If you haven’t noticed the diminutive shop on Illawarra Road, complete with its distinctive red awning, you’ll definitely have noticed the snaking queue of people at lunchtime. Mothers with prams, office workers in suits, uni students in sneakers – all walks of life – line up for the same thing: bánh mì, the Vietnamese namesake of Marrickville Pork Roll.
With more than 10 ingredients to choose from for that pivotal crunchy, white bread roll, you’ll get any variation you like on hot pork, cold pork, paté, mayonnaise, fresh and pickled vegetables, all with a good kick of chilli.
So what’s the story at this little no-seat, takeaway joint with nothing but the cabinet of fillings and a tight menu?
“It used to be a public toilet block,” says owner Khiem Du, who runs the Marrickville store and their newer Ashfield store with his wife Nga (also known as Emily).
“I came here when I was eight years old [from Vietnam], but my wife came when she was in her late teens, so she has better memories of the pork rolls. They are everywhere in Vietnam. We started the business five years ago because we thought it was better than going to work for someone else. We never thought it would take off like this.”
Nga picked up her pork roll skills working in another shop, but the final balance of ingredients is her own mix.
“You work and learn how to make it and then you make it your own way,” says Khiem. “Even with the exact same recipe, you can’t cook it the same way. She does it her way.”
Neither Khiem nor Nga have a formal background in food, but when Nga’s cousin moved out the shop on Illawarra Road and offered her the tiny venue, they thought it was a good opportunity to start their own bánh mì shop.
“The first day was the greatest,” recalls Khiem of their Marrickville opening in 2008, recounting that they ran out of everything and they had no idea why it was so popular. “We’ve never looked back from then.” But, humbly, he still can’t put his finger on what makes people travel across town for one of his rolls. Even their Ashfield store hasn’t drawn quite same the passionate following.
“Nowhere beats Marrickville. It’s the variety of people I think – and when they see a long line…I don’t know if it’s the food or the long line,” he laughs. “But even my customers in Marrickville say Ashfield is not quite the same, even though the food all comes out of the same kitchen.”
Perhaps it’s the bread from the Bankstown Bakery, or maybe it’s the ratio of Nga’s fillings. It could even be the atmosphere in Marrickville that contributes to the perfect bánh mì.
“I just think they are so tasty and consistent,” says David Xu of Epping, who will happily travel to Marrickville for his bánh mì fix. “I also think it’s really simple and properly focused on what they’re doing. They get that one thing right and I like that.”
Even queuing is all part of the experience, particularly given that the line moves quickly and rarely lasts for more than 10 minutes at the busiest times.
Juliette Wright, another fan of the Marrickville store, agrees, thinking nothing of travelling from St Ives to Marrickville when in the mood for bánh mì.
“It has a cult following,” she says. “It’s the fresh produce in it, the roll has the perfect crunch on the outside but is perfectly soft inside and there’s a great chilli kick.”
Despite finding a pork roll that’s almost as good a little closer to home in Neutral Bay, Wright would still rather make the dash to Marrickville when she can.
For Xu the secret key is the paté that the couple use. “That’s my favourite ingredient – the paté is the best. They sell it by the tub too and I sometimes get that to take home.”
The message is simple: choose one thing and do it very well.
Marrickville Pork Roll
236a Illawarra Road, Marrickville