When one slice is never enough: the sandwiches helping Melbourne through lockdown

Comma Tuckshop chef Matt Woodhouse and owners Adam Cruickshank and Megan Kwee.
Comma Tuckshop chef Matt Woodhouse and owners Adam Cruickshank and Megan Kwee. Photo: Simon Schluter

From chicken parma rolls to high-end restaurants opening banh mi shops, Melbourne's world-renowned hospitality scene is quickly becoming a study in sandwiches of the world.

"They cut across social barriers, they're not exclusive, everyone knows what they are and everyone for the most part can afford them," says Dominic Wilton, co-owner of Hector's Deli in Richmond, which recently had its biggest day in four years of trade on a Saturday after snap lockdown.

It's not just eaters who are embracing the safety of sliced white. The humble sandwich has become a hugely attractive business prospect as the pandemic has dragged on, with many newcomers choosing to open sandwich bars over restaurants, adding to the city's already rich sanga scene.

"It's a business model that's accessible to a young person that doesn't have millions of dollars to open a restaurant," says Wilton.

But veteran operators are also adding sandwich spin-offs to their more upscale operations, with two temporary lockdown concepts going permanent in the last week alone.

Rocco's Bologna Discoteca, the alter ego of Fitzroy's Poodle Bar & Bistro, was created while the team waited to open its actual restaurant between lockdowns last year. Now Rocco's sell-out mortadella and meatball sandwiches are getting their permanent own home in Fitzroy later in the year.

Anchovy's sausage banh mi now has a regular home at Ca Com in Richmond.
Anchovy's sausage banh mi now has a regular home at Ca Com in Richmond. Photo: Simon Schluter

In Richmond, contemporary Vietnamese fine-diner Anchovy has spawned Ca Com Banh Mi Bar. The made-to-order banh mi featuring free-range pork and house-made sausage were initially a way to keep the Anchovy team employed, but this week became a permanent attraction on Bridge Road.

Even cafes are giving way to sandwich shops. Saul's, known for stores that look like replicas of New York delicatessens, recently opened its third location in less than a year when co-owner Leor Haimes decided to flip his Bentleigh East cafe, Time & Place, and ride the wave of enthusiasm for Saul's hot porchetta rolls and chicken parma sandwiches.

"We didn't know if we were ready but we said 'let's keep going into lockdown – there aren't that many sandwich shops around [Bentleigh East] so let's do it," says Haimes.

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New arrival Comma Tuckshop, a luxe bagel window in Moorabbin, is the lockdown insurance policy to sibling venue, Comma Food and Wine. While Tuckshop can serve bagels and salads from a small takeaway hutch throughout lockdown, the wine bar has been a stop-start operation since it opened in December 2020.

"It's a business model that can be relied upon at the moment, says Comma co-owner Adam Cruickshank. "That's what suits this current weird environment."

The bagels keep revenue coming in and the Comma team busy while fillings of confit chicken, grass-fed steak and house-cured salmon are prepared in the wine bar.

Comma Tuckshop owner Adam Cruickshank with a hanger steak bagel.
Comma Tuckshop owner Adam Cruickshank with a hanger steak bagel.  Photo: Simon Schluter

Meanwhile, Wilton is overseeing the final stages of construction on a second Hector's Deli, set to open September in South Melbourne. He has also committed to a store in Fitzroy and has a cookbook deal with publisher Hardie Grant.

But Melbourne could also be approaching peak sandwich, says former chef Sam Pinzone, who provides consultancy to hospitality businesses on everything from pricing to menu design.

Pinzone has been a sandwich surgeon for several venues recently, including Matteo's Delicatessen in Altona, whose panini and rolls are anchored by the meat and cheese in the cabinets.

Roast chicken with herb mayo, fresh cucumber and oak lettuce on sourdough Turkish bread at Hector's Deli.
Roast chicken with herb mayo, fresh cucumber and oak lettuce on sourdough Turkish bread at Hector's Deli. Photo: Cheyne Toomey

"I think we're getting to the burger stage," he says, referring to the other bready craze that swept Melbourne a few years ago and caused acclaimed chefs such as Neil Perry and Vue de Monde's Shannon Bennett to start flipping patties.

Before that day arrives, however, Pinzone hopes that someone will make a top-shelf Philly cheesesteak: the gooey Pennsylvanian mix of thinly sliced steak and melted cheese served on a hot dog roll, occasionally with fried onions. It appears to be one of the few rolls left unbuttered by local sandwich kings. For now, anyway.

SIX NEW SANDWICHES TO TRY

Ollie's pastrami melt

A hefty arrangement of pastrami is bookended by American cheese on dark rye, with a generous smear of Ollie's Deli special sauce and sauerkraut for pucker at Ollie's Deli. 7/158 Barkly Street, Footscray.

Mortadeli's hobz-biz-zejt

Get a taste of Malta's national sandwich, rarely seen outside the home. Mortadeli has sourced kunserva (the real-deal tomato paste that's key on a hobz-biz-zejt) and topped it with tuna, olives, capers, salted ricotta and pickled red onion on crusty Maltese-style bread. Shop 8, 4-6 Gilbert Street, Torquay.

Saul's chicken parma sandwich

Melbourne's favourite pub staple meets the city's latest obsession with ham, two types of cheese (mozzarella and pecorino) and basil-flecked napoli sauce. Vegetarians can make a beeline for the crumbed eggplant with buffalo mozzarella on a crusty roll. Locations in Bentleigh East, Carnegie and Hawthorn.

Comma Tuckshop's confit chicken bagel

Free-range Bannockburn chicken, some of Victoria's finest, is cooked in duck fat, thyme, rosemary and garlic, before being mixed with a tarragon mayo, grapes and celery. Think of it as a Waldorf salad between bread. 3 Tuck Street, Moorabbin.

Florian's continental deli sandwich

Undeniably a two-hander, crusty Austro rolls contain a meat-lover's dream of Donati's mortadella and sopressa layered with provolone, scamorza and charred peppers. Tapenade, sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes and radicchio bring balance (sort of). 617 Rathdowne Street, Carlton North.

Ca Com's jungle sausage banh mi

You've never had anything like this sausage in a bun. Chef Thi Le's creativity knows no bounds when it comes to her sandwiches, which are a mix of Vietnamese banh mi with Laotian influences thrown in. The jungle sausage incorporates lemongrass, makrut lime, fish sauce and garlic with pork, with the final product grilled over the newly installed hearth. 336 Bridge Road, Richmond.