Growing up in smaller towns and cities my concept of distance is probably different to those closer to the coast. A couple of hours driving is the proverbial “trip to the corner store”. I am always flummoxed that many in Brisbane are content to stay tethered to their home patch. You’d be more successful asking for a vital organ than to get someone that lives in the Northern suburbs to go west of Annerley. If you are reading this and feel that I may be talking about you, it’s time to pack a handful of provisions (maybe a muesli bar or that packet of shortbread you got for a Secret Santa gift last December) and set off to get a greater understanding of your “backyard”. Don’t now where to start? Devoid of inspiration? You could do a lot worse than heading to Darra.
Don’t listen to the folk at Wikipedia who list Darra’s claim to fame as the crossover of the Ipswich Motorway (M7) and the Centenary Motorway (M5). They are blissfully unware that two minutes drive from the Motorway exit there is a treasure trove of hidden gems just waiting to get devoured. Better still it is the length of a pedestrian crossing from the train station, just follow your nose because the smells will be forever etched in your temporal lobe. Given the proximity to the main highway it has been a frequent pit stop before my ears pop ascending the Great Dividing Range.
Darra’s cuisine could be described as Vietnamese, but it must be said that there is also a strong Chinese influence. Many Vietnamese came to Darra in the mid 1970s and you get the feeling that there are pockets of the suburb that have not changed in the forty-five years since. The strip of shops that sit opposite the railway station is the location where the action happens. It seems like the Brisbane City Council are trying to term this “Darra Village” but I am unsure how that is going to wash with the locals. It has a sense of community already so no need to call in the marketing gurus to cock it up. Numerous food outlets jostle for the stomachs and wallets of hungry locals. Bakeries, restaurants, grocers, a live seafood shop and a butcher are eager to feed you. One of the most popular and my personal favourite is the Darra Take Away.
Unassuming and with standing room only, you are greeted by the smiling faces of the owners, peering over the hot box. Living up to its name the steam inside is creating blurred outlines of spring rolls, fish and freshly cooked mounds of pork. Like most of the businesses here, this one is a family operation and during peak hour it is run with near military precision. It has no choice because you don’t want to be that person standing between a hungry punter and their battered cod. My go to are the pork salad roll or the chicken salad roll. They are Vietnamese banh mi but Westernised the naming to cater for all. At $5 they would have to be the best bang for your buck anywhere in the city, if you know of anything else please get in touch! The chicken has shredded breast with carrot, cucumber, coriander (chilli optional) all jammed into a crusty baguette. The pork counterpart has similar ingredients and if lady luck is smiling you may score a prized piece of crackling in your bag for good measure.
Railway workers, lawyers, tradies, men, women and children – it’s the kind of place that does a roaring trade and never fails impress. There have been a couple of times where I have purchased something to eat for dinner in Toowoomba on the way home from a day’s work in Brisbane. That smell wafting through the car meant that whatever I ordered met stomach acid somewhere on the side of the road around Blacksoil.
A few weeks ago I called in enroute to Toowoomba to get my fix. My questionable timing meant I had to make do with the last of the day’s offerings, flotsam loaded into take away containers. It could be worse, I could be at home scratching my head with some pantry staples trying to work out what I could knock together that would be somewhat edible. I was able to commandeer a vacant park bench, somewhere that I could enjoy the fruits of my hunting and gathering. The multitude of takeaway containers balanced atop each other drew the attention of at least four crows (how many constitute a murder?) Now I know what Kate Hudson felt like on her wedding day to Chris Robinson (for all that like obscure early twenty-first century celebrity references). It was as if I had committed a crime and they were perched from every vantage point trying to negotiate a harmless release of the rice paper rolls and the other hostages. Everywhere I looked they were there – trees, lamp posts, street signs. Were they upset that I was eating a bird? I was in the position of power and unless they could organise their magpie brethren to swoop me, the only thing they could do was make that incessant shitty sqwark. It’s hard enough trying to open the containers whilst trying to keep your chopsticks from touching the park bench that some vagrant probably dribbled on the night before, let alone with the crows causing a ruckus. One could say things were getting hard to handle.
The rice paper roll is often overshadowed by by its more famous sibling, the spring roll. Think of the spring roll as Kevin Bacon, big in the 80s and continues to be more popular than his healthier living but blander brother (Michael). These ones came with a dash of satay sauce for that welcomed peanut hit. A bad rice paper roll can feel as if you are choking on rubber bands but fortunately these weren’t like that despite their time being cooped up in the plastic container. It is something that needs to be eaten with your hands as chopsticks (or with my limited skills) aren’t up to the task.
If the texture of the rice paper rolls aren’t your thing, maybe Bun Noodle Salad should be on your radar? Marinated beef, roasted peanuts, and various salad elements on a bed of vermicelli noodles. What really makes this so addictive is the dressing (nuoc mam). Vinegary, sweet, hot, sour and downright delicious. If only the salad had a sprinkling of chilli and some more fresh herbs it would have been even better. As it was it was tasty and filling.
Pepsi or Coke? The Beatles or The Rolling Stones? Many swear their allegiances to one and complete fob the other. The battle for the best banh mi causes just as much spirited debate. The two protagonists being the Darra Take Away and it’s delicious rival at the other end of the main strip, the Scotts Road Cafe. It too claims to have the best in town. Whilst top notch, I give a controversial points decision to Darra Take Away. Defenders of Scotts Rd would say that this is probably the most traditional with their liberal use of pate. Let’s hope the debate continues to rage for many years because it will mean that we, the customers are the winners. Given their price (both are $5) you should try them both and see what side of the fence your tastebuds are on. Don’t try just one.
Trap for first-timers, Scotts Rd Take Away has moved to the more prominent location on Railway Parade (opposite the Darra Railway Station). There is also a Lee Road and a Lee Lane. I am assuming that one was named after somebody famous who had a slightly shorter and thinner relation? Next up, possibly Bulimba?
Cam Ranh Restaurant: https://www.camranhdarra.com.au, Darra (Vietnamese)
Scotts Road: https://www.facebook.com/Scotts.Road.Vietnamese.Pork.Rolls, Darra (Vietnamese)
Darra Takeaway: http://darra-takeaway.edan.io, Darra (Vietnamese)