The last place I would expect to find spicy Vietnamese-style razor clams and Balmain bugs lathered in a salted duck yolk sauce is in Wiley Park Hotel. About 40 minutes’ drive south-west of the Sydney CBD, it is a pub for cheap drinks, watching NRL and making bets – an ordinary pub like hundreds across Australia.
Except for the dining room. Here, a tiny kitchen called Rocs and Rolls dishes out trays of seafood, grilled meats and hotpots to Vietnamese families and young couples. They huddle on bright yellow chairs in an otherwise barely decorated room, chatting and tearing into saucy plates of snails with enthusiasm.
The contrasting scenes, while bizarre, are uniquely and wonderfully Australian.
Rocs and Rolls is run by Van, Thao and Thu Tran, three sisters who wanted to offer a type of southern Vietnamese dining not often seen in Australia – the roadside seafood grill. Anyone who’s been to Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon) is familiar with the scene: streets crammed with tables and plastic chairs, where hungry, beer-wielding youth tear, suck and slurp at every texture of seafood while chefs, positioned right next to them on the street, work furiously with a wok, a flame grill and gigantic bubbling pots.
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There are two menus at Rocs and Rolls: a blackboard with daily specials (perhaps spicy hotpot or a chicken feet salad) and a large “regular” menu with noodles, grilled meats and seafood (Van insists on the pipis in lemongrass-fragrant coconut water), plus a choose-your-own-seafood-and-sauce selection based on what Van’s picked from the market.
The latter is a popular choice. Here is how it works: Van can tell you what are the local catches (some are imported from Vietnam or farther afield) and what’s good that day – it might be yabbies, Balmain bugs, long razor clams, blue swimmer crabs or periwinkle snails. Next, pick your “sauce”. You can ask for your whelks to be tossed with corn and a lavish amount of butter; your clams to be lathered in a powerful sate (a Vietnamese sauce of lemongrass, garlic and chilli, not to be confused with the peanut-powered satay of Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine). Every dish, no matter how boldly flavoured already, is served with a salty lemon-chilli-pepper dipping sauce.
Finally, you pay with cash – that’s all they take. When your buzzer rings, pick up your food, cutlery (if you need it) and bucket – you’ll need that for the mound of empty shells you’re about to accumulate.
At the bar at the other end of the bistro, you can order cheap lager, which feels apt. There are no craft brews on the Ho Chi Minh streets.
The cooking philosophy is about bold flavours, rich sauces and a celebration of textures – chewy, slippery, crunchy, bouncy, all of it. “This [cuisine] isn’t very traditional but it’s very typical [street food], especially for young people,” says Thao. “When you go to Vietnam, you will see so many people, especially after work, eating snails and having a beer.”
If it was up to Thao and Van, they would be serving on the street. Not just for the atmosphere but so they can serve bread, which due to the amount of crumbs, just isn’t possible in a carpeted pub. But street food is very difficult in Sydney. So the Wiley Park Hotel dining room is the next best thing.
One of the great qualities of street dining is the accessibility and casualness of it all – it’s loud, unpretentious and uninhibited. And at Rocs and Rolls, it feels like you are welcome to do as much seafood-slurping, shellfish-sucking, yelling and laughing as you want. There is nothing quite like it in Sydney and I’d guess, anywhere in the world. It just couldn’t exist anywhere else.