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Bánh Mì Maniac

Divine Consumption

252 Smith St, Collingwood

Price: $4.50
Filling: 4/5 (BBQ Pork)
Dressing/Salad: 1.5/3
Bread: 1/2
Total: 6.5/10

One does feel pity at times for Sunny’s Bakery. It is located on a super happening strip, filled with popular cafes and restaurants, but more importantly, a few doors down from the almighty N.Lee. Establishing a large customer-base is very challenging when the nearest Vietnamese bakery receives all the limelight and has queues spilling out the door every day. On a normal day, it is near-on impossible to walk down Smith Street without someone chewing from a N.Lee labelled paper-bag encasing a precious bánh mì. But sunny’s, well, they hang their heads high.

I entered into a very clean space, with all the food and signs very nicely presented. To continue with the comparison to N. Lee, I ordered the grilled pork – with an identical price tag – and was met with a, “do you want everything?”, yes please! The pork was scooped from a massive pile – one downside about N.Lee, they are always running out of hot pork – the chicken and meatball options also looked tasty. I bid goodbye to the friendly staff and went outside to do the photo business when a woman of older age asked me if I was going to make a profit from the shots. “No, no, it’s just for my blog”, I replied, and she went on to tell me how Sunny’s was her favourite bakery and that she goes there on a frequent basis, while simultaneously it seemed that the bakery was filling out a bit. Maybe I was wrong about this place.

So, due to this anonymous woman, my expectations had risen dramatically, and I had to focus extra hard on what I was swallowing. Immediately I noticed that the bread was not heated – this is minor, most places don’t heat their rolls to serve – because I had been to N.Lee the day before. What followed was a satisfying bánh mì. The pork was Cantonese-roast style without the heap of fat, and although lukewarm had a nice bite to it. The salad was fresh and crunchy, I especially liked the pickled carrots. Dressing-wise, it was interesting. While the flavour of it was not overwhelming, the mayonnaise at times was too strong, and mixed with the pâté formed a taste resembling garlic bread. Now don’t be put off by this, I was concentrating deeply and probably got carried away – the bánh mì here are good. If only Sunny’s had opened in a different area (I suggest mine) and didn’t have to compete with the all-conquering N.Lee.

Sunny's Bakery on Urbanspoon

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220 Smith St, Collingwood

Price: $4.80
Filling: 4.5/5 (BBQ Pork)
Dressing/Salad: 2.5/3
Bread: 2/2
Total: 9/10

I was of the belief that Nguyen’s bakery was invincible, at least in Melbourne. But then I went back to N.Lee in Collingwood, a visit that was long overdue. I can firmly state that the throne has been overthrown.

It is not even slightly a coincidence that N.Lee bakery has built up the popularity and reputation it has. You would be hard-pressed to find a single customer who wasn’t impressed by their visit to the joint. N.Lee attracts a diverse range of bánh mì consumers, both locals and far away commuters. When you walk through the glass opening of the shopfront, you can instantly get a sense of their success. The interior is super clean with a modern design and the many staff handling the filing crowds are really friendly and helpful. And then the bánh mì… Wow!

There is a huge amount of ingredients to fill your roll, but I strongly recommend the grilled pork. Usually at bakeries that serve hot pork bánh mì, the meat is kept in a bain-marie, however at N.Lee cold pork from the deli fridge is lightly grilled on the BBQ. This does mean it takes substantially longer (not to mention the wait to be served) than other bakeries, but the beneficial and fresh method of preparing makes the extra time absolutely worth it – the result is quite simply awesome. Complimenting this is the salad and dressings. The amount of lettuce and carrot is perfectly balanced and the dressing works in pure harmony with the meat – not overpowering but not too light on. Lastly there is the bread roll which isn’t completely torpedo shaped, but with its crunchiness, freshness, size and heat, who cares. I was so in love with the meal I was bolting down, that when I had finished, I clinged onto the bag and licked the juices and any fallen bits of goodness off the paper – disgusting I know. The beautiful taste that lingered in my mouth comforted me all the way home.

N. Lee Bakery on Urbanspoon

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The camera flipped out

169 Carlisle St, Balaclava

Price: $6.00
Filling: 3.5/5 (BBQ Pork)
Dressing/Salad: 1/3
Bread: 1.5/2
Total: 6/10

Wendy’s Bakery serve a quite unconvential bánh mì, but does it demand a visit?

In an area renowned for its Jewish culture, pork can be a hard food substance to come by. Stumbling down Carlisle Street I saw a generic blue and white sign: it said simply ‘Bakery’. I went in, re-emerging with a grilled pork bánh mì in my hand.

The ingredients of a bánh mì have been built into me like a computer program, so it’s always surprising when that recipe is altered. Instead of the standard soy sauce dressing, Wendy’s squeazes hoi sin all over the place. It’s actually quite nice, but coupled with the barbequed pork makes it feel like Cantonese take-away stuffed in a bread roll. When I requested for pâté, the served shovelled in a big gloop of it. It was way too strong.

The answer to the above question is no unfortunately. With the price you are paying I don’t think I’ll be making any immediate returns, the quality isn’t there. They did have pretty good bread rolls though.

Wendy's Bakehouse on Urbanspoon

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128 Chapel St, Windsor

UPDATED RATING
Price:
$6.20
Filling:
4/5 (BBQ Chicken)
Dressing/Salad:
2/3
Bread:
1/2
Total:
7/10

UPDATED REVIEW
Okay, when I originally reviewed Nguyen’s Hot Bread, I was fairly inexperienced and hadn’t yet been to many bakeries throughout the city. I went back recently and wasn’t as blown away as my first visit.

Bánh mì is still nice here. The BBQ chicken that I ordered was tasty enough, but not as moist as it could be, especially at peak service time. An alternative, roast pork with crackling, is usually quite good, though both are over six dollars which is borderline too expensive. Serves are generous and pâté is offered, but a lack of soy or salt and pepper really harms the overall combination. Nguyen’s is good without being great.

Nguyen's Hotbread on Urbanspoon

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Flinders Street Station (on St Kilda Road), Melbourne

Price: $5.50
Filling: 3.5/5 (BBQ Pork)
Dressing/Salad: 1.5/3
Bread: 1/2
Total: 6/10

Located in the transport hub of Melbourne City, this little bakery generates a fair bit of traffic itself. They have everything a hungry busy person would need at peak hours.

Now to the bánh mì. It’s quite a difficult one to mark. In terms of taste the roll is very nice. But, the thing is, there is too much taste. They really do love their soy sauce here: the roll is so saturated in it that the other dressing is obsolete, and by the time you reach the tailend, the bread is a wet, salty mess. The quality of the ingredients are a bit disappointing for the price and the meat is quite fatty. However, if your stomach is begging you for a feed and there is a train to catch, the Station is very handy.

N.B. Just because this place is in a major train station and has unusually long hours for a bakery, don’t be fooled into getting a bánh mì too late on as they microwave the meat and sometimes run out of the proper rolls.

Flinders Station Bakehouse on Urbanspoon

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Daily Bell no longer exists at this location. It has been replaced by Hoang’s Bakery. See the review for Hoang’s here.

101 Chapel Street, Windsor

UPDATED RATING
Price: $5.50
Filling: 2/5 (BBQ Pork)
Dressing/Salad: 0/3
Bread: 0.5/2
Total: 2.5/10

UPDATED REVIEW
I’ve been back to Daily Bell and you may have noted the change of rating. It seems unfair to dramatically change a rating of a place after one visit but the bánh mì I got was a complete disappointment. Not only was there a distinct lack of meat, but the salad was drenched in this sweet dressing that wiped out the flavour of anything else and made the below standard bread roll extremely soggy. This was undoubtedly the worst roll I have ever eaten and it hurts me a lot to say that. I will go back once more to establish whether this was a one-off, but for a little bit extra, across the road Nguyen’s Hot Bread are serving up much better bánh mì.

Daily Bell on Urbanspoon

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Revisiting Phước Thành for a fairer review is on my priority list.

206 Victoria Street, Richmond

Price: $3.80
Filling: 2.5/5 (Pork Loaf)
Dressing/Salad: 1/3
Bread: 1/2
Total: 4.5/10

If for whatever reason you are down near Victoria Street – picking up a few beds at Ikea, checking out the neon Skipping Girl Vinegar sign or maybe even heading down to the brewery to see how beer is made – and not planning to get something to eat… Well, I can’t fathom this, you must eat! Some of the original pho joints and bakeries are still going strong. I happened to be on Victoria Street recently, shopping for some much-needed Vietnamese groceries when I came across Phước Thành. I don’t even think I was hungry at the time, but the average looking bakery offered cheap bánh mì that I could not refuse. Coming from an area of grossly-inflated prices on just about everything, this was a bargain. Now, it was a bit later in the day when I went, so my ratings can not be taken into full account, plus the hot fillings I would usually get were not available. I ordered the pork loaf – which is a selection of cold pork slices – a classic in Vietnam due to its affordability. The pâté and mayonnaise was just right but there was not nearly enough salad and the whole thing was ruined by too much salt and pepper. As for the pork loaf, well I won’t be getting it again anytime soon, it is too much like an overfilled ham sandwhich. Phước Thành is cheap, but that is basically it, bear in mind the time of day I went.

Phuoc Thanh on Urbanspoon

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Unfortunately the price has gone up 50 cents and pâté costs and extra dollar.

409 Glenhuntly Road, Elsternwick

Price: $6.00
Filling: 3.5/5 (BBQ Chicken)
Dressing/Salad: 2/3
Bread: 1.5/2
Total: 7/10

A few years ago now I tried my first bánh mì at P.T Hot Bread. It was delicious and very different to any other salad roll I had eaten. Gradually I learnt the history and understood what defined one. Only recently did I begin to explore the Vietnamese bakeries around Melbourne and focus more heavily on the taste and qualities of what I was consuming. Progressively I have been developing my ability to observe the positives and negatives of a bánh mì and work out in my own mind what makes a good one.

P.T’s don’t produce the finest bánh mì’s (still pretty good!) I have ever tasten, neither do they come at the best value. However, as it is my local Vietnamese bakery I visit fairly frequently and am happy doing so. Walking in, you will be greeted by the super-friendly staff who always serve your food with a smile on their face. I usually order the grilled chicken – the egg/tuna is also a good option – which has a nice star anise flavour to it. If you come too long after lunch, I would definitely advise going with a cold filling as the heated meat tends to go dry. The salad is really crammed into the roll, the pickled carrots sometimes overly sweet due to the amount. The staff do not ask if you want pâté and mayonnaise so you are going to have to request it. Bread rolls here are probably the best aspect of the bánh mì. They are big, crunchy and wholesome and don’t go soggy easily. This is a tasty introduction to bánh mì.

P.T. Hotbread on Urbanspoon

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Back during the colonel period of Indochina (1887-1954), where Vietnam was under French rule (of sorts), their ace bread, especially the baguette was introduced to a South-East Asian nation with little knowledge of the food substance beforehand. It started out as a delicacy, only eaten by the rich and known as bánh tay (literally, “foreign cake”). Though, the rolls began to grow in popularity and they adapted to the Vietnamese cultures in many different ways. The current day bánh mì is quite hallow and has a thin crust, resembling a torpedo in shape. The dressing and vegetables of a roll usually comprises pâté, soy sauce (sometimes that Swiss stuff Maggi), whipped butter, salt and pepper, cucumber slices, coriander and pickled carrots. This is accompanied with various meats: steamed, pan or oven-roasted pork, Vietnamese sausage, grilled pork, pork floss, grilled chicken, chicken floss, soft pork meatballs in tomato sauce, head cheese, or tofu. Following the Vietnam war, and the large migration that took place of the Vietnamese people to Western countries, strong communities were established, with it the rolls they have come to love so much. The people of Melbourne have caught onto them too, many bakeries selling them popping up all around the city, including some very non-ethnic areas. They are delicious, affordable and just about a de facto Melbourne cuisine.

N.B. I can’t pretend to be an expert, I am just some odd-job from Melbourne, but I love these things and am prepared to eat as many as possible.

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