Somewhere only we know: Riverwood

Rhea Cai goes back home.

It’s been twenty hours since I’ve last eaten. I have an attractive pillow crinkle on my right cheek from sleeping in an upright position for the past thirteen hours. My jet lag is so bad I feel vaguely drunk. And despite the myriad of KFCs, Pizza Huts, Subways and other Regrettable Lifestyle Choices that stare broodingly at me from the street, I’m craving something a little more specific to my hometown after being away for so long—bún bò hue (spicy beef and pork vermicelli soup) and an icy durian milkshake.

I’ve lived in Riverwood for fifteen years now, a Southern Sydney suburb that used to be notorious for its violence, low-income population and general seediness. Its grotty reputation has improved substantially over time, yet it still remains a source of fascinated amusement from friends who reside in the more ‘vanilla’ areas of Sydney. “What’s been going on in Riverhood lately?” is a remark I hear often, followed closely by “So…how is life in the South treating you?” Needless to say, it’s usually a sleepytown punctuated only intermittently by delinquency.

Yet among the low-rise houses, ugly signage and abundant fast food outlets, there is an exceptional culinary hotspot that makes Riverwood an area even the Northerners will make the trek for.

Enter: Song Huong, a distinctively orange-coloured pho restaurant couched between pin-striped massage parlours and hair salons. The cutlery is the same orange hue as the décor, but there’s something unexpectedly satisfying about how it matches the shade of their signature spicy vermicelli broth.

I’m not sure when it became mainstream for pho (pronounced “fuh” or “fur”) to enter the vocabulary of millennials, but growing up, it functioned as the Asian variant of chicken noodle soup. I fondly remember a group of us banding together after tutoring, eager to inhale the comforting perfume of charred onions and lime from the nearest Vietnamese restaurant. Our adolescent worries would be gently lifted by a pearl milk tea. As an adult, Song Huong takes its place as a site of decision-making (indeed, I settled on going to USyd in the middle of a bowl of pho)—where I’ve eaten countless meals, cried over mung bean smoothies, sulked into my rice paper rolls, and most of all, shared the pain and joy of growing up with people I love. To me, it’s the exemplification of Southern Sydney: at first glance, a little bit unscrupulous—but upon further probing, full of substance, nourishment and culture.

Your basic order at Song Huong is pho dac biet (special combination beef rice noodle soup), a fragrant, slightly sweet, but also deeply savoury beef broth with a generous portion of noodles. Your bowl can be topped with whatever you choose: mint leaves, coriander, fresh bean sprouts, chilli sauce, thinly sliced onions. However, the meat is what distinguishes Song Huong from other pho restaurants. The beef brisket is not at all gristly and perfectly tender, both the tendon and tripe are rich and flavoursome, and the beef balls actually taste like…well, beef. For vegetarians and vegans, Song Huong also makes a delicious tofu laksa, with ample amounts of tofu (not just a couple of sad white cubes floating in an abyss of soup).

Now, the rookie error that many people make is going to the other, identically orange-coloured pho restaurant directly opposite to Song Huong. This replica eatery is a glitch in the matrix designed to prevent the unseased from experiencing the gastronomic glory across the road. Do not make this mistake. Yes, it may look a tiny bit more aesthetically pleasing. Yes, it may have a gorgeous fern awning that, upon further inspection, is clearly fake. But the real question is … does it have orange chopsticks?

Whilst Strathfield is known for its Korean BBQ and Ashfield is iconic for its Shanghainese cuisine, I am adamant that Riverwood is slowly approaching a status that belies its “hood” reputation: as the epicentre of good pho. And if not that, at least as the trendsetting suburb of the oft-neglected colour orange.

Although, perhaps, my unblemished opinion of Riverwood and its culinary treasures is tinged by nostalgia. As I got off that plane, a month had passed without any semblance of familiarity. I sought out pho, my desert-island food, with a ravenousness that encompassed both physical and emotional hunger. The first spoonful of oily, spicy soup was a visceral comfort, a reminder of home. Perhaps we all know that’s not how comfort works: the truly comforting things, the things that really matter, are not as simple as a hot meal. But like Luna Lovegood, “I think I’ll just go down and have some pudding (or pho!) and wait for it all to turn up…. It always does in the end.”