I'll just have a sandwich. It's a meek statement that evokes a humble bite on the go - nothing special. But times have changed. The modern Australian sambo is now a culture-hopping, border-crossing shape-shifter. It can be deluxe, a healthy cheap eat, an off-the-wall experiment or an old-school classic.
The trends of the moment? Sandwiches served US-style, with piles of potato chips and pickles; ciabattas dished up in baskets and on chopping boards; slow-cooked meat (pork, lamb, beef, goat); chipotle sauces, offbeat chutneys and aioli on everything. ''Little'' venues are popular (Little Rose, The Little Ox, Little Chloe). And did we mention jaffles?
When we set out to find Melbourne's 20 best sandwiches, we kept the definition open, tasting wraps, baguettes, focaccias, paninis, baps and buns … just no hamburgers in disguise. Only one example of each genre made the cut, so no doubling up on chicken-mayo triangles or BLTs, no matter how tempting. Here, then, is our pick of 20 of the city's best sandwiches right now.
The Dead Man Reuben, $14
Dead Man Espresso
35 Market Street, South Melbourne, 9686 2255
The Warialda Galloway beef pastrami in the Dead Man Reuben is moreish meat, expertly barbecued, smoked and salted, then carved into thick slices and dressed to the nines with rich Russian dressing, melty Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, tangy pickle and a scattering of greens on roughly sliced toasted sourdough.
Verdict: A drippy two-hander direct from a New York deli.
Trucker jaffle, $9.50
10 Heath Street, Port Melbourne, 9681 8550
What this buttery pocket loses in area it makes up for in volume - the sealed sandwich is more than three centimetres thick. The crisp triangles are bulging with thick cuts of bacon, fried egg, liquid cheddar and a squirt of ''dead horse'' under a golden bonnet.
Verdict: The simple things in life are often the tastiest.
Smoked salmon bagel, $8
112 Koornang Road, Carnegie, 9568 3866
The multicultural cast of sandwich hands here are so fresh-faced, they could star in a reality TV series, a la Jersey Shore. At peak times, be prepared to queue for the divine toasted rings that are baked out the back. They're piled with fillings selected from an oasis-like display case of salads and spreads. It's hard to go past lox: tender sheets of smoked salmon, plenty of cream cheese and capers.
Verdict: A classic for a reason.
Classic BLAT, $9
511 Spencer Street, West Melbourne, 0430 810 734
The bacon-lettuce-tomato BLT is as dead as disco, bring on the BLAT, or even the BRAT (bacon, rocket, avocado, tomato). Few are as homely as Junie Moon's version. Wrapped in paper, this is a country-fair style sandwich that allows each element to shine. There's crisp bacon from Marchetti Smallgoods, light rye baked daily at Glenroy Bakery, rocket and sliced tomato with heaps of salt and pepper, aioli and avocado.
Verdict: Just like (you wish) your mum would make.
Just Chicken, $14-$15.50
688 Queensberry Street, North Melbourne, 9090 7301
There are more than 20 ciabattas in sandwich queen Nat Paull's ever-evolving repertoire (Rocky, Mickey and Rachael are some of the combos). Make friends with the cafe's Facebook page and you'll find out the sandwich of the day. If the deceptively simple Just Chicken pops up, drop everything and GO! The top bread from Crumbs Bakery is loaded with mustard-dressed greens and poached free-range chook mixed with awesome house-made mayo bursting with fresh herbs. Hiding amid the luscious mix are crunchy slivers of chicken crackle.
Verdict: Chicken crackle! Seriously.
La Morenita Latin Cuisine
67 Berkshire Road, Sunshine North, 9311 2911
If the Saturday morning line-ups are anything to go by, the word is out that the sandwiches at this Latin bodega in the Sunshine boondocks are worth a trip. The saucy little buns are the genuine article, with a dozen different filling combinations chalked up on the wall. The Churrasco (No.1) is the logical place to start, its barbecued steak strips teamed with fresh tomato, mashed avo and a hit of mayo, held together in a dusted roll.
Verdict: Backpack to South America without a passport.
Meatball baguette, $8
2 Charles Street, South Melbourne, 0422 306 899
Even by Melbourne standards, this literal hole in the wall is hard to find. The new daytime offshoot of the Food Traders catering company offers a line of jaffles for $4 a piece (hello, spag bol), but it's the meatball sub that hits the spot. Juicy spheres of veal and pork are sauced up with tomato sugo, mayo and melting tasty cheese and stuffed into a crunchy white roll with a handful of wilting rocket.
Verdict: You'll be torn - tell all your friends, or keep the secret for yourself?
Soft-shell crab brioche, $21
658 Church Street, Richmond, 9429 4332
Overheard at Top Paddock: ''I wanted an Audi but it didn't have a sunroof so I got the Mercedes instead.'' Sounds like the clientele of this happening new cafe can probably afford to drop $21 on a sandwich. Reminiscent of the New England lobster roll at Golden Fields, the buttery, compact brioche envelopes sprigs of dill and fennel, slurps of mayo and a pretty pile of luxurious, crunchy crab. It's the European marque of sandwiches.
Verdict: A decadent bite with a price tag to match.
Confit-duck sandwich, $13
Unit 3, corner of Fitzroy and Rose streets, Fitzroy, 9417 1037
Brunching at Industry Beans feels like stepping into an episode of hipster-baiting series Portlandia: bearded bike riders, people nursing small dogs, po-faced bloggers with cannon-sized Canons. The duck sandwich arrives confidently on an oblong platter with sweet potato strips and a pot of coriander mayo. The long, cakey ciabatta is extravagantly skewed to reveal inner workings of oily duck, mild provolone cheese and a hit of sticky mandarin jam that makes it a rather sweet affair overall.
Verdict: The bloggers approve.
Roast-beef roll, $9.50
81a Hudsons Road, Spotswood, 9391 1335
It's the sign of a good bakery when you want to buy everything on the menu for later. If you can look past the cakes at the counter, the roast beef lunch roll is a triumph. Its kasoundi relish is a bitey, Indian-style tomato sauce that melts into sharp tasty cheese to create a creamy dressing for the hot slices of organic beef and cos lettuce. Served in a plastic diner basket with a handful of kettle chips, it's fun, fresh and inventive.
Verdict: A taste of America via Britain that is uniquely Australian.
Schnitzel sub, $9-$11.50
2/159 Chesterville Road, Moorabbin, 9555 3228
It was Marko's impressively high rating on Urbanspoon (98 per cent) that led us to the no-frills sandwich counter in industrial Moorabbin. Was it worth it? You bet. What's not to like about a soft, 30-centimetre white roll laid with crisp, herbaceous chicken schnitty fresh from the fryer, with your choice of Middle East-inspired salads and dips. Tahini, hummus, house-made mayo, pickles, jalapenos, eggplant tapenade and chilli sauce all make an appearance on an enormous beast.
Verdict: Like Subway in heaven.
Moroccan cauliflower sandwich, $15
The Little Ox
452 New Street, Brighton, 9596 6577
It feels like half of Brighton is trying to get a table at this light-filled spot that capitalises on every Melbourne cafe trend. The vegie sandwich is a hit - a salty, squishy cauliflower patty moistened with aioli, fresh rocket and a thick layer of sweet beetroot relish, which bleeds through the Noisette multigrain.
Verdict: Right on trend.
Korean wagyu-beef sandwich, $15
617 Rathdowne Street, Carlton North, 9347 4064
It's a classy joint, Small Victories, and they have some sleek sandwiches to boot. Under thick doorstops of Dench sourdough, this premium sambo features succulent shavings of marinated wagyu, fiery house-made kimchi, spring onions and glugs of Korean mayo, all blending together like a spicy stew. The untoasted bread dominates a little, but on the plus side, it comes with a small squeeze bottle of Sriracha hot sauce. It's all about the details.
Verdict: A saucy Korean minx with a big ego.
The Cubano, $15
Acland Street Cantina
2 Acland Street, St Kilda, 9536 1175
Feeling ravenous? This epic man-sandwich with Tex-Mex pop hits the spot. An oversized, pointy Woodfrog Bakery roll is slapped with succulent pulled pork sizzling with heaps of smoky, sticky chipotle sauce. Add liberal doses of neon-yellow American mustard, lashings of ham, melted cheddar, peppery jalapenos, a handful of coriander and several spoons of addictive, sweet red onion, and you've got yourself a mighty meal. It comes with a packet of tortilla chips to really finish the job.
Verdict: Dude food par excellence.
Roast vegetable focaccia, $8.50
Spring Street Grocer
157 Spring Street, city, 9662 1520
The meat-free option at this sleek Italian grocer's weekday sandwich counter is a retro behemoth, with thick slabs of oiled focaccia baked nearby at Commercial Bakery - another arm of owner Con Christopoulos' expanding empire. Stacked inside is an antipasto platter of firm cannellini beans, slices of roasted pumpkin, hunks of marinated eggplant, basil and spinach leaves, sun-dried tomatoes and a spread of pesto. Don't miss the self-serve condiment station with jars of chipotle and wasabi mayo, chilli oil and mustard dressing.
Verdict: A vegie delight.
Tuna ciabatta, $13
381 Montague Street, Albert Park, 9077 1372
With a collection of antique teaspoons and patterned china to make any CWA nanna jealous, this cool corner cafe handles the basics with flair. A fluffy ciabatta knot-roll from La Madre Bakery is pimped out with a prime-quality tuna-mayo mix, and heavily spiked with finely chopped red onion and piquant cornichon pickles. Next? A bunch of dressed fresh spinach, a dollop of lemony guacamole, and a generous hit of creamy, salty Persian fetta. It's a juicy, savoury blast.
Verdict: Canned fish gets flash.
Crispy croque monsieur, $15.50
Lolo and Wren
484 Albion Street, Brunswick West, 9383 3712
Kapow! This cheesy, crunchy, unabashedly decadent taste sensation seems like something Elvis would have really enjoyed. Two oversized portions of crumbed, golden fried Brasserie white bread ooze a molten centre of Swiss cheese, chive cream (an inspired alternative to bechamel) and hunks of salted leg ham. There's even a pot of mild Indian tomato relish on the side to cut through the dairy. You'll need a knife and fork and maybe even a hangover to get stuck into this.
Verdict: Hang the kilojoules and indulge.
Polenta cake toastie, $19
15-17 Weston Street, Brunswick, 9381 2330
There's a real eureka moment when a shot of melted provolone spills from the centre of the hefty block of polenta that is the centrepiece of this oddball creation. It's perhaps pushing the definition of sandwich, but it won the title of best toastie at the 2012 Great Australian Sandwichship competition. Intense flavours come from all angles, as the polenta cake competes for attention with funky truffled mushrooms, mustard cress, gooey fried egg and a helping of mayo on a sliver of Rustica Sourdough multigrain.
Verdict: The toastie has evolved.
Pork belly in steamed buns, $18
Ground Floor, 1810 Malvern Road, Malvern East, 9699 4054
Inspired by David Chang's legendary pork buns at Momofuku in New York (and now Sydney), this porcine treat is five-star flavour on a three-star budget. Two homemade steamed buns are rammed with perfect slices of fall-apart-tender pork belly and topped with carrot, daikon, pickle, coriander, crushed peanuts and sweet Peking sauce. On the side? A lightly dressed wombok cabbage with meaty buna-shimeji mushrooms and cucumber. Sensational.
Verdict: Melbourne's own Momofuku moment.
The Cornish, $12
77-79 Nicholson Street, Brunswick East, 9388 8858
You're sure to inspire food envy from your fellow diners when the Cornish arrives shining in its foil wrapping, demanding to be split open and scoffed immediately. Inside, a spongy, semolina-dusted ciabatta bun from Phillippa's is filled with a juicy mixture of roasted Milawa chicken and eye-wateringly tasty sage and onion stuffing, then finished with house-made mayo and chopped jalapeno peppers. The whole thing is baked, then crisped up with some fresh lettuce. You won't want to share a bite.
Verdict: Pass the parcel.
What did we miss? Nominate your favourite sandwich in the comments below.