The 50 best cheap eats Sydney has to offer
Rosa Cienfuegos is famous for her tamales, steamed hot pockets of white corn flour (masa) flavoured with chicken and sharp tomatillo salsa. Or maybe you want the earthier flavours of the mole version. Or for herbivorous snacking, there’s one with beans. A liberal dose of green (mild) or spicy (red) salsa from the mortars on the bench is the winning play, and there’s hot sauce to ratchet up the capsaicin-based endorphin rush. If tamales don’t bring you here, perhaps the tacos – double-wrapped in fresh tortillas – will.
The winner of our 2018 People's Choice Award remains a go-to for consistently crowd-pleasing Nyonya cooking, and Malaysian classics that don't seem to fall off your radar. Signatures like char kway teow, creamy laksa with chicken and prawns, and fragrant nasi lemak never fail, but dig deeper and you'll find weapons like the steamed eggs and wok-fried squid drenched in salted duck-egg yolk, butter and curry leaves.
A tried and true stalwart of Sydney's fierce Thai restaurant scene. The menu is a staggering 82 items long, so make like the rest of Sydney: start from the top, work your way down, and repeat over and over again. Or just start with #79: the revelatory omelette in a sour Thai soup, and head backwards from there.
Never had banh cuon? You need to. These silky rice noodle rolls are a traditional Vietnamese breakfast staple, usually cooked at little roadside stalls as swarms of scooters zoom past, and Banh Cuon Ba Oanh's are about as close as Sydneysiders can get to the real deal. That includes a tiny kitchen cloaked in clouds of steam and squishy tables with ankle-high stools that will test your flexibility. Order the classic version, and your rice noodles will be rolled with a rubble of pork mince and flecks of crunchy black fungus.
Thick, chewy, slurp-worthy noodles the width of a belt slathered in chilli and finished with slow-cooked pork and crunchy vegetables? Sign us up. Make sure you head here hungry as hell, because a flaky roujiamo – another Xi’an street food staple, often considered China’s answer to the burger – is an essential part of the experience. (Hot tip: the Haymarket outlet is BYO.)
If you don't believe that gaijin can churn out incredibly delicious ramen, head to RaRa – the seemingly unending queues are all the proof you need. But a bowl of the creamy, full-flavoured tonkotsu is well worth the wait. The springy noodles are made in-house, the thick disc of chashu on top grilled to order, and if you happen to be of the plant-based persuasion, the vegan variations are also out of this world.
In its heyday, the fried chicken at Hartsyard was one of Sydney’s must-haves. Thankfully, the fabled fried bird lives on down the road at an address devoted entirely to it, in all its crisp and golden glory. They brine the chook for 24 hours, coat it in spices, bathe it in buttermilk, cook it in a vacuum bag, batter and fry it to the high heavens. Load up the table with wings, breasts, legs and thighs, and throw in a side of poutine for good measure.
The Inner West junk food lords have been flipping burgers worth crossing town for since 2013. And while they’re a still a major drawcard, the addition of a dynamite vegan menu at the Circular Quay location has made Mary’s worth falling in love with all over again. The plant-based burger patties have a proper taste and texture, and solidly seasoned cauliflower serves as a knockout stand-in for fried chicken. Amen.
Banh mi here are a celebration of simple things done well: the soft yet crunchy roll, three types of pork, the fistful of salad, hearty pâté, special chilli sauce and all. It’s been around for over 30 years, and if there’s one Vietnamese bakery that transcends suburban lines and draws crowds from near and far, Mascot’s Hong Ha has to be it.
Even if you didn’t know about El Jannah, the smell of the smoke would likely lure you straight into the legendary Granville chicken shop. This is charcoal chook at its finest, complemented by a supporting ensemble of Lebanese bread, fluorescent pickles and an almighty garlic sauce so pungent it could ward off an army of vampires.
All thrills, no frills and open till midnight all seven days of the week, this Indian-Pakistani institution offers pretty much everything you could ever want in a classic curry house. Three slow-cooked curries over rice for $12? Tick. Solid tandoori chicken? Sweet, fluffy Kashmiri naan? Tick. And for the adventurous? Spicy brain nihari all the way.
By day, it’s an ace café spruiking East-meets-West brekkies like croissants smothered in mossy green pandan custard. By night, it’s a casual BYO diner dishing up classics from a multi-page menu of Isaan cuisine. To top it all off, it’s brought to you by the forces behind Chat Thai and set inside a wonderland of a grocery store, piled high with hard-to-get-your-hands-on produce and all sorts of Thai delights.
You won’t find pho, spring rolls or vermicelli salad on the menu here, but what you will find are ridiculously good namesake banh xeo: lacey-edged, luminous turmeric-gold coconutty pancakes with any number of fillings, from sweetcorn to king prawns to crisp nuggets of pork. A banh mi with free-range soy sauce eggs makes for a refreshing change of pace, and if you’re still craving soup, bo bun hue – a lemongrass beef noodle number – is the answer.
The hype, queues and Friday evening bustle are due to the fact that Chatkazz serves street food as it’s done in Mumbai, and they were the first in Sydney to do so. Expect to find soft, white, heavily buttered bread rolls plated up with rich chickpea stews, puffy flat breads crisped on a hot grill and samosas. Or maybe just bits of fried dough, smashed and splattered with yoghurt and tamarind syrup.
Loyalists swear by the ramen at Ryo’s, and who could blame them? Duck your way past the noren curtains and you’ll think you’re in a traditional Tokyo noodle house. Everywhere you look, it’s heads down, hoeing away and slurping full-throttle tonkotsu broth and squiggly noodles from giant bowls very, very loudly.
Emma’s swings open the doors at 6pm and by 6.15, it’s usually rowdier than a frat party, with a room packed with cult followers who just can’t seem to get enough of the electric garlic dip, the butter-smooth hummus, the smoky-as-all-hell baba ghanoush, the addictive lady’s fingers, the succulent Moorish chicken and all the rest of it.
It’s worth pausing a minute when your bowl of pho arrives at Pho Tau Bay. Hold your head over the deep bowl of beef soup chock-a-block with rice noodles, raw beef slices and curls of onion and breathe in deep. The stock is the clincher in any pho noodle soup, and the version here is a winner – light on oil and punchy with flavour.
At the centre of every Filipino celebration is lechon, a spit-roasted whole suckling pig that’s equal parts crackling and tender flesh. The Cebu Island version is said to be the best, stuffed with aromatics like star anise, garlic, lemongrass and shallots, before slowly being roasted over charcoal for three hours. It's the star of the show at this casual corner eatery with less than 30 seats, and if you want in (which you do), you'll definitely need a booking.
Grab a plastic tray, a pair of tongs and load up on yum cha favourites like har gow, pork siu mai and char siu bao, or have at the pineapple buns, red bean sesame balls and traditional desserts like Cantonese white gourd pies. Whatever you pick, you won’t go wrong – this is one of the best Chinese bakeries in Sydney.
The odds are in your favour at Chat Thai – you can point to pretty much anything on the menu and walk away a winner, which is why it has grown into a restaurant empire. The multi-level Thaitown outlet might just be the best of lot, if only for the late-night trading hours and the added bonus of BYO.
The numbness to yumness ratio in the chongqing noodles at Dainty Sichuan is sky-high. Have a few tissues ready to wipe the sweat from those brows, and be prepared not to feel anything aside from a buzzy tingle for a while after you finish. You've been warned.
Nevermind that a handful of Sydney's top chefs (Mr Wong's Dan Hong among them) claim this as a favourite. Believe the bib. When there are this many business workers prepared to wear a plastic bib at lunchtime, you know this is a laksa worth investigating. There are 11 laksa variations on the menu, but the chicken and king prawn is The One.
Banh mi are almost a Sydney religion and here they make them cheap and crunchy. Pick your preference when it comes to choosing chilli, pâté and the special sauce (make sure you get it all). There is the traditional pork (a cold cut combo), deep pink barbecue pork, crackling pork belly, chicken or dense meatballs.
Best falafel in Sydney? It's a big call, but these super crisp, fried-to-order handfuls of chickpea and herbs studded with sesame seeds are definite contenders. Have 'em in a pita pocket or on a platter with dips and pickles, and if the carnivore in you has an itch that needs scratching, the charcoal-grilled meats are as charry and juicy as you want them to be.
You, like everyone else, are probably here for the roti. Sweet or savoury, it's long been one of the go-to bargains in town. Branch out, however, and there's plenty more goodness to be found in classic Malaysian dishes like nasi lemak or cuttlefish in funky, fiery sambal.
This old faithful is famous for hand-pulled noodles with pork mince and boiled, fried or steamed Northern Chinese dumplings. Pork and chive are an essential order, but don't overlook the eggplant bathed in a searing hot special sauce with intensely garlicy bok choy that must be one of Haymarket's most frequently ordred dishes.
Fried chicken is an easy sell in Sydney, but when deep-fried poultry comes courtesy of the gang that blessed us with Mr Crackles – the answer to our late-night binge-eating prayers – goodness is pretty much guaranteed. The birds here are probably the crunchiest you’ll find on these streets, and make sure you get a side of mash and gravy to go alongside. Whether you eat it with a spoon or treat it as a dip for your chicken is up to you (though we wholeheartedly recommend the latter approach).
Thai food takes some modern turns at this buzzy Chatswood eatery beneath Westfield. Case in point: the ‘yum salmon’, a tartare of sorts with seaweed, shallots, kaffir lime leaf and a palm sugar dressing, and then there's those tom-yum-flavoured chicken wings. You can, however, still get your hands on classics like a killer kra pao. Holy Basil, indeed.
There are “generous portions” and then there are the mixed plates at Jasmins. First comes a complimentary plate of pickled salad, chilli, olives, tomatoes, onions and mint. Then, the platter itself arrives: hummus, tabouli, falafel, baba ghanoush, kofte, kibbeh and shish kebab. Unless you’ve got hollow legs or haven’t eaten for the better part of a month, one will feed two, and for $20 no less. Talk about bang for your buck...
Grilled over charcoal, deep-fried, or deep-fried and coated in a sweetish glaze, Javanese style: those are the three choices you have when it comes to how you want the famous chicken prepared at this Kingsford Indonesian mainstay. Bring the crew, order all three, compare notes and don't skip the satay or sambal either.
Taj boasts one of the biggest ranges of Subcontinental sweets in Australia – we’re talking probably close to 100 different chewy, sticky, stretchy, fragrant treats. That’s what greets you at the door and it’s probably enough to stop you in your tracks, but have a seat and go to town on the all-vegetarian menu first. North and South Indian thali plates are a smart way to try as much as possible.
Combinations of flavours and textures don’t get much better than gyros – how the charry, pillowy pita soaks up the juices from the freshly carved pork and hits the high notes with the crisp chips, thick tzatziki, slivers of sharp red onion and sweet tomatoes. It’s impossible to eat one of Gyradiko’s without making a royal mess, but let’s be honest, that’s most of the fun.
A lot of work goes into getting the chicken right at Flying Tong. There’s the overnight brining in more than 12 spices, the thin batter mix, the housemade breading powder and the pitch-perfect deep fry. Then there are the sauces: garlic soy, sweet chilli and peanuts, or the so-called ‘Spicy Bomb’. Pick one if you must, but know that this Korean fried chicken is very on its own, and doesn’t even need ’em.
Some of the very best burgers in the entire city await at this CBD stalwart, and perhaps the very best of them is the Blame Canada. It's a cult classic, a thick, 200-gram Wagyu patty topped with crisp, maple-glazed bacon, American cheese, poutine (!) and maple aioli on a milk bun. Hangovers, be gone!
Tucked away just slightly from the hub of dumpling houses on Liverpool Road in Ashfield is Shanghai Dumpling, a tiny spot for slippery wonton-style dumplings stuffed with familiar combinations like pork and chive, and with rotating specials like salted duck egg with pork, or prawn and bamboo shoots. Getting the skin right is a fine art, and these guys have it down to a science.
In moving to a CBD food court, what it may have lost in suburban charm it has made up for in regular accessibility. Is Alice Tan's char kway teow still the best in town? It certainly gives the competition a run for its moneybags.
The speciality at Gogyo is kogashi, or burnt miso, ramen. But you probably knew that already because you were one of the hordes of people who lost their minds when this Japanese chain landed in Sydney in 2017. Or you simply walked in for a bowl of ramen, smelled the scorching woks and spotted bowls of the black stuff on every other table. Whatever the case, if you haven’t tried it, do.
You know the drill. It starts with the slowly spinning vertical rotisserie, jammed tight with chicken, lamb or beef. Pick your protein and they’ll carve on the spot, stuffing it into a lightly toasted flatbread wrapped up with lettuce, tomato, onion and your choice of sauce. It's the simple things.
Nope, your fellow diners aren’t taking a test. They’re customising their Vietnamese meal boxes on cleverly designed wipeable menus. Choose your preferred rice, main, vegetable, salad and soup and it’ll all get assembled in a lacquered bento box for one. It’s hard not to agonise over all the available options.
Technically, this is a cheese shop, but it also happens to be home to what is probably the best cheese toastie on the planet. Owner Penny Lawson layers four types of cheeses between slices of Pioik Bakery bread, and then has the nerve to layer them on the outside of the sandwich as well before crisping it all up in the press. It's a marvel.
Unlike most Indonesian restaurants across Sydney that focus on Javanese cuisine, here you’ll find the food of Medan, the North Sumatran capital known for its distinct mix of indigenous Batak, Malay and Chinese flavours. The rendang at Medan Ciak is where it’s at, tender as heck, with the slow-cooked complexity that comes from time and dozens of ingredients.
Your animal instincts grab hold of you when you come face to face with a Five Points burger. Perhaps it’s because there’s usually a substantial number of people ahead of you in line, or perhaps it’s the way the melted cheese, crisped bacon, blackened patty edges and soft bun glisten in the light. Either way, you’ve earned it, so don’t hold back.
Spring Yunnan’s signature dish, "Crossing the Bridge Noodles", is a miniature, single-serve hotpot. There’s a stone bowl of still-boiling pork and chicken broth, accompanied by an array of dainty plates bearing carefully chopped portions of pork, fish, chicken, coriander, shallots, garlic chives, bean sprouts, beancurd skin, and even a tiny quail egg. DIY never looked so good.
Yen’s knocks it out of the park on a few different fronts. Both the beef and chicken pho are outstanding, each with a collagen-rich broth you’d happily drink by the gallon, and the crisp-skinned chicken option is a worthy upgrade. The rice paper rolls more than do the trick, and if a colossal crepe is what you crave, the banh xeo has your name on it.
Serving Leicchardt since 1952, Bar Italia is the Platonic ideal of the suburban Italian restaurant. Arrabbiata, amatriciana, bolognese, carbonara, marinara, napoletana, parmigiana, pizzaiola, puttanesca – you name it, they've got it. Not to mention cannoli and baked ricotta pie to top it all off.
These guys call themselves the ‘Pioneers of Dosa Culture’, and while many consider the crisp, parchment-thin pancakes galore on the menu to be some of Sydney’s best, the chicken dishes make noise, too. Butter chicken and biryani are safe bets, but the chicken 65 – deep-fried morsels tossed with curry leaves and doused in sticky Chinese-Indian-style chilli – is the jackpot.
Admit it, a rowdy night on the tiles has probably ended with a box of crackling from this Oxford Street institution in your hands, or else any one of the outstanding sandwiches on offer. We're suckers for the Crackles Classic with five-spice pork belly, but the braised lamb shoulder is a dark horse.
Head to this humble dine-in and takeaway for what must be Sydney’s cheapest hoppers: those lacy Sri Lankan bowl-shaped crepes with an irresistibly crisp edge. Get the egg hopper for extra protein and have it alongside your choice of curry. The kotthu roti – a hot spiced mess of chopped roti with meat and vegetables – is also a home run.
Soondubu jjigae. This Korean favourite is more than just a soft tofu soup. You get a quivering wobble of soft-set tofu – like a savoury version of panna cotta – simmered in a mini cauldron of bubbling spiced soup. The broth is guaranteed to warm you up from the tips of your fingers right down to your toes, and don’t freak out about the angry red tinge – it’s not half as spicy as it looks.
There are only four burgers on the menu, but Kerby Craig's Barangaroo burger joint makes a convincing case not only that more burgers should have Japanese accents, but also that ridiculously crunchy lotus root crisps should stand in for French fries more often. The housemade sodas are a must, too.