The western Melbourne suburb of Sunshine often has a less-than-sunny reputation, but this perception is outdated. Think of it instead as a Y2K-era Footscray – its bone-raw energy is one of its most exciting qualities. Granted, Sunshine is probably still a few years from competing with the 'scray's bars and 'late-night stroll' sector, but a day spent exploring and devouring is hugely worthwhile.
The one-time manufacturing hub is only 12 kilometres from the CBD and boasts a diverse multicultural mix of eats from Filipino to Maltese, Ethiopian to Vietnamese and Sri Lankan to Burmese.
There's major infrastructural work scheduled here for the near future, so our advice is to get in before the juggernaut of gentrification inevitably has its way with another of the west's most overlooked foodie 'hoods.
Here's where and what to eat when you do.
Banh cuon nhan (pork and prawn filled steamed rice paper rolls) at Vietnamese eatery Xuan Banh Cuon. Photo: Mal Fairclough
Trigger warning for texturephobes: the eponymous breakfast specialty at Xuan Banh Cuon probably isn't going to do it for you. For everyone else, congratulations, you've ordered a morning marvel. A breakfast turducken of sorts, banh cuon takes a savoury Chinese churro (youtiao), cuts it lengthways and stuffs it with pork cake (read: pork loaf). It's then wrapped in rice noodle sheets similar to those of the dim sum hit cheung fun, topped with pork floss and fried shallots, chopped into eighths and served with a bowl of sweet dipping sauce and a morning view of the majestic Hampshire Road overpass. It's fried, it's fresh, it's sweet, it's seven bucks and it rules.
Parallel to the main drag of Hampshire Road on Clarke Street you'll find Gojo Ethiopian Cafe and Restaurant, a community-cosy, all-day Ethiopian spot popular for its specialty coffee and feisty breakfast sambusas ($2 each) – think an East African riff on the samosa. Chewier and denser than their sub-continental cousin, both the lamb and lentil options here smack of the country's signature spice mix, berbere, and both fillings pack more chilli than might typically befit the hour. In concert with a traditional Ethiopian coffee, smoking frankincense and all, it's a pretty turbo way to start to the day.
Sandwich enthusiasts will attest that you can scarcely do better than a banh mi for breakfast, and Sunshine rivals Springvale and Footscray for banh mi per square kilometre. Two spots stand out in particular. Open from 5am daily, Fresh Chilli Deli takes the chocolates for the most pillowy-soft on the inside, crispy chewy on the outside baguette, so fresh that it sends a piping plume of steam into the sandwich artist's face when they crack the roll. Ooft! A few doors down, rival merchant B&T Bakery's combines the key ingredients of a ripping pork belly banh mi: rich egg bo, pâté, pickled veg and exceptional pork belly. But it's the talismanic, ace-up-the-sleeve addition of sugar-cube-sized fried croutons that's B&T's crispy power move.
Xuan Banh Cuon, 232 Hampshire Road
Gojo Ethiopian Cafe and Restaurant, 2a Clarke Street
Fresh Chilli Deli, 304 Hampshire Road
B&T Bakery, 286a Hampshire Road
Across the tracks on Sun Crescent, Sri Lankan stalwart Spicy King runs a wide bain marie of fragrant curries, stews and interesting carbs, including string hoppers. Small handfuls of angel-hair rice noodles are coiled and flattened into coaster-sized discs, to be stacked under a selection from the bain marie – perhaps rich, creamy green beans and a dry-rub lamb curry with a mouth burn just as hot the King decreed. Pro tip: if you do find yourself particularly partial to a string hopper, pick up a monthly Spicy King membership on the way out, which scores you two feasts per day for an entire calendar month – that's 60 plates of string hoppers – for just $399!
For lunch on a leaf, continue down the crescent for an interactive Malaysian-via-South-Indian banana leaf rice meal ($10.90) at Panjali Malaysian and Indian Restaurant. The banana leaf is stretched out on a plastic tray and topped at the table with silverbeet and coconut, sambar (a lentil based stew), snake beans, eggplant, rice, pappadums, pickled lemon and a savagely salty, yoghurt-soaked fried chilli. "Do you need any more food?" Absolutely not, but if you are still hungry, it can all be replenished at no extra cost. Forks are optional and hand feeding is encouraged. Every banana leaf rice meal is served with a shot of rasam – a tepid, tamarind-based liquid that aids digestion.
Back over the tracks, past the library, in the dankest corner of the dankest food court in the downright dank Sunshine Plaza, the suburb's growing Burmese community dines at Federal Taung Zalat, a hole-in-the-wall that 100 per cent justifies the trip out west in itself. The Burmese national dish is a noodle soup called mohinga and it is a revelation, combining thin vermicelli noodles in a fish stock with spring onions, coriander, eggs boiled and scrambled and a crispy, crushed chickpea fritter that cracks like praline and absorbs the soothing notes of the stock. There's no way to order incorrectly here, but if you're after brute protein go the goat curry – an ominous crimson oil runs off each chunk on its way out of the bowl, functioning more like a deeply aromatic wash than a gravy.
Heading north over Ballarat Road into deep suburbia, The Original Maltese Pastizzi Co. is a model example of doing one thing well – well, many things well, the siu mai-shaped qassatat pastry for one, but especially the pastizzi. The scent of yeasty dough hangs throughout the humble shop brightened by Maltese snacks and tinned goods, soccer jerseys and amusing tea towels emblazoned with classic recipes and rude jokes about Italians ("I said I wanna two pizz of toast, I wanna two pizz on the table!"). The pastizzi ($1.50 each) – impossibly light and flaky pastry coaxed into diamonds ("It's not easy! A lot of work goes into the pastry!") – are filled with sweet or savoury fillings, including ricotta and bacon, mushy peas, and nutella and banana. Eat them at the counter looking out onto the street with a lovingly foamed mugaccino and nab a frozen dozen to take home (from $7.50).
Spicy King, 21 Sun Crescent
Panjali Malaysian and Indian Restaurant, 10 Sun Crescent
Federal Taung Zalat, Sunshine Plaza, 324-328 Hampshire Road
The Original Maltese Pastizzi Co., 19 Suffolk Road
Co Do Vietnamese restaurant in Sunshine. Photo: Craig Sillitoe
Sunshine doesn't want for Ethiopian restaurants, and back over the tracks on City Place you'll find Ghion Kitchen Ethiopian Restaurant and Bar – walk inside and eat dinner there. Exposed brick walls, two-tone wooden panelling and Ethiopian art set the scene for a heavenly yetsom beyaynetu, a starburst vegetarian sampler comprised of five different niter kibbeh(clarified butter)-rich stews served on a spongy roll of trypophobia-inducing injera (flatbread). For something heftier, try the classic berbere chicken stew, doro wat, complete with hard-boiled eggs and homemade cheese.
Likewise, there are enough Vietnamese options here to push Footscray, Richmond and Springvale for the crown. Pho enthusiasts looking to venture deeper into the Vietnamese noodle canon should consider the ever-heaving Co Do on Hampshire Road, which specialises in bun bo hue. Built on a lemongrass-imbued beef stock and thicker, cylindrical rice noodles, bun bo hue comes in several variations, with the bun bo hue dac biet a standout for its combination of sliced beef, pork, beef loaf, pork loaf, jellied blood and prawn cakes.
Finally, north of the main drag on Ballarat Road is Chadz Chickenhaus, a Filipino restaurant-cum-chicken shop and undisputed winner of Sunshine's best restaurant name 2019. The bain marie displays roast chooks, pork and chicken skewers, fried chicken, Filipino empanadas (with sultanas!) and a clutch of stews, including the massaman-esque kare-kare, a peanut butter and beef stew accompanied by a fermented shrimp paste that is perversely shrimpy – "even for me, just dab at it," says our server – but is one of the purest crustacean highs. Chadz also does traditional Filipino arroz caldo (gingery chicken and rice porridge) and La Paz batchoy, an offaly noodle soup. But if you really want to turn it up to 11, the crispy pata – a deep-fried pig's trotter whose flesh is ripped from the bone and dipped in spiced vinegar – is as sinful as it gets.
Ghion Kitchen Ethiopian Restaurant and Bar, 12 City Place
Co Do, 207 Hampshire Road
Chadz Chickenhaus, 475 Ballarat Road