Banh mi originated in French-occupied Vietnam during the first half of the 20th century, but it’s long been a fixture of Melburnian lunches.
Every banh mi shop adds its own flourishes, but typically each baguette roll holds chicken liver pate, mayonnaise, some sort of protein – often roasted or grilled pork – chilli, coriander, pickled carrot, cucumber and sometimes daikon.
With dozens of Vietnamese bakeries scattered around the suburbs and hidden in city arcades, this list doesn’t cover them all, but it might expand your banh mi horizons.
It’s hard to beat a crackling roast pork roll, but we’ve included others for variety – and for vegetarians. Turns out you can still score change from a fiver when you go meat-free (though the days of finding a roast pork roll under $5 might be behind us).
Pork salad banh mi at Phuoc Thanh Bakery, Richmond, $6
Located in the Vietnamese dining mecca that is Victoria Street, this shop is all about the classic. The pork salad banh mi comes on a roll liberally loaded with cold-cuts – including thin slices of a boiled pork sausage known as cha lua, and shaved grilled pork with characteristic red edges – plus the usual pate, mayonnaise, pickled radish, carrot, cucumber and coriander. For an extra dollar, you can opt for crispy pork instead of grilled for even more crunch.
Grilled pork banh mi from N Lee Bakery Collingwood, Melbourne CBD and South Melbourne, $6.80
There are a handful of N Lee bakeries around town, and the original is fast approaching 30 years old. One look at the queue during lunchtime and, coronavirus notwithstanding, it’s clear N Lee is as popular as ever. Both the pate and mayo are made in-house, the meat is tender, and the serves are generous. Plus the doughnuts here come with hot pink or chocolate icing, sprinkles and generous squirts of strawberry jam piped into the centre.
Crispy pork banh mi at Sunny’s Bakery, Collingwood, $8
One hundred metres from popular N Lee on Smith Street, Sunny’s is arguably the most underrated banh mi shop in the inner north. Crispy pork is the pick here, with tender, fatty meat and a generous helping of crackling to complement the fluffy white roll, which has plenty of bite to its crust. The fat vanilla slices, wobbly with custard, are made in-house too.
Meatball banh mi at Nhu Lan Bakery, Footscray, $6
A display of hot, marinated meats catches your eye the moment you step into Nhu Lan. While the chunks of tofu with thin, fried exteriors deserve a mention, those who eat meat ought to go for the pork meatballs, which are soft, moist and generously bulk up the baguette. Grab a traditional Vietnamese dessert for later.
Tofu banh mi at To’s Bakery, Footscray, $6
To’s tofu banh mi caters well to the vegetarian crowd. The usual carrot, cucumber and coriander salad fills a submarine roll, with mayo lending extra fattiness and small croutons in place of crackling. There’s also a selection of Chinese bao buns, the vegetarian version packed with mushroom, tofu, silky tofu skin, pumpkin, broccoli and beans. Grab some dim sum while you’re at it (meat eaters take note: there’s pork floss in the barbeque pork roll).
Spring roll banh mi at Bullseye Banh Mi, St Kilda, $9
Look for the mint green signage on Barkly Street, where this small Vietnamese cafe serves banh mi stuffed with roast pork, satay chicken or braised tofu. For carbs on carbs, stuff your banh mi with spring rolls (pork or vegetarian available), which can be purchased as a separate snack for $2.50. There’s a wonton soup with Hong Kong-style beef brisket on the menu, too.
Crispy roast pork banh mi at Mister Truong’s, Brunswick West and Windsor, $8.50
Huge chunks of crackling-coated pork belly come in bread rolls baked thin so they don’t detract from the juicy meat and julienned vegetables. Or swing by in the morning for a Vietnamese iced coffee and an omelette banh mi, which has all the trimmings but with a fried omelette – its edges browned and crisp – in place of the usual proteins.
Veggie banh mi at Tabac Bakery, Springvale, $4
The brittle tiger bread – which gets its distinctive mottled pattern from being brushed with rice flour paste prior to baking – is what sets this shop apart from the pack. The rolls are a touch sweeter and certainly easier on the eye than the competition. It's all about the bread here, and the veggie roll is a steal (it contains the usual carrot, cucumber and coriander plus tomato slices and red onion). For something different, try the roast beef for $6.50. Double meat upgrades start at $8.50.
Chicken banh mi at Anloi Deli & Marinades, Springvale, $5.50
The name is a dead giveaway – Anloi Deli & Marinades specialises in marinated meats. Located in Springvale Shopping Centre, Anloi is divided into two counters: one for banh mi assembly and ready-made Vietnamese meals, and another stocked with meat formed into processed logs, patties and slices so you can recreate the experience at home. The chicken banh mi comes with mayo, pate, julienned carrot, thick batons of cucumber, and coriander stalks stuffed into a squat baguette with the grilled chook. Make sure you request caramelised onions.
Mock meat banh mi at T&L, Cremorne, $7.50
Tofu and salad are the only vegan options at most banh mi bakeries (hold the butter, pate and mayo, please), but this busy spot offers mock roast duck, chicken, and pork; tempura eggplant; and lemongrass tofu. The staff are friendly and don’t skimp on salad, making it a top choice for both those with dietary requirements and their mates who won’t stray from a pork roll (those are good here too). Rice paper rolls, vermicelli noodle salads and pho are also available.
Crispy pork banh mi at Trang Bakery & Cafe, Collingwood, $9
It’s hard to walk past this small shop without noticing the hulking pieces of pork belly in the window. That’s how they get you, but it’s the generosity with which they fill the soft white bread with that pork – chunky with crackling, tender meat and rich pork fat – that's most notable. Trang also caters to vegans with a handful of vegetable and mock meat alternatives. You’ll find other branches around Melbourne, and the steamed buns are also a hit.
Crispy fried chicken banh mi with Sriracha mayo from Pho Nom, Melbourne, $9
Under the watchful eye and experienced hand of Jerry Mai (also of Southeast Asian diner Annam and sprawling Vietnamese spot Bia Hoi, everything except the bread is made in-house at Pho Nom. Even the pate and mayo are made from free range chicken and eggs. Sure, you can get pork belly, lemongrass chicken or tofu, all of which also come with cucumber, carrot, spring onion, coriander and optional sliced red chilli, but you’ll be hard pressed to find another golden fried chicken banh mi like this around Melbourne.
Roasted pork in BBQ sauce banh mi at Bun Bun Bakery, Springvale, $6
All the banh mi here are the same price (including the one with pork crackling), and you can splash out with an extra 50 cents for a tiger roll. The roasted pork is sliced thin and drips with barbeque sauce, which soaks into the fluffy middle of the baguette. Caramelised onion adds sweetness and a touch of Bunnings-hot-dog nostalgia. Add 10 spring rolls for $4.
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on June 4, 2019. Some menu items or details may have changed since publication.