Ca Com Banh Mi Bar review

Pork belly banh mi with red curry paste, crunchy chilli oil and plenty of herbs.
Pork belly banh mi with red curry paste, crunchy chilli oil and plenty of herbs. Photo: Simon Schluter

336 Bridge Rd Richmond, VIC 3121

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Opening hours Wed-Sun 11am-3pm (or sold out)
Prices Cheap (mains under $20)

When the news dropped that hatted Vietnamese restaurant Anchovy would close in June, the first question many people had was about Ca Com, the sandwich shop owned by the same people, right next door. "Can I still get their amazing banh mi?" The answer is, thankfully, yes. Ca Com (it's Vietnamese for "anchovy") will persist while its neighbour is refashioned into a Laotian restaurant. Down the track, Anchovy will be reincarnated on another site.

Meantime, owners JY Lee and Thi Le will continue operating their mostly takeaway, fully wonderful banh mi bar. Pre-COVID, the pair had toyed with opening a place that sold rolls but it wasn't until lockdown that they started doing it, serving Laotian-style khao jee pâté from the restaurant window. The baguettes were a sensation, thrilling locals with lively bites during a period of dull grey.

Eventually, Ca Com spilled into the premises next door where it now feels like a homesteader's dream kitchen with its large waist-high hearth and convivial workbench and servery.

Ca Com Banh Mi Bar features an open hearth.
Ca Com Banh Mi Bar features an open hearth. Photo: Simon Schluter

A window bench for four is prime position for watching pork belly and chicken grilled over charcoal, to catch a whiff of flame-toasted crusty baguettes (by local bakery Phuoc Thanh), to get a sense of the honour, heritage, hard work and creativity that's threaded through this humble lunch spot.

Ca Com's flavours are different, personal, resonant. There's juicy turmeric chicken, deeply caramelised pork belly and "banhstrami" with housemade pastrami, pickled mustard greens and dill.

Tinned sardines are cooked out with garlic, chilli, red onion, heaps of pepper and layered with dill, a nostalgic childhood combination for both Lee and Le.

The 'banhstrami' with housemade pastrami, pickled mustard greens and dill.
The 'banhstrami' with housemade pastrami, pickled mustard greens and dill. Photo: Simon Schluter

Thi Le has been working on her Laotian pork sausage for a decade. When she cooked at Cumulus Inc, she brought it in for staff meals, and one of her first dates with JY was delayed a few hours because she was mid-snag experiment. It's perfect now: a piggy punch of lemongrass, galangal, garlic, coriander root and lime leaves.

Banh mi and khao jee pâté are usually slathered with pâté. Ca Com subs in red curry paste. Instead of fresh chilli, they use their own crunchy chilli oil. Both condiments are clean, direct, enlivening, complex foils for copious carrot, cucumber and herbs.

It's true that $17 is more than most banh mi cost, but the notion that they should be cheap is quite simply racist. When food is made with carefully sourced produce, rendered with skill and time, crafted by people who are paid properly, the associated costs add up.

Laotian pork sausage banh mi.
Laotian pork sausage banh mi. Photo: Simon Schluter

It's actually a privilege to pay for a Ca Com banh mi because it's an example of the very best of Melbourne food: anchored in story, infused with dedication and intercultural learning, expressive and delicious in the service of community. Imagine all that for less than $20.

If it's possible to philosophise while covered in crumbs, head ringing with chilli and herbs, then this is a sandwich that speaks of who we are.