Let’s begin this post with a fact so rooted in Sydney’s food scene that it is essentially axiomatic – the best Vietnamese food you can find in Sydney is undoubtedly in the West, particularly Cabramatta and Bankstown.
But…what if a trek to the West is a bit too far for you? Most people aren’t foodies, and wouldn’t bother trekking 20km+ just to scoff down a bowl of pho, especially if there’s already a “good enough” place nearby.
Enter Mama’s Buoi, a Vietnamese restaurant in Surry Hills, only a five minute walk from Central station. Now I was talking about “good enough” Vietnamese earlier, but this joint – I dare say – can pull punches with the stars of Sydney’s West.
Date Last Visited: 20/11/14
Address: 116 Devonshire St Surry Hills, NSW 2010
Recommended Dish(es): any Vietnamese salad, pho
While it can be said that Vietnamese cuisine is practically “street food” in terms of accessibility and price, it doesn’t hurt to have nice furnishings. In fact, Mama’s Buoi is beautiful by any restaurant’s standards. While an authentic Vietnamese experience might be hard to imagine in the presence of such lovely surrounds, there’s absolutely no sense in docking points for a sense of style.
It is Surry Hills, after all. Good food and good looks are its trade.
The restaurant probably seats up to a hundred or so, and yes, it gets absolutely packed. That was a comforting sign, except…
…when it’s a full house, it’s very, very cramped. I was bumped maybe 6-8 times throughout the night, and it was never pleasant. People are seated far too close together. In addition, you also don’t have much table space – three dishes and you’d be struggling to find a place to put your arms.
Of course, you can go for bar seating; I would suggest asking for the food to arrive in waves if you go down that route.
Wrapping up coverage of the restaurant layout, lets get on with some actual wraps!
The quintessential Vietnamese “spring roll”, or goi cuon, this is perhaps as famous as pho, and far more portable. My work friend and I wanted to have a bit of a light dinner, so we decided to get these as an entree.
They were average, as far as my experience goes. The rice paper has the right elasticity and chewiness, though the ingredients within didn’t give the right texture for me – there was too much dry crunching, and not enough meat. Flavours were somewhat bland-ish as well.
It may not sound like a good start, but it only gets better from here.
This is probably the best Goi (“salad”) I’ve ever had. I use quotation marks because it’s more meat than salad, but perhaps that’s why I like it so much.
Nah, it’s not just that – even the vegetables are delicious due to an excellent fish sauce seasoning. Each bite is crunchy and flavoursome. When it comes to the meat, it’s really well-grilled, juicy with just that little bit of char. You can also get this with shredded sirloin steak or BBQ prawns.
It would appear all salads on the menu come with these analogues of prawn crackers, which to me seem a bit superfluous, but do add depth to the dish. They taste pretty good as well.
My favourite dish of the night!
The soft shell crab salad is basically the same as the above, but with soft shell crab instead of chicken. This is also a great dish for similar reasons. The soft shell crab is slightly a downer as it’s still got a bit of that raw sea musk to it. I would stick with the chicken salad if you can only choose one.
These salads have very large portions, definitely main-sized, so I would suggest sharing them, if you want to eat anything else!
My work friend’s To Bun is all vego choice (also available with many meaty options), but that’s not a problem when you involve tofu! I would actually give up say, lamb, before I gave up tofu. Not kidding.
This dish is a bit less flavoursome than the above two salads, but that classic fishy seasoning makes it a worthwhile vegetarian option for those in that camp. And besides – tofu! SO YUM. I cannot overstate how much I love tofu.
For all my adventurousness, you would think I would try something other than pho as a dinner option. Actually, I was very, very curious to see if the pho here can stand up to the Cabra/Bankstown giants.
Not that I expected it to, but if you were going to use any dish to be a comparison – it would be pho.
This pho is bloody fantastic. Firstly, I’m already quite chuffed that there’s an option to order a small portion. Even then, it’s quite sizable, and combined with another dish, could be a full meal.
And then there’s the noodles. Everything a great rice noodle should be – chews right through, not elastic, not too soft. Slippery, not sticky. Able to soak up a good deal of the flavour of the broth.
Speaking of the broth, that’s the best part of this pho, as it should be. It’s been awhile since I’ve had pho in the West, but literally the first thing that came to my mind when I had a spoonful of broth was “whoa, I swear I’m having this in Cabramatta”. Now, I dare not say it’s as good or better, but I’m confident in saying that it comes close – close enough to give me flashbacks.
The broth is probably a bit lighter and a bit richer in umami than the broths over in the West. I could drink this all day.
Wasn’t this meant to be a light dinner? The damage isn’t even done yet – there’s still dessert!
This is where Mama gets serious with her affogato. Deliciously dense sweetness from the ice cream in a bath of sweet Vietnamese coffee equals holy moly. While I was initially taken aback, I was going down on it old hat after a few bites. It’s quite delicious, the flavours working well together. Great presentation seals the deal. A highly recommended dessert.
For those with aspirations of a heartier dessert, che chuoi is an option for you. Sago in warm coconut cream, with its slippery pearls and sweet tropical warmth, makes for a very effective winter balm. No harm having it in any other season though – this is a dessert that never goes out of fashion, as evidenced by very similar desserts in many other Asian cultures.
By now, I hope you’ve obtained an idea of why I like Mama’s Buoi so much. Yes, a true Vietnamese experience is still only obtainable in the West, but now there is a far more convenient option, and at appropriate prices to match, given the better rental. If you live in the West, nothing for you to see here. For everyone else though, what are you waiting for? Mama’s calling!
This visit is based on an independently paid visit
Have the same conclusions as I do? Different? Let me know in the comments below!
- Simply great Vietnamese food at prices that don’t bust the wallet
- A slice of the goodness that Western Sydneysiders enjoy, but with a decor upgrade and a more central location
- Something as simple as a goi cuon should be easy, right?
- When the restaurant gets packed, it feels like you’re in a game of bumper cars except that you’re in the only car that doesn’t move
I have a new scoring system! Read all about it here.
Most important takeaway – three separate scores for food, service and ambiance to give the final score. The new system is not compatible with any score given prior to 11/11/2014.
F6.5 | S3 | A2