Located about 22 kilometres south-west of Sydney’s CBD, “Canley”, as the locals like to call it, was once associated with drug crime and gang violence. But, like its sister Cabramatta, it is becoming one of the city’s most-exciting dining precincts. The fun centres around Canley Vale Road, which is split into Canley Vale and Canley Heights. It’s lined with bakeries selling báhn mì and South East Asian restaurants.

Start at Holy Basil at the Canley Heights end of the street. According to the owner Tony Inthavong, the restaurant’s opening seven years ago helped transform the suburb. “There were junkies shooting up on the streets,” he said. “Now, the restaurateurs have improved the area and pushed the crime away. The gangs are gone, we have people dressing up and families going out to eat.”

Families began migrating to the area from South East Asia in the 1970s after the Vietnam War, bringing the food and culture that now draws crowds from all over the city. Inthavong arrived in Australia from Laos as a refugee at age 13. His bustling eatery has booth-style seating and huge cooking utensils hanging on the walls. Stand-out dishes here include the zesty green-mango salad with slithers of Granny Smith apple, and the jumbo prawns in choo chee sauce, which are cooked whole. The chicken-and-banana-blossom salad has a fragrant balance of salty and sweet flavours topped off with a light peanut sauce. The fruit shakes are refreshing and colourful. Go for a strawberry, watermelon and mango combination. Don’t leave without trying the fried ice cream. The kitchen churns out 350 every day. Vanilla ice cream is wrapped in a thin batter and served with tropical fruits and a gorgeous, gooey caramel sauce.

After lunch, continue down Canley Vale Road for grocery shopping at Yung Lee Tropical Fruits. Sweet-smelling dragon fruits and fat papayas are piled high. The staff is friendly and you’re likely to have things you’ve never seen before shoved in your face to eat. When we visited, we were handed a sweet, fleshy-textured fruit we think was a rambutan. The rustling of plastic bags and a steady flow of chatter in various languages will transport you straight to a street market in Hanoi or Bangkok.

For coffee, head across the road to Corner Café. The black Vietnamese brew is served either hot, or iced with condensed milk. The best part of the experience here is a warm atmosphere – locals meet on a regular basis to catch up. They occupy the plastic chairs and tables out the front, but the plush red couch down one side of the cafe’s interior is pretty inviting, too.

Meander down to Tan Viet Noodle House to snack on crispy chicken. The succulent meat is dressed in perfectly salty skin and falls off the bone. Some people choose to pair it with thin noodles, but the light and tangy tomato rice is just as good. The service here is swift and the meals are affordable.

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Down the other end of Canley Vale Road you’ll find slightly more upmarket restaurants. At night, there’s always a line out the front of Hai Au Lang Nuong, which you can smell from a mile away thanks to the open fire. People go for charcoal-grilled meats and the chicken wrapped in banana leaf. After something deep-fried? Head to nearby Bach Dang for fist-sized seafood balls. They’re packed with scallops, prawns and fish. Enjoy them with jasmine tea and you’ll be left more than satisfied.

Nas Campanella is a journalist and radio broadcaster. See other Nas stories here and here.

Bach Dang
Shop 3, 46 Canley Vale Road Canley Vale
(02) 9727 9931
Tue to Fri 10am–2.30pm, 5pm–10pm

Corner Café
Corner Canley Vale Road and Peel Street Canley Heights
(02) 9726 2828

Tan Viet Noodle House
Shop 3, 219 Canley Vale Road Canley Heights
(02) 9723 4452
Sun to Thu 9am–9pm
Fri & Sat 9am–10pm

Holy Basil
233A Canley Vale Road, Canley Heights
(02) 9727 7585
12pm–2.30pm, 5pm–10pm.

Hai Au Lang Nuong
2/48 Canley Vale Road Canley Vale.
(02) 9724 9156

Yung Lee Tropical Fruits
221 Canley Vale Road, Canley Heights
(02) 9755 3385
Mon to Sun 7.30am–7.30pm