Angie Hong's connection to Cabramatta spans five decades. In 1978, Hong worked as an interpreter for the first wave of Vietnamese refugees who settled in the area. Now, she says, Cabramatta has remade itself, thanks to a younger generation and the arrival of new communities.
"The second generation has taken over the restaurants run by their parents," says Hong, a warm and outgoing presence who unguardedly shares stories from her life.
"These are institutions that serve good food. When we talk about Cabramatta, it's not just Vietnamese. We have Chinese from Vietnam, Cambodian, Laotian, Taiwanese and mainland Chinese [as well]."
Hong arrived in Sydney from Saigon in 1971 on a Colombo Plan Scholarship to study chemical engineering. Later, she learned advanced French at the Sorbonne and worked at Long Van, a Vietnamese eatery in Paris.
Back in Australia, her then-husband bought Thanh Binh, an existing restaurant on Cabramatta's John Street. The restaurant, which opened with Hong as chef and restaurateur in 1993, became renowned for the consistent quality of its dishes and its exemplary sugarcane prawns.
"In the beginning, we [attracted] everyone from Cabramatta," says Hong, who has six grandchildren and counts among her three children the acclaimed chef Dan Hong. "We opened at nine o'clock in the morning. The shop owners would come for breakfast. Then all the doctors, lawyers and dentists."
Revisiting today to show me around her favourite restaurants, Hong cuts a striking figure in her pink houndstooth-patterned coat. She's regularly stopped by acquaintances eager to chat.
These days, she's busy with Vietnamese cooking classes, along with pop-up events such as her wildly popular Monday Hong Dinners, three-course Vietnamese feasts where guests get to help with the cooking (airbnb.com.au/experiences/47820).
"I go shopping, cook and talk to a small group of people – it's more rewarding than running a restaurant," she laughs.
Hong returns to Cabramatta often. "There is something really unique about it," she says. Below, she shares the places she frequents the most.
Cabramatta is filled with bustling grocers, fresh food markets and restaurants. Photo: Katherine Griffiths
Cafe Nho, off bustling Belvedere Arcade, is an exercise in ambience: regulars crowd around pavement tables sipping Vietnamese iced coffee as love songs play in the background. Inside, families split desserts in wine-coloured booths. Hong recommends ordering the mixed fruit cocktail and yoghurt. "It's yoghurt with chopped fruit, tapioca and water chestnut – you can add durian if you want to," she says. "Cafe Nho is like a meeting place. [In Vietnamese], Nho means reminiscing. They seem to be doing really well."
13 & 15 Belvedere Arcade, Cabramatta
Pho 2 U
Restaurant names can be deceptive. Take Pho 2 U, says Hong. It's a newcomer that, despite the promise of its signage, offers a spectrum of dishes that go beyond bowls of pho. "I like Pho 2 U because they have certain dishes that are not available in a lot of [Vietnamese] restaurants," Hong explains. "They have oxtail hotpot. They do a family dinner with a silver perch cooked two ways. One is with Vietnamese sour soup, the other is in a claypot." Silver perch, she adds, is a fish that's "moist, white and slightly fatty". Along with steamed rice, she says, "it's just the best meal".
Shop 11, 180 Railway Parade
UE Noodle Restaurant
Simplicity is a mantra at UE Noodle Restaurant, an eatery with a cheery red-and-white facade that sits, slightly out of the way, on Cabramatta Road West. Hong says it executes noodle dishes remarkably well. "They serve pork trotters with noodles, herbal duck with noodles," Hong says. "There are two kinds of egg noodles, a fine and a thick. The way they do the pork trotters in the master stock is amazing. Other restaurants also serve egg noodle soup – but they don't have [the same] flavour."
180 Cabramatta Road West
Battambang serves Cambodian specialties that are difficult to track down elsewhere in Sydney.
The Cambodian community first arrived in the area in the mid-1970s, following the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Cambodia and Vietnam share borders and histories. There are parallels, says Hong, between the cuisines. "Vietnamese food and Cambodian food are both influenced by Chinese and French." At Battambang, you can find Cambodian specialties that are difficult to track down elsewhere in Sydney. "They are renowned for their dry Phnom Penh noodles and their cold fish and turmeric noodle dish," she says. "You can order a bowl of pork bones in broth. And if you like offal, you can have intestine, liver and heart."
Shop 14-16, 70 John Street
Angie Hong outside Huong Xua on John Street. Photo: Wolter Peeters
Huong Xua Restaurant
Like all the great cuisines of the world, the flavours and textures of Vietnamese food are shaped by region. In the north, dishes are pared-back and elegant. They include pho bo or beef pho and the concoction of grilled pork meatballs and noodles known as bun cha. Huong Xua, says Hong, focuses on Vietnamese cooking from Hanoi. "They do all the dishes from the northern part of the country." She's a fan of a clear chicken noodle soup, known as pho ga chat. "They serve the chicken on the bone," she says, which makes the soup more delicious.
54 John Street
Put your name down if you want a seat at Phu Quoc on the weekends. Photo: Wolter Peeters
Hong tells me that Phu Quoc is run by her former head chef at Thanh Binh, Be Le. "When she opened it, it was exactly like my menu," says Hong. "[But] I've learned a lot from her." Here, you can order dishes like com tam or Vietnamese broken rice, a much-loved street food in Ho Chi Minh City. Hong is also a fan of the spring rolls. "You have to put your name down because you can't get a seat on the weekends."
Shop 11, 117 John Street
Cabra-Vale Diggers Club
RSL clubs aren't usually known for their culinary credentials. But Hong is an advocate for the newly refurbished Cabra-Vale Diggers Club, which features District 8 – a food hall that offers congee, dumplings and BBQ along with cuisines from Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. When she visits, she orders mixed roast meats – duck, crispy pork, char sui and soy sauce chicken with Chinese broccoli and steamed rice. "The Vietnamese love it – when they have parties or babies turn one, they go there."
1 Bartley Street
Vinh Phat Chinese Seafood Restaurant
Vinh Phat, on Hughes Street, was established in 1985. "It's an institution – it was there before even I opened," says Hong. She vouches for the yum cha. "But anything you order off the a la carte menu is excellent." Better still is the fact that it keeps up with the dishes served in Singapore and Hong Kong. "I would probably order mud crab with salted egg, steamed coral trout with ginger and shallots or salted fish fried rice."
Shop 12, 10 Hughes Street