If ever there was a sandwich to launch a thousand ships, banh mi thit, or more simply, banh mi (also known as Vietnamese pork roll) would be it.
It's delicious, it's cheap and it has inspired a movement sweeping Sydney from Cabramatta to the CBD and firing opinions along the way.
"If you want to start an argument, start a discussion about who makes the best banh mi," says Noodlies food blogger Thang Ngo, who undertook his own hunt for Sydney's best Vietnamese pork roll in 2012.
Anatomy of banh mi
An authentic banh mi has no less than 10 ingredients, each playing a part in balancing sweet, savoury, sour and spicy flavours.
A crusty bread roll is the first ingredient and the element, many would argue, that elevates an ordinary banh mi to the realm of greatness. Vietnamese bakers, schooled by their French colonisers, are skilled in the art of the golden bread roll – crusty on the outside and fluffy on the inside.
Chicken liver pate and flavourless mayonnaise form the foundation upon which the meat is laid. A traditional pork roll has three kinds of pork: barbecue, cha lua (Vietnamese devon) and nem (cured).
Fresh and pickled vegetables fill out the rest of the roll: cucumber, sliced lengthways, thin strips of pickled carrots and daikon (white radish), fresh coriander and a sprig of raw spring onion. Fresh red chilli is optional.
All this is topped by a sauce. Often it's Maggi sauce or light soy sauce, but some banh mi shops make their own sauce using soy sauce, fish sauce, sugar, garlic, vinegar and stock in various combinations.
From street eat to restaurant chic
Originating in the streets of Vietnam, banh mi has developed something of a cult following in countries such as Australia, the US and Canada, and the term banh mi was even added to the Oxford English Dictionary in March 2011.
A guide: Where to find banh mi in Sydney
Debate among devotees rages over who makes the best banh mi, how much it should cost, what elements it should have to qualify for the name and even who should sell it.
"I have a real issue with gourmet banh mi. People add things like beetroot, different types of meat, things that are not traditionally found in banh mi. I think it's nice, but it's not banh mi," says Ngo, who has been eating banh mi for almost 40 years.
But this is more than an argument about lettuce and beetroot. For Ngo, gourmet banh mi, for which some places are charging more than $8, is against everything banh mi stands for.
"[Banh mi] is for the everyman. It's street food, it's cross-culture. It's not about separating people by class, by taste or by gourmet knowledge," Ngo says. "That's why I'm against banh mi for $8.50 … It's about egalitarianism and accessibility."
But Ngo may be fighting a losing battle. Banh mi variations have been making their way onto upmarket restaurant menus, particularly overseas.
Merivale chef Dan Hong is the creator of Ms. G's signature banh mi sliders. He says banh mi has inspired spin-offs all over the US, as well as in Bali.
"Ma Peche Momofuku in New York was one of the first places. When I went to Bali last year, even Ku De Ta [restaurant and bar] in Seminyak had them on the menu. In LA, the Koreans have been doing their own version with bulgogi [barbecued marinated beef] and barbecue short rib, which is pretty cool … and the 'barbecue belt' down south has been doing pulled pork banh mi," he says.
"I like the banh mi spin-offs. The more the merrier. As long as the banh mi has all the traditional ingredients, then the world's your oyster," he says, adding that he recently made a special dinner banh mi with foie gras and black pudding for his mum for Christmas.
Hong, whose mother owned a Vietnamese restaurant in Cabramatta, says his favourite banh mi comes from the 24-hour Viet Hoa bakery on John Street. "I grew up eating banh mi from that place since I was five-years-old," he says.
His other preferred vendor is KK Hot Bread, also in Cabramatta. "They make probably the best chicken banh mi because they master stock chicken marylands, strip the meat off, and then mix the meat with the master stock."
Walking the streets of Cabramatta, there is little doubt that this thriving Asian food hub is the heartland of the Vietnamese pork roll. Virtually every corner boasts a "hot bread" bakery and there are two 24-hour bakeries to satisfy those 4am banh mi cravings.
But now, as if banh mi's appearance on upmarket menus wasn't controversial enough, two inner-city bakeries are giving Cabramatta a run for its money – and they have the fans to prove it.
Marrickville Pork Roll, a hole-in-the-wall store on Illawarra Road, has been operating since January 2008 and has just opened a second store in Ashfield.
But the real challenger is Hong Ha Hot Bread in Mascot, which at lunchtime on a weekday has the kind of queue you'd expect to find at a New York nightclub (minus the office attire, of course). Michael, who did not want to give his last name, is standing behind me in the queue at Hong Ha, which at noon on a Thursday is already 30 people long. He says he has been buying pork rolls from Hong Ha at least once a week – but usually twice a week – since 1991.
That's 22 years, 1144 weeks and an alarming number of Vietnamese pork rolls.
"They used to be $2 when I first started coming here," he says. (They're now $5.)
I ask him why he keeps coming back, and he stares at me blankly. "You haven't had one of these yet, have you?" he says, like he knows something I don't.
I press on. Is it because it's so cheap compared to other lunch options? His answer is swift and categorical. "No. Price isn't part it. It could be a lot more and I'd still keep coming back. It just doesn't taste the same elsewhere," he says.
Whatever its mysterious allure, it certainly has Mascot and the surrounding suburbs enthralled. Most people in the queue are ordering three or more rolls, and many have pre-ordered over the phone and are picking up an order for the office. By the time I get my roll (which only takes 10 minutes – there are at least a dozen servers crammed behind the counter of the bakery), the queue has stretched to almost 50 people. It seems completely absurd – until I take a bite of my banh mi thit.
Now I get what the fuss is about.
Competition in the banh mi business is fierce in Cabramatta and the standard is high. These are four of the best in town. Watch out for the chillies – they are seriously hot.
Vinata Hot Bread
13/1 Hughes St
Serving crusty bread rolls filled to bursting with fresh ingredients, this is a top contender for Sydney’s best. The bread is baked throughout the day, rather than just in the morning, and the chicken liver pate, mayonnaise and sauce (a combination of soy sauce, sugar, oil and garlic) are all made in-house. Traditional pork rolls are $4.
Kim Thanh Hot Bread
11/215 Railway Parade, 9726 0546
If you prefer your bread on the chewy side, this is the place for you. The chicken rolls ($4.50) are the most popular item here and the friendly servers really pile on the toppings.
Viet Hoa Bakery Shop
Cabramatta Road West, 9728 7198
Not as generous with their toppings as some of the places below, but the grilled pork stick roll ($5) is delicious and the shop is open 24 hours, 7 days a week to satisfy those 4am banh mi cravings.
KK Hot Bread
2/85 John Street
Again, not as generous with their toppings but Dan Hong is right – it’s hard to go past the marinated chicken roll ($5).
Marrickville Pork Roll
236A Illawarra Road, 0479 000 445
This tiny, hole-in-the-wall stores is often distinguishable by the queue out the front. The traditional pork roll ($4) and chicken roll ($4.95) are the most popular items. Also offers salad, barbecue pork, meatball and tuna rolls. The sauce, made using their own chicken stock and soy sauce, is a highlight.
1151 Botany Road
02 9667 2069
The absurdly long queue says it all (but don’t worry, it moves quickly.) Offers traditional pork rolls ($5) as well as gourmet variations including chicken schnitzel ($7). Add cheese to any roll for an extra $1. Pre-order and pick up or take advantage of their free delivery service.
Sydney’s best banh mi are found in the suburbs, but city-dwellers and workers hit with the need for banh mi thit can try their luck at one of these vendors.
Pho Gia Hoi
711 George St, 9211 0221
The banh mi stalwart of Chinatown, this Vietnamese noodle restaurant sells banh mi from a cart at the streetfront. Traditional pork banh mi ($5).
Sydney Pork Rolls
627 George St
Opened May 2012. Traditional and non-traditional banh mi toppings (including Kraft-style cheddar cheese slices) sold from a hole-in-the-wall behind a George St bus stop. Salad roll ($3.50); pork, barbecue pork and meatball ($3.95) and chicken ($4.95).
Bánh mì K
Shop G2 Capitol Square, 730-742 George Street
Opened in January 2013. Offers both traditional and ‘gourmet’ banh mi, including lemongrass chicken ($6.95), meat balls and tomato ($6.95) on a choice of bread roll (white, wholemeal, multigrain or soy and linseed). The bread here is more dense than traditional Vietnamese rolls. Also serves sugar cane juice infused with your choice of lemon, lime or orange ($3.90, $4.90 or $5.90, depending on size).
Where is your favourite place for banh mi? Tell us in the comments below.
CORRECTION: The phone number for Marrickville Pork Roll was incorrectly listed. This has been updated with the new number.