When I was growing up, my parents rarely ate out. The food universe of my childhood was made up of home-cooked meals, canteen lunch orders, goodies from nana’s pantry and a weekly treat at a fast-food joint.
Going ‘out’ to eat meant one of two options: Vietnamese or Chinese food. Cam Wah restaurant in Woodville Park, northwest of Adelaide, did both, and for a number of years, when our Vietnamese community gathered at a church off nearby Port Road, we broke our fast here after mass every Sunday.
While my Sunday routines have changed in adult life, Cam Wah continues to keep a firm hold on my life. As I walk up the gravel driveway to the front of the restaurant, I can rest assured that the hand-painted frontage remains untouched, the A-frame is tucked away near the door, and the vintage chime on the back of the door will announce my arrival as I push through the heavy doors. Catch the owner on a good day and he’ll greet you by your name. How he’s managed to remember mine over 30 years is a mystery to me (and embarrassing because neither my dad or I can recall ever asking for his).
For as long as I can remember, the tabletops have been made with glass, with the menu placed directly underneath so each guest can read through the selection. Now the round banquet-style tables have been replaced with modern, rectangular wooden tops, complete with laminated menus and a photo album of the dishes to assist patrons who prefer visual cues. A condiment caddy filled with the essentials like soy, fish and hot sauces sit by the wall, alongside a tissue box for your convenience. All these, along with the TV perched above the counter, streaming music video clips of Asian pop stars, are symbolic of a family-run restaurant committed to serving the Adelaide community a dish I haven’t happened upon anywhere else.
Type ‘Cam Wah’ into a search engine and you’ll find the usual reviews and directory information. If a photo says a thousand words, the 'words' past diners want to share is Cam Wah’s drawcard: a small bowl filled with a rich-red tinged broth, accompanied by a side plate of dầu cháo quẩy (Chinese fried curlers), with bánh tiêu (also known as a Chinese savoury pancake or Vietnamese doughnut) making the occasional appearance. Yes, the xíu mại nước (wet dim sim with tomato) is Cam Wah’s drawcard. The dim sim forgoes the typical xíu mại meatball shape. Here, it’s served as a singular disc-like patty with a teaspoon – the instrument my dad would use to cut the patty into bite-sized pieces. The edge of the patty suggests the filling has been moulded to fit the bowl before being steamed and topped with a garnish of spring onion, a slice of lap cheong (Chinese sausage), followed by the tomato-based broth.
You’re provided a pair of scissors to cut the steaming-hot Chinese fried curlers (also known as youtiao, crullers or fried dough sticks). My parents would cut the conjoined curlers in two, and in half again – with the ends wrapped in tissue if they hadn’t cooled down fast enough. I’d savour every bite, swapping between spoonfuls of dim-sim patty, and dunking the curler into the broth.
It was, and remains the perfect starter. From here, my parents would alternate between a handful of mains. Each week they’d choose between the noodle dishes: the mì vịt tiềm (egg noodles with duck), or mum’s favourite, mì hủ tiếu – the half and half: half egg noodles, half rice noodles in a clear broth, served with slivers of roast pork. Dad would branch out to the cơm sườn (grilled pork chops with rice), or satiate cravings for mì hoành thánh (wonton egg noodle soup).
At Cam Wah, my brother and I used to set out on our own culinary adventures. We'd start in the safety of splitting a plate or bowl with mum and dad, before venturing out on our own. The mì xào giòn thập cẩm – a huge nest-like tangle of crisp fried egg noodles topped with seafood, chicken and seasonal vegetables – became a favourite of my brother’s. Meanwhile, I discovered the joys of cơm gà nướng (rice with crispy chicken); a half chicken being a substantial serve for a growing youth, I’d often split the chicken with my brother, until we grew to clean up a half chicken each.
While my Sunday routines have changed in adult life, Cam Wah continues to keep a firm hold on my life.
Over the years, I’ve returned to Cam Wah – with my parents and my friends. I’ve witnessed the ways my friends have grown up alongside this menu, how their paths are different but similar to mine. What's their family order? Do they order the xíu mại with the curlers, or the pancake? Ordering takeout wasn’t a thing at home, so I was delighted to learn that my friend’s parents ordered the curlers whenever they made congee at home. Why hadn’t we thought of that? The curlers are thicker, doughier than their grease-laden counterparts sitting in plastic bags at the Asian grocery counter.
Time and again, I return to this restaurant – sometimes with years in between visits. I come after spending time interstate or abroad; to bring a visitor to quiz them if they have anything similar back home; after my cousin has posted about Cam Wah during her lunch break; to remember the height of my brother’s love for Thomas the Tank Engine and the corner table where he’d have front-row seats to the nearby train stop; and to reacquaint myself with the addictive tomato-based broth dripping off the end of a curler. The walls of Cam Wah hold a thousand memories for my family – and the memories of thousands of families, blood-related and chosen, who gather here to pause for a moment in time.
33 Kilkenny Road, Woodville Park
Tuesday - Sunday 9 am - 3 pm
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