But the rolls at Juanito’s are different. They don’t have the same heft as Beatrix’s, the same attention-grabbing stack of pastrami as Miss Ruben’s, or the nourishment-to-dollar ratio of a To’s banh mi. They're still, however, worth a quick jaunt over to Brunswick.
Served from 10.30am Monday to Saturday, the rolls at this Brunswick cafe don’t have fancy names. “Rolls – Pastrami, Salad, Vegan, $10,” reads the chalkboard above the counter. Another board advertises coffee, cold drinks and sweets. In total, there are only 12 things listed. The beans are by Beat Coffee in Reservoir, the sweets are toasted coconut or dulce de leche croissants from Northcote Bakeshop. The cold drinks are from San Pellegrino. Things are kept simple here. And as customers come and go, they’re often greeted by name and order.
Seated at the large marble counter, I watch as my lunch is prepared in front of me. A bread roll from Chimmy’s bakery in St Kilda is sliced in half, then pastrami (from a local butcher), Austrian cheese, fresh tomato, cucumber, finely sliced basil, mayonnaise (made in-house every day), lettuce and avocado are all piled inside.
I ask the sandwich-maker what makes these rolls so popular. A lady eating hers two seats away interjects. “What’s the meaning of life?” she says with a laugh. “I’ve been eating these for 10 years. My kids have grown up on them. They have one every day after school.” She finishes her own, then orders two more to take away.
She’s got a point. It’s hard to pin down what’s so appealing. The texture from the chewy crust and soft white bread inside? The crunchy, fresh cucumber? The cheese brings a fattiness, that, in tandem with the white roll, takes me back to childhood. The thin layer of pastrami is salty, but not intensely so.
As I eat, I get a message from a friend who’s just seen my Instagram post. “It’s the mayo that makes it,” he tells me. He might be right. It’s rich, creamy and drips through all the layers, tying everything together.
All this roll-related hype started back in 1996 at Rue Bebelons – a cramped city bar fondly known by regulars as Rue Bebs – where owner Tod Myles first started selling the simple creation. When Rue Bebelons closed in 2013, Myles launched La Paloma cafe in Brunswick, which closed three years later. Former La Paloma employee Juan Burgos, who lives in the apartment upstairs, took over the La Paloma site in April this year. His goal was to recreate the same vibe (“the best place I’ve ever worked,” he says) with Juanito’s, and he added the roll with Myles’s blessing.
Juanito’s only has a one-year lease, but Burgos is hoping for an extension. He loves the community and friendship that has grown around the cafe.
“I just hope to be here as long as I can,” he says. “I’m here for one year, 100 per cent. And anything after that will be a blessing.”
When you finish your roll, the sweet croissants that have been rapidly disappearing from the counter in front of you will be incredibly tempting. Or maybe, like me, you’ll wonder if you can squeeze in one more. And then maybe you’ll find the meaning of life.
259 Albert Street, Brunswick
Mon to Fri 7.30am–3pm