiders, most of whom would have trouble investing just $4 in a train trip to come visit.
Boasting a menu filled with fine cheeses, organic wines and generous Mediterranean-inspired cuts of meat, none of which are served on wooden paddles, The Emporium is immediately Parramatta's fanciest restaurant, the city's first real fine-dining experience. It's joined by a few new fancy friends – the newest Bourke Street Bakery store opened last week on Church Street, Gelato Messina Parramatta is a year old in June – and will be joined by a few more by the end of the year, including Jamie Oliver's Trattoria, set to open in the next month.
A few years ago Parramatta's "Eat Street" (the northern end of Church Street) was just a long strip of average outdoor pizzerias, but it's slowly becoming a destination for locals – and out-of-towners – on the hunt for great food. Eat Street is accessible, modern and diverse – although there is more to great grub in the western suburbs than just these factors. While Parramatta's main dining strip is steadily building a delicious empire, it's the decades-old institutions in Parra and her neighbouring suburbs that make it worth undertaking the pilgrimage out this way.
In an alleyway a few minutes' walk from Eat Street is Temasek, a Singaporean and Malaysian restaurant that's immediately recognisable by the huge line of people queuing to get inside. It serves up plates of succulent Hainanese chicken and bowls of one of Sydney's best laksas for a cheap lunch; things get a little fancier for dinner with Temasek's famous Singapore chilli crab - huge pieces of mudcrab, covered in a bright orange eggy tomato sauce. All fanciness is thrown out the window once you've eaten your last crab claw and a platter of white bread is brought to the table to mop up the ocean of leftover sauce.
One train stop away from Parramatta is Harris Park, a suburb with Sydney's largest Indian population - of people and restaurants. A meal in Harris Park will cleanse your body of any "chicken tikka kebab" memories from 1am at a lesser location. Almost all the converted fibro cottage restaurants on Wigram Street are worth trying, and I only say "almost'' because I'm yet to make my way through all 20 of them. Billu's is the favourite, Haveli is the rising star and most of them do a mean goat masala.
You won't miss the meat at Taj Indian Sweets & Restaurant, down the other end of Wigram Street. The all-vegetarian menu has more than enough to satisfy even the angriest carnivore, from snacks to share plates. It's here you'll find the best pani puri – puffy balls of chickpea flour that you bust open with a spoon and fill with potato, chutney and tamarind water – and three fantastic thali variations, all of which fill a metal plate with enough breads, curries and pickles to make you question getting dessert. Never flake on the sweets at Taj though: the colourful display changes throughout the week and features six different types of the sweet and syrupy gulab jamun alone. These are best enjoyed as takeaway, during a romantic walk through the neon-lit Wigram Street by night.
Next suburb over from Harris Park's "Little India" is Granville's "Little Lebanon", (although Granville does have an excellent Indian restaurant in Himalaya on Good Street), home to the reason I moved out west in the first place: El Jannah, or more specifically, El Jannah's garlic sauce. You can smell El Jannah's unbelievable charcoal chicken all through Granville, the large chimneys spreading the dank smokiness that comes with churning through what must be close to a thousand chickens a day. Open early and closing late, there's always a crowd at El Jannah, tearing into a fresh piece of chicken, dipping it in garlic sauce and wrapping it in Leb bread with pickles. Living in close proximity is dangerous. You will wake smelling that chicken and every single person who comes to visit will insist you have that chicken for lunch. God help you if there's any leftover garlic sauce. It'll sit in your fridge for a couple of hours before you're suddenly up out of bed, in your pyjamas and getting stuck into that sauce with a spoon.
Equally addictive are the Lebanese sweets from Abla's Pastries up the street. A dedicated dessert house, Abla's keeps its lights on until 1am every night, serving coffee with a side of guaranteed diabetes: 20 metres of freshly made Arabic confectionary, stacked in high pyramids behind glass. Pretend you know how to pronounce the names of each sweet (you don't), or point your way to the calories that look the best to you. Will you try one or all 10 of the different varieties of baklava? Are you game enough to try the halaway al jobn, a sweetened mozzarella cheese served with clotted cream? Will you walk down to Abla's rival El Sweetie afterwards for a piece of their amazing chocolate kanafe? The answer to all of those questions should be "of course, duh", followed by a night of stomach aches and garlic sauce spooning.
Mornings mean manoush in Granville, a thin Lebanese take on pizza that's eaten for breakfast because they are geniuses. There are several bakeries selling manoush from as early as 5.30am and they all have their own personal touches. Check out Afran Lebnan Bakery for a manoush topped with lamb mince, onions and spices that stays impossibly crisp even after you squirt half a lemon over the top. Breakfast of champions.
If your 5.30am breakfast pizza isn't enough to start your day properly, head over to Auburn for a breakfast kebab when New Star Kebabs opens at 7am. Proudly dousing the street with charcoal smoke and fantastic smells, New Star is one of three Turkish kebab joints on Auburn Street and their mixed shish plate is a thing of beauty. Three skewers of meat (chicken, lamb and minced beef), slowly cooked over coals then served on a stack of fresh Turkish bread, which soaks up the excess smoke and juice from the meat. It is possible to share this plate between two, especially if you're embarking on a western suburbs pilgrimage and trying to hit as many of these places as possible.
Across from Auburn Street's strip of kebabs is a strip of sweet stores, similar to Abla's, but don't cross the street just yet. Walk up to Mado Cafe for your dessert instead. Mado do lunch and dinner – their weird Turkish ravioli dish is quite good – but their desserts are wild. Kazandibi is a thick slab of rice pudding with burnt edges, reminiscent of a toasted marshmallow, which goes down great with a hot mug of salep, a sweet and starchy drink topped with pistachios. Salep flour is also the main ingredient in the ice-cream displayed out the front of Mado, and that's what makes it like no other ice-cream you've tried before. Dondurma, a Turkish ice-cream, is stretchy! It's like eating a big frozen marshmallow that you can bite into with your teeth before pulling away and moulding into fun shapes.
As we delve deeper into Greater Western Sydney, we reach Greatest Western Sydney: Cabramatta. While there is also amazing Vietnamese food to be found in Canley Vale and Bankstown (where Sydney's undisputed best bowl of pho can be found at An Restaurant), Cabramatta wins for feeling the most like it was ripped straight out of Hanoi, albeit with a few Australian quirks (the locals smoke Horizons instead of 555s).
Visiting Cabramatta should be on every Sydney visitor's to-do list after walking across the Harbour Bridge and ignoring a jazz band at the Opera Bar. It's home to some of Sydney's best food spots, and while it's mostly Vietnamese, every spot offers something completely different and most of it is the best version of it found in Sydney.
There's Sydney's best spring rolls at Phu Quoc, the slowly fried rice paper offering a truly satisfying crunch before giving way to the peppery pork beneath. KK Bakery offers Sydney's best chicken banh mi, filled with big pieces of chicken maryland roasted in a master stock. Sydney's best banh xeo, a crisp yellow pancake packed with prawns and pork, can be found at Que Huong and the most delicious sugar cane juice is ice cold, a little sour from cumquats and available at Thu Phung N. There's even Sydney's best chips (seriously) from Red Lea Chicken, covered in a mysteriously delicious red dust that lingers beneath your fingernails for days after consuming.
I have eaten all of the dishes mentioned in the last paragraph in the space of two hours, and I still had room left in my stomach for the most busy Cabramatta institution: Tan Viet Noodle House. Don't even think about trying to eat here during normal lunch or dinner hours. Get there early, get there late or get at the back of a massive line. But even after an hour-long wait, the fried chicken at Tan Viet is worth it. There's no batter, just the crack of well-fried skin and the juiciest chicken imaginable underneath. Served with a side of dry egg noodles with garlic, chives and coriander, it's a Cabramatta classic, a must-have meal whenever you visit. If you brought a vego pal with you, there's a vegan restaurant up the road that does a mock meat version that's guaranteed to be at least 90 per cent not as good as the dish you just ate.
All these restaurants might be a little hard to find, most of them have no website and a non-existent web presence. Some of them still look the same as they did 20 years ago – some actually look worse. The service can sometimes be almost comically terrible. All these things add to the experience – and when the food is this incredible, who cares about anything else?
BEST OF THE WEST
The Emporium, 51 Phillip Street, Parramatta, 02 9687 1955
Temasek, Roxy Arcade, 71 George Street, Parramatta, 02 9633 9926
Taj Indian Sweets & Restaurant, 91 Wigram Street, Harris Park, 02 9633 2118
Billu's Indian Eatery, 62 Wigram Street, Harris Park, 02 9687 7785
Haveli Indian Restaurant & Sweets, 67 Wigram Street, Harris Park, 02 9635 0110
El Jannah, 4-8 South Street, Granville, 02 9637 0977
Abla's Pastries, 48-52 Railway Parade, Granville, 02 9637 8092
Himalaya Pakistani and Indian Restaurant, 5 Good Street, Granville, 02 9637 8400
El Sweetie, 75 South Street, Granville, 02 9760 2299
Afran Lebnan Bakery, 29 Good Street, Granville, 02 9760 2099
New Star Kebabs, 15 Auburn Road, Auburn, 02 9643 8433
Mado Cafe, 63 Auburn Road, Auburn, 02 9643 5299
Phu Quoc, Shop 11, 117 John Street, Cabramatta, 02 9724 2188
Tan Viet Noodle House, 3/100 John Street, Cabramatta, 02 9727 6853
Que Huong, 16/70 John Street, Cabramatta, 02 9723 9916
KK Bakery, 85 John Street, Cabramatta, 02 9755 0656