Sydney's Thai Town
While you might not be able to holiday in Thailand just yet, Sydney’s Thai Town offers an authentic taste of its distinctive cuisine in its many restaurants, street food eateries and colourful supermarkets.
Sydney’s Haymarket area is renowned by locals and chefs alike for its Chinatown restaurants, celebrity New York chef David Chang listing it as one of his favourite places to eat on the planet. Yet on the fringes of Chinatown, in the bustling streets around the Capitol Theatre, a new ‘Town’ has been quietly evolving. Thai Town is a culinary destination that’s grown over the last 20 years and is quickly gaining a global reputation.
Australia is known to have some of the best Thai cuisine outside Thailand and Sydneysiders have long been familiar with Thai dishes. Since the cuisine exploded onto its food scene in the 1980s, green chicken curry and pad Thai have become as familiar to locals as a Sunday roast.
Thai Town began in Campbell Street decades ago, revolving around a cluster of restaurants, shop fronts and grocery stores. Today, its streets are bursting with busy woks, specialised Thai supermarkets and restaurants open till midnight and beyond. In 2013, the Sydney City Council formally recognised the area and blue ‘Thai Town’ signs now mark the streets.
I have selected a few places that resonated with me to highlight some of the district’s leading lights, but there’s so much more to explore. With each visit, you unearth something new.
The eclectic interior of Show Neua; Spice I Am is a popular haunt of chefs and gourmands
Let’s start with some restaurants. Thai cuisine is incredibly diverse, every region has its own techniques, cuisine and culture. Thai Town is truly a melting pot of all of these regions.
Caysorn is a great example of regional Thai cooking, one of Australia’s only southern Thai restaurants. It is a family affair owned by Chalio Tongsinoon and partner Phanthip Srisuwan with her sister Nongnapat Srisuwan. The food is distinct and startlingly fresh. Phanthip makes the curry pastes daily from fresh produce, which is the ethos at Caysorn.
Phanthip recalls growing up in the southern town of Phatthalung, with her sister Nongnapat, on top of their mother’s restaurant, which is where they learnt to cook. Southern food packs a punch with the use of extremely spicy ‘priks’ and turmeric bringing a vivid yellow colour to its seafood curries and batters.
One of my favourite dishes at Caysorn is the Kanom Jeen noodles, a fermented soft rice noodle spun into the shape of a birds nest. Kanom Jeen is served with a variety of sauces. The Nam Ya (crab curry) with the Kanom Jeen is a good place to start, but if you are feeling bold enough, the breathtakingly hot and pungent Tai Pla (fermented fish guts) is worth a try, or perhaps Nam Ya Pah (fish curry) for a more mellow sour hit. Do not miss the Goong Pear Tod (turmeric battered school prawns) – they provide a salty balance to the spicy, sweet and sour flavours.
One of the most beautifully plated dishes is the herbaceous Kao Yum (Kao ‘rice’ and Yum ‘mix’). It is served as a deconstructed salad of sorts featuring jasmine rice, Thai herbs, vegetables, and crunchy roasted coconut enlivened with a flavoursome fermented fish sauce called ‘Boodu’. There is a self serve salad bar with cooling cucumber and fresh aromatic herbs to help temper the heat.
Caysorn co-owner Phanthip Srisuwan; Northern street food is the order of the day at Show Neua
Show Neua is a quaint restaurant on George St focusing on northern street food. Some of the dishes here are presented on a Khantoke, a traditional round rattan tray providing a selection of dishes that are a great snapshot of the region’s food. Northern Thai food, with its strong Burmese influences, is comparatively mellow when it comes to its use of chilli. One of the region’s famed dishes, which Show Neua do so well, is the Kanom Jeen Nam Ngeaw, a fragrant hot and sour soup with jellied pork blood. If you’re feeling less adventurous, try their Khao Soi Gai, a warming dish of egg noodles with curry broth and chicken covered with crisp fried noodles adding the crunch. This is great street-side dining conveniently situated in front of Chinatown’s light rail stop.
On the eastern edge of Thai Town is a popular haunt of chefs and gourmands, Sujet Saenkham’s Spice I Am. This hole-in-the-wall eatery is synonymous with Sydney’s Thai food scene and his brand has been going strong since 2004. Sujet hails from the Ratchaburi province in Central Thailand where he learnt to cook from his mother.
Spice I Am’s menu draws inspiration from across Thailand. A must-try and a true cult classic are the crispy betel leaves with prawns. Other go-to dishes include Nam Khao Tod crispy rice salad with Thai pork sausages, and a not-to-be-missed Jungle Curry with spice levels that are set to max, balanced with citrus herbs. Interestingly, it’s made without coconut milk so it feels bright and light. Sujet’s cooking is refined and vibrant, and his ability to balance spice, sweet and sour is second to none.
He opened Spice I Am because he wanted to be close to his customers and in his Wentworth St restaurant, you feel like you’re in the kitchen. A lot of the produce, including kaffir limes, chillies, lemongrass, and herbs, comes from Sujet’s family farm in Kangaroo Valley. Seek out his finger limes when they are in season – they’re a great addition to a gin and tonic.
Caysorn is one of Australia’s only southern Thai restaurants; Always fresh at Spice I Am
You can’t talk about Thai Town without mentioning two very different restaurants and the family behind them. Chat Thai and Boon Cafe were founded by the late Amy Chanta, a hugely influential and visionary restaurateur, now run by her remarkable daughter Palisa Anderson.
These establishments are Thai Town institutions. Amy Chanta opened her first Chat Thai restaurant some 32 years ago and from that business it has evolved into many branches. Their Thai Town site is located in a formerly condemned building on Campbell St that once housed a BBQ duck restaurant. Through an extensive renovation, Amy found a beautiful open brick facade and Chat Thai in Thai Town was born. Palisa remembers the day well as she wears the scars of an untimely bowl of scorching noodle soup accidentally being spilt down her back. A hot start to this hardworking family business.
When I visit Chat Thai, I always order ‘Amy’s Noodles’, a sweet and sour prawn noodle dish that leaves you wanting more. The Grapao Gai Sup is a heady mix of chilli, minced chicken and holy basil and their green chicken curry with seasonal Boon Luck Farm apple eggplant is truly a benchmark dish.
Enjoying the sumptuous menu at Chat Thai; A chef on show at Chat Thai
A boon for diners
Around the corner from Chat Thai on Pitt St is Boon Cafe with its catch cry emblazoned on the front window ‘Sarni by day, Issan by night’ speaking of its unique vibe. Boon’s menu highlights the Issan region, known for its spicy and pungent dishes. It also has delicious sandwiches riffing off Thai ingredients and freshly made juices. It feels like New York deli meets Asian grocery store.
Boon shares the same space with Jarern Chai Grocery store. Walking into the cool room at Jarern, you become overwhelmed by fragrances permeating the air. Wafts of aniseed from the purple Thai basil lead to a host of other aromatics – coriander, lemongrass and more. It is a riot of colour and freshness; bunches of bright herbs stacked high, stunning bouquets of betel leaves, guavas, custard apples, yam beans, dragon fruit, the list goes on. The produce radiates goodness, much of it coming from the family’s organic Boon Luck Farm.
Just picked at Spice I am; The bright appeal of Chat Thai.
Thai Town’s sense of community is evident when talking to its chefs and restaurateurs. At some stage in their week, they all shop at one of the many neighbourhood Thai grocers. One such grocer, Pontip, has long been a beacon for chefs and is part of Thai Town folklore. Mae Cheng, Jarern Chai Grocer, Siam Central, Prempree are other popular stores. I can spend hours wandering their aisles finding just the right shrimp paste whilst Thai pop music blares through the speakers.
Thai Town has undoubtedly become one of Australia’s great culinary neighbourhoods, where authenticity is guaranteed. In fact, the Thai government has recently begun a program called ‘Thai Select’, which some of the restaurants in the area display on their menus and walls. In the vein of the French appellation system, the program looks to celebrate the authenticity of Thai Food.
One thing is certain, with restaurants like Caysorn, Show Neua, Spice I Am, Chat Thai, Boon Cafe and the many busy eateries, real Thai food is alive and well in Sydney’s ever evolving and vibrant Thai Town.