Out and About in Old Sydney Town

June 16, 2009 at 6:21 am (Uncategorized)

Llew and I spent the weekend making like tourists, doing a few of the things permanent Sydney residents often forget or neglect to do. Sydneysiders on the whole are a very postcode-centric lot, and because of the topographical challenges of getting around a city that’s frequently interrupted by vast expanses of water, Sydney types do a fairly convincing line in arguing that their own little patch is where it’s at. This appalling habit of ignoring whole sections of settlement probably occurs in all cities, but I always feel Sydneysiders are particularly prone to it, especially because our depressingly inept state government has long been determined to do nothing about facing up to the infrastructure crises that are sure to bring this city to its knees in the near future. Their stunning lack of imagination or even just one decent set of balls between them means that Sydney suffers from a chronic lack of vision by the pie-eaters in charge. Oh dear. Segue alert: DoctorDi’s Rant Can is officially open and spewing worms. 

Aaaanyway, Llew and I decided to get into the Welsh Dragon (aka our car) on Saturday and head out to Cabramatta, west of Sydney. When I was in school, this suburb was nicknamed ‘Vietnamatta,’ and, at the time, the name was certainly intended as pejorative, although now I believe it’s become an affectionate term that’s part of a city-wide pride in our cultural – and especially gastronomic – diversity. Later, the area became notorious for a drug and violent gangs problem that meant lily-white Caucasians like myself put a little imaginary circle with a line through it around a place I’d never even seen except through a train window. I despise my habit of too easily believing negative hyperbole, particularly as traditionally presented by the media, but it would just be a lie to pretend I’ve never done it. I have. 

So out to Cabramatta we went. And of course, as always happens when you go see for yourself and bloody well educate yourself about places and people, there was absolutely nothing to fear. On the contrary, we found an exciting, thriving marketplace, teeming with life as families crowded through side streets and inspected fresh produce and a dazzling array of meat and seafood, all for prices that left me feeling a little dumbfounded at what I cough up on the other side of town. Discount fabric stores, bridal shops, Chinese restaurants, Vietnamese pho cafes and bakeries were all doing a roaring trade as we wandered the streets and arcades and headed up escalators and stairs in search of the hidden gems. I particularly loved all the side arcades off the main drag, humming with shoppers chattering to grocers, all of them groaning with good  and sometimes unfamiliar things to taste, touch and smell. 

Ravenous after all the inhaling and drooling, we repaired to a busy noodle house, Tan Viet (Shop 2-3/100 John St, Cabramatta, open 7 days 8:30 am – 7 pm, 02 9727 6853), for a feast. I had drop noodle soup with fishcakes, adding just a hint of heat from the chilli dish our waitress recommended to me, and Llew went all out, ordering the house special of crispy-skinned chicken, which he demolished along with a steaming bowl of egg noodles in a tasty broth before moving on with nary a belch to the aromatic and delicious goat curry. We washed all this down with a couple of drinks – mine was called the three bean, and the waitress was right when she insisted it was yummy. The bill came in at the princely sum of $29. Where I live, the same meal would cost at least twice that.

We were due at Darkling Deb’s sister’s book launch at Gleebooks, back close to town, so we waved a fond farewell to Cabramatta pledging an oath to come back, soon, with more people. An hour later we were just in time to meet Deb and fellow Darkling Catherine for the launch of Always Liza to Me, the memoir by Cecilia Rice of growing up with a severely disabled sibling. It was packed upstairs at Gleebooks, and it was very exciting and moving to be there to see the first of what’s destined to be many Rice family books hit the shelves. Clutching our signed copies, Llew, Catherine and I left Deb to a family celebration and hit the Nags Head, a great old Glebe pub, for the rugby and a few quiet beers. Llew’s sister met us there, and eventually so did Deb, and aside from being served the worst, loneliest bowl of corn chips masquerading as beef nachos that I have ever seen, it was a great night. 

Sunday was overcast and the Welsh Dragon needed to be recovered from Glebe, so Llew and I hopped a ferry to Circular Quay, standing at the ship’s bow as we crossed the Sydney Heads until the threatening rain broke. At the quay, I coaxed Llew into the Police and Justice Museum (Cnr Philip & Albert Sts, Circular Quay, 02 9252 1144), which is only open on weekends, because I’ve been wanting to see the Femme Fatales exhibition since it opened. The permanent exhibition and even just the site itself is worth a gander even without the riveting exploration of some of Sydney and cinema’s most dangerous women. I loved it, except in the old clerk’s office, where I came across a late nineteenth-century photo of the Circular Quay area, taken well before the wholesale destruction of our architectural heritage. I find such photos deeply upsetting. When I think about what the Sydney skyline used to and might still be, and what beautiful sandstone structures preceded the concrete eyesores that dominate today, I actually tear up. I was so distressed and enraged staring at this photo, willing things to be different, wishing I could turn back the clock and throw myself into lobbying against this complete travesty and dereliction of civic duty by, again, the monkeys in charge. It makes me sick to think of it. If you could see this photo, and compare that lost legacy with the often hideous face of the city today, I think you’d feel sick to the stomach too. 

After more than three hours at the museum, we headed to Ho’s Dim Sim Kitchen (429a Pitt Street) and loaded up on steamed pork bun supplies for home, pausing to scoff a couple of pork bun samplers as well as a barbeque pork pie, a satay chicken bun, and a custard tart. Everything at Ho’s is about a buck or a buck and a half. Tell me again why I don’t live closer to Chinatown? Oh yeah. The beach. But still. Love a dumpling empire. And then we lost ourselves in Mae Chen’s grocery around the corner, emerging with a jar of dried anchovy beer snacks (the jury’s out on that one…) and a sensational takeaway spicy ground pork dish we served with steamed rice for dinner. Just to make sure we’d covered all bases, we returned to an old favourite, Wong’s, for roasted pork and Llew’s favourite, roast duck (too oily and fatty for me, but I love the swine). Laden with our delicacies, we wandered through Ultimo, uncovered our new favourite pub in the whole of Sydney (I might tell you about it, but then again, I might not…), and finally loaded up the Welsh Dragon and headed for home. Now that’s what I call a great weekend in Sydney.



  1. kate4samh said,

    Oooooohhh!! Sounds fantastic! Thanks for taking me with you!

  2. doctordi said,

    Next time you’re down we’ll do some of this stuff for real – virtual dumplings leave a lot to be desired!

  3. litlove said,

    I can’t believe it; it’s 8.30 am here in the UK and I am now officially starving for Cninese food. That sounds like an amazing weekend. The joy of city living must be the choice of places to go, places to see. Cambridge is veerrrry pretty, but it’s a small market town. You can walk from one side to the other in 20 minutes. It’s partly why I like it, but it does cut down on the exciting excursions. Oh and the memoir sounds interesting too – i’ll hope that it makes its way over here eventually!

  4. doctordi said,

    And I *know* you didn’t have a big night on the turps that would explain the sudden craving! Why thank you, Litlove, I’ll take that as a compliment. I loved Cambridge, I thought it was divine, but yes, a very different place in more ways than one (oh yes, like the way it’s retained its irreplaceable architecture).

    I’ll let you know how the memoir goes – I’m currently reading and loving The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen, a novel with a really lovely, intriguing website you can view at http://www.tsspivet.com/

  5. Grad said,

    Guess what we’ve just ordered at the office for lunch!! You got it. Chinese. When I lived in Honolulu, as you might expect, there was a FABulous Chinatown that I could walk to during lunch hour. I not only loved the restaurant food, I loved the bazaars, the street food, the stores with colorful merchandise – and all so very affordable. We have nothing close to it here. Sounds like you and Llew had a great day – so well deserved.

  6. Lilian Nattel said,

    That sounds like a fabulous weekend. I know what you mean about architecture. Toronto is an ugly city as appearances go though there is so much to do here that’s culturally vibrant.That did make me hungry too!

  7. doctordi said,

    Grad, I hope your Chinese takeout hit the spot! I’m with you – I love street food, and I love a good Chinatown. Sydney’s is great – and then there’s all these additional outposts, too. Bankstown is next on our hit list.

    Lilian, I think that’s what guts me the most – Sydney might have had as much beauty in her civic structures as in her famed harbour… it’s just so, so sad. A truly criminal waste. Thank god for Jack Mundy, is all I can say. He was instrumental in saving the Rocks, scene of Australia’s first settlement, and other areas that were – unbelievably – slated for demolition and redevelopment. Mundy worked for the Builders Labourers Federation, so it was really extraordinary that he didn’t bow to what must have been intense pressure and instead really fought the good fight for our heritage and won. I hope you got something good to eat!

  8. Grad said,

    Had Hunan Chicken with fried rice. It was WONDERFUL. Then fell asleep at my desk. My fortune cookie said, “It’s about time I got out of that cookie.” Weird?

  9. davidrochester said,

    Your gastronomical adventures have made me quite peckish, though I think I’d skip the goat curry.

    This cracked me up: the worst, loneliest bowl of corn chips masquerading as beef nachos that I have ever seen,

  10. doctordi said,

    Grad, that’s the funniest fortune I think I’ve ever heard. I had a good one – ‘You are about to embark on a most delightful journey.’ Okay! I’m ready!

    David, the goat curry was really delicious. Honest. And I’m always gratified to crack up the crack up.

  11. Joan Barrett said,


    What wonderful writing! I found your blog while looking for a ‘daughter of the wind’ reference in a crossword puzzle. Yes, I cheat- but my rationale is that I can learn something new this way. Anyway, I live on the West Coast of the US and now you’ve made me want to visit Australia. Thank you .

  12. doctordi said,

    Hi Joan
    Thank you – how very nice of you to say, and to take the time to comment. Welcome! I’m not sure my wind madness post helped you with your crossword, sorry about that, but encouraging a new and curious visitor to make the trek Down Under isn’t a bad result – I hope you do come (just drink lots of water on the flight; it’s a killer even from the West Coast).

  13. A Persian excursion « How to shuck an oyster said,

    […] DrDi wrote recently, it’s very cool for we postcode-centric Sydneysiders to take a trip along the discovery […]

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