Trying to find banh mi in Marrickville is like trying to find Thai restaurants on Newtown’s King Street. That is to say, easy. You can barely turn your head on Marrickville or Illawarra roads without spotting a shop, restaurant or bakery that sells its version of this Vietnamese staple. Having barely strayed from the 2204 region for the past couple of months, I’ve been doing my darnedest to try Marrickville’s finest examples of these pork, pate and pickle-stuffed rolls. Between a tiny Vietnamese bakery on Marrickville Road (too scungy) to Marrickville Pork Roll (good, but a bit stodgy) and Delish (fresh, a good runner-up), I have crammed many of these babies into my mouth over the past couple of months.
But it’s the traditional pork banh mi at Alex ‘N’ Rolls that has caused the others to fade into the background. Sometimes I will be on my morning walk and, dazed, somehow find myself in front of this converted terrace on Illawarra Road ordering a traditional pork roll.
Alex ‘N’ Rolls isn’t a place you can get your food quickly. Lines are long and I seem to always wait an excruciating amount of time for them to make my order. But still I keep coming back. Sometimes I wait in line for a good 15 minutes only to get to the front and find they’ve run out of pork before the clock strikes 1pm. Yet I continue to trek past all the other banh mi operators just in case they haven’t. And on more than one occasion they’ve spent a solid five minutes trying to find their Eftpos machine so I can pay them. But you’ll still find me there at least twice a week (always with cash now, just in case).
The banh mi at Alex ‘N’ Rolls is frequently compared to those at Bánh Mì Phượng, a world-famous banh mi shop in Hoi An, Vietnam, thanks to the late chef, author and food-travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain, who once described it as the best in the world. I visited Bánh Mì Phượng earlier this year. And sure, it was good. But I reckon Alex ‘N’ Rolls is better.
Let’s start with the actual rolls themselves. I detest a waterfall of crumbs cascading from my mouth when I bite into a bread product, but there's none of that here; this is the perfect roll. It’s a little firm, but with plenty of give, meaning you won’t be standing there trying to rip at the bread with your teeth like a toothless geriatric dog tearing at a chicken wing.
The roll is filled with banh mi standards: pate, mayonnaise, pickled carrot, radish, cucumber and coriander. But that’s where the comparison to any other banh mi ends. Things take a left turn with the addition of lettuce (which may be where the comparisons to Bánh Mì Phượng come from, which also serves its banh mi with lettuce). This little diversion from tradition adds a wonderfully fresh note to the roll, meaning you won’t get halfway through and need a swig of water to offset the saltiness.
The crowning glory, though, is the pork. Unlike others I’ve sampled in my quest, it’s neither too dry nor too processed. In fact, Alex ‘N’ Rolls begins prepping its meat every morning at 3am, and it sits in its own juices, getting ever more succulent, until it’s piled generously onto your roll. What’s more, right before seasoning it with salt and pepper, they drizzle those juices straight onto your roll, before jamming the two halves together, passing it over to your desperate-for-banh-mi hands and losing their Eftpos machine again.
The end result is the juiciest, meatiest and freshest banh mi on the Marrickville scene. I eat them for breakfast some mornings. Other days I eat them one-handed for lunch while working. I sure as heck ain’t a banh mi expert, and there is absolutely no scientific, Vietnamese or culinary expertise behind my claims that this is the best banh mi in Marrickville, nay, Sydney. But, in my eyes at least, it can do no wrong.
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