"Pork roll" or "banh mi" – it goes by a few names but whatever you call it, it's a thrilling lunch, jumping with flavour and texture, that costs about $5 and comes after less than five minutes in a queue.
Banh mi means bread in Vietnamese – but not just any bread. It's a roll that has a wide scar along its top, a thin crust that shatters on impact – raining crumbs on the biter – and a light, soft, snow-white centre. Crusty white bread rolls and filter drip coffee became part of Vietnamese cuisine during the French colonial period (1887-1954) when Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were known as French Indochina.
The classic pork roll or banh mi thit nguoi is a terrific twist on the humble Western-style sarnie: a happy mix of Euro and Asian flavours. It's made with house-made mayo (from egg yolks and vegetable oil) and liver pâtè (usually chicken liver), three types of pork cold cuts (pork loaf, roast pork and jelly-meat terrine), salad (coriander sprigs, shredded pickled carrot, cucumber, onion) and chilli, which is optional but essential to obtain the full range of flavours the roll can have. It's a blast of hot, cool, sweet, salty and earthy – and crunchy, chewy, soft and firm.
Each bakery has its quirks: some use a squirt of soy sauce, some leave out onion, others shred daikon in with the pickled carrot. And each bakery has at least half a dozen different fillings, including a hot barbecue pork version and a meatball banh mi. And as about 60 per cent of Vietnamese-born people in Melbourne are Buddhist, most places make a vegetarian version, too.
A ubiquitous street-cart item in Vietnam, you'll find Vietnamese bakeries making banh mi in Melbourne's original Vietnamese enclaves of Footscray, Springvale and Richmond, where communities became established in the 1970s and 80s due to the suburbs' proximity to migrant hotels and access to relatively cheap housing.
But, as Vietnamese food has become more mainstream, bakeries have sprung up all over the place, including the central business district. So, if a lively lunch for under $5 sounds appealing, get in the queue at a banh mi sandwich bar.
From the original N. Lee bakery in Collingwood, which opened in 1991, classic banh mi have a good swipe of pâtè and fab bread baked on site. Baked-Banh mi also come with pork meatballs, chicken kebab, roast beef and grilled pork fillings.
Collingwood: 220 Smith Street, 9419 9732. Open daily 6am-5pm. Also city: Unit 2, 422 Collins Street, Open Mon-Fri 6am–4.30pm, Sat 8.30am–4pm and 4/61 Little Collins Street. Combination banh mi: $6.
The queue at Footscray's always heaving outlet moves quickly with five bright orange-coated women stuffing buns at pace. The rolls are a standout and the fillings fresh, including sliced white onion. Nhu Lan does a veg, salad roll that gives the porky version a run for its money. It costs $2.60 and replaces cold cuts with crisp-fried shallots and crushed peanuts.
Footscray: 116 Hopkins Street, 9689 7296 Richmond: 152 Victoria Street, 9429 5545. Open daily, 5am-6pm. Pork banh mi: $4.
Hot Bread Springvale
Heavy on the meat, including a thick layer of chicken-liver pâtè and a fatty roast pork, Hot Bread's banh mi includes shredded daikon and a squirt of soy sauce. Among its variations is a veg option, with vermicelli and shredded fried tofu flecked with ground rice and five-spice ($4).
Springvale: 222 Springvale Road, 9546 6886. Open daily 4.30am-6.30pm. Pork banh mi: $3.50-$4.
Though Sunny's rolls can be a little wan and at times the salad a little wilty, it uses a generous amount of meatloaf that's deliciously infused with cinnamon and star anise which lifts the entire experience and adds an extra dimension to the classic banh mi.
Collingwood: 252 Smith Street, 9419 8804. Open Mon-Sat 6am-6pm, Sun 7am-6pm.
Pork banh mi: $4.
The buns might still be warm, fresh from the oven. Here, a classic pork banh mi may be heavy on the meat and include a roast pork which may have a too-chewy rind; the smidge of coriander and cucumber comes with a king hit of whole spring onion stems. Bun Bun does at least nine versions.
Springvale: 288 Springvale Road, 9547 8289. Open daily 6am-6pm. Pork banh mi: $4
Saigon's "mixed ham" roll has four cold cuts, instead of the usual three, and the fourth is a peppery spiced ham. The extra layer of meat tips the balance to meaty, though there's a good whack of coriander stems, and a splodge of soy to finish off.
Richmond: 174 Victoria Street, 9429 1213. Open daily 4.30am-6pm. Also city Shop 6, Flinders Street Station, corner Swanston and Flinders Streets, 9629 6894. Open daily, 6am-6pm. Pork banh mi: $4
Roll'd is not a bakery but a funky Vietnamese cafe that serves just five Vietnamese lunch favourites (including pho and rice-paper rolls). Its banh use exemplary bread and burst with salad and meat. At $6.60 they cost a little more than their competitors' do. Roll'd also does a noteworthy roast pork with crackling banh mi.
City: Goldsbrough Lane, 181 William Street, 9600 1088 Open Mon-Fri 11am-3pm. Also QV Food Hall Open Thurs-Fri 10am-8pm, Sat-Wed 10am-5pm rolld.com.au. Classic pork roll banh mi: $6.60.
What have we missed? Jump on the comments and tell us your favourite banh mi hotspot.