A lot of horrible things happened in 2018, but the decriminalisation of bread-eating wasn't one of them. Carbs had such a comeback that bread became a legitimate paid course at dinner and was sometimes the best one (see the flatbreads at Lesa and potato focaccia at Carlton Wine Room).
And in not unrelated topics, sandwiches of all shapes and sizes underwent a major renaissance both in and outside of restaurants. A whole fleet of sandwich specialists has sprung up across the city and the good money says this is the year sambos conquer burgers as the primary hand-held meal – and not just at lunch.
But before we delve in, a few notes for vigorous readers. This isn't an exhaustive list of Melbourne's best things since sliced bread caught a break. If it were, there would be a lot more action from our established heroes like Earl Canteen, Mile End Bagels, and Beatrix in North Melbourne. It is assumed you know about Supernormal's pork tonkatsu sandwich and Di Stasio's after-school special by now. No, these are the new beasts on the blocks. Those destined to be the next cult classics. And they provide an interesting picture of where sandwich eating is going.
Even though it's steamy summer, and peak "aspirational diet" season, our new sandwich heroes are megabeasts. Doorstop toasties are king. Focaccia is back. We're looking at entire meals tenuously crammed between two crusts to be negotiated with two hands and triple-ply napkins. Which actually makes this a true sandwich renaissance, if you hold that the term is owed to the Earl of Sandwich demanding his dinner between bread so he might keep gambling without pause.
Other trigger warnings: the average sandwich is clocking in between $12 and $18. I hear you. But in most cases, you're facing down a sucker that could feed two, where every element has been pickled, smoked, or baked in-house and often comes with an option to add martinis on the side.
Finally, where are all the vegetarian headliners? I agree. Vegan and vegetarian sandwiches are getting stronger and I pursued many for this story. They weren't always the top dogs at the top places, but I've included the best options here.
For those of you enjoying a keto-fuelled January, I have no help for you. Look away. All else, god speed.
The club at Pope Joan
Praise be for the pop-up giving Matt Wilkinson's mod-Brit cafe Pope Joan new life. Here in the now-defunct Mayfair his warm, jalapeno-hot Cornish chicken roll (secret ingredient: stuffing in the chicken mix) and king hell reuben packing a solid inch of Warialda beef pastrami and smoked mozzarella, have found new life in the CBD with smoked-olive dirty martinis on the side. But the kicker here is "the club", a towering, shirt-destroying salad and whipped cheese roll that gives the great Aussie classic respect at last. It's a white La Madre roll that Wilkinson developed in his Circa days, packing a rainbow of fresh: pickled carrot and sweet beets, a schmear of artichoke and chilli dip, whipped ricotta, crisp lettuce, beefy tomatoes and the option to add a solid wad of mortadella. Do it all, then do it again – the deadline is Easter.
Make it veg: Skip the mortadella, or try Wilkinson's other newbie, an open-faced sandwich starring pickled carrot and hummus.
Price: $13 or $18 with mortadella
Sofitel forecourt, 45 Collins Street, Melbourne
The rarebit sandwich is limited, but there's always the all-American grill (pictured). Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
Rarebit grill at Maker and Monger
Everyone's doing cheesy grills these days, but Anthony Femia, the cheesemonger behind Prahran Market's hot cheese wagon, is still doing Melbourne's luxest. This year, coinciding with the opening of an expanded shop and cheese cellar at Prahran Market, he's launched a chef series honouring those who have supported him, kicking off with a rarebit and gypsy ham grill. It's a hat tip to chef Darren Purchese who used to make this as a staff meal when he was at Vue de Monde. Gypsy ham from Gary's Meat is slapped with a sharp layer of bechamel spiked with stout, chives and buttered leeks, sharp Montgomery cheddar for attitude and Swiss emmental for stretch. It's a rich, almost Vegemite-y union pulled back from the brink by a Goan tamarind and apricot chutney.
Make it veg: The rarebit can be made meat-free on request or there is the classic all-American grill.
Prahran Market, 4 Market Street, South Yarra, makerandmonger.com.au
Tuna melt at Hector's Deli
There is a red-hot showdown in chicken-of-the-sea-in-a-sandwich stakes. Half the sandwiches suggested for this story were American-style melts. But Hector's Deli in the backstreets of Richmond ruled supreme. It's the observance of holy ratios that does it – the balance of intensely crunchy light-rye crust to the creamy filling with just enough pep and crunch from tuna mixed with diced white onions (essential), slips of pickled green chillies, their secret "hectic sauce" (a spicy aioli), and luminous, sticky American cheese.
Make it veg: Their vego option stuffs a steamed bun with hot butter, crumbed mushrooms, spicy aioli and lettuce.
Shop 1, 94 Buckingham Street, Richmond, hectorsdeli.com.au
A trio of circular mapo tofu jaffles at Super Ling. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
Mapo tofu jaffle at Super Ling
Bib up and brace yourself for Carlton's ultimate culture-jamming danger biscuit. The toastie crowning the menu at Iain Ling's wine-focused, mod-Chinese-ish restaurant in Carlton raises the question why mapo tofu toasties aren't everywhere. The lava-like texture and spice of the Sichuan-pepper-spiced pork mince with silky patches of tofu is a spicier, sexier answer to bolognese, one of the world's greatest jaffle fillings and your shirt's fiercest enemy. Here you have the bonus crunch of water chestnuts, the zip of black vinegar and bonus fear factor as flecks of fermented chilli dust explode faceward as you shatter the crisp white bread crust.
Make it veg: No dice, sorry.
138 Queensberry Street, Carlton, superling.com.au
Cauliflower baguette at Wild Life Bakery
Many cauliflower sandwiches were attempted for this story, but at Wild Life, the year-old Brunswick bakery where Smith Journals and Tartine cookbooks line the counter, meat is only a recent addition, and the multiple vegetarian options are king. Making cauliflower on bread exciting isn't easy. I know. Inside this chewy, house-made baguette that uses a little sourdough starter for kick, golden roasted florets are electrified by a chilli and herb chimichurri, enriched by convincingly rich aquafaba mayo (a vegan alternative made with chickpea brine), and braced with rocket for freshness and oil to juice the ride. OD'd on cauli? Their gingery miso kimchi and cheddar (or cashew mozzarella) toastie is hot, cheesy and somehow aggressively refreshing at once.
Make it meaty: Since they started offering ham and comte on their sourdough it's become a top seller.
90 Albert Street, Brunswick East, wildlifebakery.com
Crumbed pig's head on fluffy white bread. Photo: Bonnie Savage
The pig's head sanga at Congress
You may be too late to get at Melbourne's most killer wine-bar snackwidge now that queen Nigella Lawson has given it her royal blessing. But try. The central puck of pig's head terrine set with chicken jelly becomes a crisp, explosive bomb once fried in its panko-crumb shell, and when slicked with mustard-leaf aioli, a slip of pickle and two puffy rounds of trash white bread it might even rule over the Fleet sweetbread sandwich it's a tribute to. It is two bites of softness, crunch, heat and hell yeah, backed by epic service, wines that push the boundaries but don't stray beyond and one of the freshest, most progressive menus in Collingwood.
Make it veg: It's not listed, but they do panko-crumbed portobello mushroom on request.
49 Peel Street, Collingwood, congresswine.com.au
New Jaffa's Tunisian fricasse sandwich. Photo: Sofia Levin
Tunisian sandwich at New Jaffa and Miznon
Tuna is trending. Tunisian tuna sandwiches specifically. North African by birth but a big deal in Israel and Morocco, two versions are currently duking it out here. At Collingwood's New Jaffa, their fricasse ($12) is a hefty party of cooked tuna, sliced potatoes and boiled egg on a fried brioche-like bread. Black olives, capers, shreds of preserved lemon and garlic-chilli paste harissa bring the fresh. Hot damn indeed, but a hot tip too: eat it in situ, and quickly, at the tiled tables in the garden, else it gets a little greasy.
But then there's Melbourne's Israeli pita haven Miznon, where staff are sometimes known to bang a tambourine while sticking top-shelf ingredients in trademark fluffy pita as their Michelin-starred Israeli founder Eyal Shani taught them. Their Tunisian pocket ($16) is packed with plush house-cured albacore tuna, onions, potato, aioli and pickles, and a no-compromise attitude means when the prized fish isn't available, neither is the pita. Watch that sucker like a hawk.
Make it veg: Veg is Miznon's original power stance. Try the hot chickpeas with boiled egg, onion and tahini.
Price: New Jaffa $12; Miznon $16
New Jaffa, 32 Stanley Street, Collingwood; Miznon, 59 Hardware Lane, Melbourne, miznonaustralia.com
The hoagie-style Big Dog at Big Dog's Deli. Photo: Supplied
The Big Dog at Big Dog's Deli
Emily Donegan is on a singular mission to bring the glory of US sandwich culture to Richmond and she is succeeding. Her all-day licensed shop transitions to a diner by night, when sandwiches can be taken as platters of meat and salad with boulevardiers. Pretty much everything is pickled and roasted in-house and built into beasts of serious burden. The porchetta roll is part sandwich, all intimidation, with impressive crackle, challenging circumference and sweet, bright pickled fennel. But it's the classic hoagie-style Big Dog that brings it home. Oven-crisped, soft-bellied ciabatta gets dressed in an oil and champagne vinegar mix, and layered with 'nduja, salami, prosciutto, finely grated pecorino, pickled chillies and iceberg lettuce in its finest form – shredded to ribbons and laid on thick. Add hot sauce, drink beers, bow down.
Make it veg: The cauliflower fritter ciabatta with tahini labna and herby slaw is another go-to for veg fans
327 Lennox Street, Richmond, bigdogsdeli.com.au
Fish Finger sandwich at Kelso's Sandwich Shoppe
Caveat: the fish finger situation is technically a burger and it is not their most hand-tooled product. But it makes the list because it's proof of Kelso's understanding of the sandwich philosophy: that glory comes both from high-quality charcuterie and artisanal pickles, and sometimes, from stuffing a non-nutritious milk bun with highly processed fish fingers, an ooze of luminous American cheese, pickly Kewpie mayo and a sniff of salad. Here in Abbotsford, Kraft advertisements are proudly framed and nostalgic trashy comfort meets serious sandwichery. So fat chip butties and obscene double meat burgers are on the cards, but so are house-pickled eggs to add to any order, vegan grilled cheese melts and salad baps stuffed to the gills with alfalfa and fresh. Choose your ride. No shame.
Make it veg: Between the triple patty meatwiches, chip butties, falafel sandwiches and vegan cheese melts abound.
271 Johnston Street, Abbotsford, kelsossandwiches.com
Rocco Roll at Rocco's Deli and Spritz Bar
Who gets to win this westside gentrification battle? Seddon's new deli and spritz bar, serving panini, cannoli and amaro fizzes, gets its DNA 50-50 from 42-year-old Yarraville icon Rocco's Delicatessen and one of Seddon's youngest bars, Lay Low. So on the one hand, as per the Yarraville original, even the king panini stuffed with all the deli fixings – salamis, prosciutto, pesto, olives and mild provolone cheese – that resembles WA's famous Continental rolls is just $8.50. But then on the side, the bar team are doing mod versions of spritz and a fleet of craft beers. Call it a truce. And a massive win for the west.
Make it veg: Ditch the meats, double down on your cheese and antipasti options and throw in a vegetarian Aperol spritz.
93 Buckley Street, Seddon