Now Johnny may not have a drop of Italian blood in him but he does have espresso running through his veins and he is proud of his coffee machine and the illy coffee he grinds and puts in it. And for only $3 (it’s worth more), he makes a damn good espresso (and according to Miss Gob and DJ Hoot – excellent hot chocolate as well).
I’m quite particular when it comes to coffee and so is my Europhile boss “Paul Smith” who put me on to Johnny in the first place. I Wok coffee was a secret I was not keen to share with you but Johnny and his wife Lisa work hard, love to chat to their regulars and take pride in what they do (and are always smiling). I suppose I’ll just have to get in a little bit earlier now that the secret is out.
Coffee aside, I Wok’s real specialty is catering to the hungry office hoards, students, backpackers and commuters that congregate or pass thorough Sydney’s Railway Square which is on the end of the Central Railway Tunnel near the YHA in the Haymarket/Chippendale area. It’s a brave feat to have such an establishment considering that Sydney’s Chinatown is a short hop, step and jump away but Johnny’s I Wok is on par, and if not better than, some of the similar established eateries and “fly-by-nighters” down the road towards Dixon Street. I’m aware this is a big call – but I’ve been eating in hole-in-the-wall Haymarket joints for over 10 years and when offering freshness and variety- I Wok is hard to beat.
I Wok is a simple takeaway counter with a bain marie out front and a large kitchen out back where Johnny and his team also cooks to order from the menu which I consider offers a “kaleidoscope of Asia”.
The bain marie is where you will find the popular dishes: there are Aussie crowd pleasers and dishes for home-sick Occidentals like pork with chilli Sichuan style; honey chicken; vegetarian noodle; Singapore noodle; honey pepper beef; teriyaki fish; fried spicy squid; sweet and sour pork; satay chicken; Thai lemongrass chicken; Thai red curry chicken; teriyaki chicken and Japanese curry (to name a few). You can get one choice for $8.50; two choices for $9 or three choices for $9.50 (and it comes with noodles or rice). For $10 you get two choices and a can of drink or water.
But you are not restricted to the items in the bain marie as Johnny and his crew will make anything fresh on order from the back lit menu behind him. He will also create something on the spot that he may not have on the board (but lingering in his head) – his off-the-menu Thai-style spicy sour soup with tomatoes, rice noodles and chicken is excellent (really excellent).
You can order an arrangement of Asian dishes – Malaysian, Singaporean, Chinese, Thai and Japanese influenced. There is Laksa (vegetable, beef, chicken, seafood, prawn or duck) from $7.50 (and the soup is true to form – creamy and coconutty with a typical mild laksa curry flavour to it and isn’t short of seafood), noodle soups (such as wonton with additions of barbecue pork or seafood and other varieties), and wok noodles with a choice of noodles and sauces (soy, oyster, teriyaki, sweet chili, satay or Mongolian).
Other dishes include: lemon chicken ($9.50); honey prawns; braised eggplants and shredded pork with chilli and garlic sauce; kung po diced chicken with chilli sauce; mopo tofu Sichuan style; sir fried shredded pork with green bean (to name a few) – all $8.50. Then there are different versions of fried rice and regional noodle dishes such as Singapore noodle ($8.50); stir-fried beef noodle ($8.50); pad Thai ($8.50) and an excellent char kway teow ($9.50).
The char kway teow ($9.90) contains fat king prawns, wide flat rice noodles, chicken, fried egg and bok choy in a oyster/soy sauce. It has a wonderful “breath of the wok” smokey char flavour to it. It is a typical hawker dish and is a substantial serving.
My colleague, The Silver Fox, recommends I Wok’s fried spicy squid which he describes as lightly dusted and fried tender curls of squid that are crispy and not oily and have the right amount of seasoning for him. He also is a fan of the steamed vegetables (minus the tofu), and the fried rice (he says it’s light and fluffy and not overly fried).
Mr Smith can always be caught spooning a bowl of Johnny’s roast duck noodle soup ($9.50) or a Hainanese chicken rice ($7.90) in his mouth. Mr Smith reckons they are on par with equivalents he has had in the Orient (and Mr Smith is pretty particular when it comes to poultry considering he fattens up geese and chickens in a secret location in Sydney’s prestigious eastern suburbs for Christmas festivities).
Some of my other favourites include the beef rice noodle (thin slices of beef wok tossed with flat rice noodles and soy sauce), the honey pepper beef, the lemongrass Thai-style chicken, Sichuan pork (which has granules of Sichuan pepper that explode like little bombs in the mouth), the Singapore noodle and Johnny’s laksa. Then there is the interesting minced pork and pickled Chinese cabbage noodle soup (no.6 on the menu) – a wonderful aromatic and filling bowl of fried minced pork with a handful of pickled greens on top of perfectly cooked thin vermicelli – all floating around in a light, steaming broth. It’s comforting, light and wholesome – almost phở like. John tells me that a friend from Shanghai loves the soup with his laksa base. I can certainly see the benefits of trying it that way.
There is a small outside area in front of I Wok that you can eat at (plates and cutlery provided) but the majority of sales would be takeaway (and I Wok puts them in decent sized bowls and containers).
I Wok may look like another run-of-the-mill takeaway but ordinary it isn’t. Yes, its takeaway fare but it offers something special among the Chinatown elites – quality and variety without the leaving a hole in the pocket.
What: I Wok, Shop 14B Henry Dean Plaza (Lee Street) Haymarket NSW Australia. It is in the Railway Square area of George Street and Broadway (to the left of the Central Railway Tunnel exit). Open 6 days from 8am.
The verdict: The range of popular Asian dishes at I Wok is a whole Chinatown food court at the one-stop shop (but with added addition of great coffee and cheery owners) .
Ate there: Coffee almost daily and when I get peckish and need picking up with some Asian comfort food.