Once a year on the Bank Holiday Monday we go on a date day. The kids are dropped off at daycare and we have an entire day to ourselves.
This year we decided to do a self guided food tour in Cabramatta – Australia’s most multicultural postcode where over 70% of the population was born overseas. I had researched various food blogs to get a guide of the best places to go and we set off to explore. As our train got closer to Cabramatta we began to feel more and more as if we were on an overseas holiday. The woman in the seat in front of us was eating sticky rice out of a banana leaf and we were the only ones of the carriage speaking English- we felt instantly transported to South East Asia and we had only travelled 40 minutes on the train!
A short walk from the station we found Freedom Plaza, a pedestrian mall buzzing with women shopping for Asian groceries, twenty somethings sipping on Durian shakes or older people chatting in groups on park benches in the sun- even a monk from a nearby temple passed us as we posed for photos! An ornate Gateway or Pai Lau at the edge of Freedom Plaza acts as a welcoming monument and a celebration of freedom and democracy. We spend some time exploring the monuments and enjoying feeling as though we were a million miles from home.
Next stop, coffee and when in Rome… well Ho Chi Minh what else is there to do but have Vietnamese coffee? Cafe 86 was once owned by chef Luke Nguyen‘s parents and is full of local men sipping on coffees or slurping on fruit shakes while they catch up with friends. We grab a seat inside and order a Vietnamese iced coffee and an avocado shake (apparently very popular among the locals). Free Jasmine tea accompanies our order and we make an attempt to play a board game whilst people watching out the window. We quickly realise we have no idea what the game is and try to adapt to for a game of checkers… pretty unsuccessfully!
We decided to move on and explore John Street- the main street of Cabramatta – and we discovered there are essentially five types of shops: jewellery stores, mobile phone stores, cheap clothes boutiques, $2 shops and asian food outlets/asian grocers. We felt like tourists as we took photos and explored the little arcades filled with the strong smell of Durian– but there was something not quite right… although it was a relatively warm winters day, it was much colder than the normal heat you experience in most South East Asian cities and it was really the only reminder that we were, in fact, still in Australia.
Next stop was Pho Tau Bay reputedly the best Pho in Western Sydney. Apparently there are usually long queues out the door but because it was Monday morning we walked in and found a table right away. We order just one Pho between us and after a short wait we receive an enormous bowl full of noodles and broth, and a plate of fresh Thai basil, mint, lemon wedges and bean shoots. Everything was very fresh and the smell was amazing. Although full of flavour, both of us knew we wanted to sample plenty more dishes on our ‘food tour’ so we decide to leave the bowl unfinished. Before we leave I need a toilet stop so make my way through the kitchen to a toilet outside. I wish I hadn’t because on my return through the kitchen I had to step over a big slab of beef that had rolled out of its plastic bag and directly onto the wet concrete floor…mmm I’ll just pretend I didn’t see that! Again… I would probably have had a similar experience in Vietnam!
Another wander down the other side of John Street had us spy an old-school European barber shop that stood out amongst all the asian stores. Walking into Paris Style Barber Shop was like stepping back in time. The wallpaper, the flooring, the old barber chairs, the old cash register and the bookshelf filled with old Italian 45s records all contribute to a complete culture-shock in the middle of little Vietnam. Angelo proceeded to give David a cut throat shave as we chatted about his back-story. He has lived and in Cabramatta since he was 14 after he and his family emigrated from Italy. At 16 he began his first job at Paris Style Barbers and later went on to buy it off the owner. So, 45 years later he is still cutting hair in the same surroundings he did when he was 16- nothing has changed!
We walked along Railway Parade, past the Vietnam War memorial and past the flooded sewer (yes… I know!) and visited Tien Hau Temple, built in 1995 by Vietnamese refugees. The volunteers welcomed us in to explore and take photos. The piles of offerings, the burning incense and the hundreds of decorations were a feast for the senses and we were again instantly transported to another place.
Finally it was time for lunch and we headed to Bau Truong – definitely not as ‘styled’ as the Marrickville version of this restaurant but the reviews are great so I was keen to try out for myself. With over 100 dishes on the menu it is easy to get overwhelmed but with limited space in our bellies we ordered a number of snack type foods. Yum- again the food was super fresh and full of flavour.
So now it was time for some sweets. I was keen to try the custard puffs that we had seen being freshly made by a street vendor earlier in the day and we also bought some sticky rice in banana leaf with banana and coconut milk. We also bought some freshly squeezed sugar cane juice and another Vietnamese iced coffee to help wash them down and sat on a bench in Freedom Plaza in the sun to enjoy.
With the un getting low in the sky and the shadows growing long, we boarded the train back home to head back to reality. In one last grasp for that holiday feeling, I spent the train journey googling reflexology massage in Marrickville (near home). I found one just across the road from Marrickville station and we proceeded to finish off our day with a relaxing massage before the chaos of kids dinners, bath and bed.
However, as we made our way up the dimly lit staircase it occurred to me that this may not be the type of masseuse I was expecting. We pressed the buzzer and were greeted by a lady with the shortest and tightest skirt I have ever seen. Her English did not seem to extend to the word ‘reflexology’ so she called for her ‘colleague’. I explained that I was after foot reflexology to which she replied “ONLY feet? NOTHING else?”. After assuring her we were only after a foot massage she disappeared into a back room only to return to inform me that unfortunately the girl who does foot massages was on holiday. Oops- I think they had a different type of ‘massage’ in mind!
Despite this little ‘mix up’ we had an amazing day and really did feel we had been traveling. It was great to refresh ourselves with an adventure and explore a part of Sydney that neither of us had ever been to before. Next time, we might even take the kids- I am sure they would love it!