397 Sydney Road, Brunswick
Sydney Road is more known for its Middle Eastern bakeries than Vietnamese. On a sweltering hot day looking out for lunch I walked past and then into K. & H. Hot Bread. It is a simple bakery and the staff are welcoming.
I’m warming up to pork loaf banh mi, dense and intense as it is. Being cold, it seems the wise decision when eating past lunch time when the hot meat is not as fresh. After crunching through the bread, which was somehow actually too crunchy (read: dry), I was met with a pleasant surprise. The person who served me snuck in meatballs, a nice complimentary touch. Although I am not really a fan of Vietnamese meatballs, it did go well with the pork loaf and gave the banh mi a more juicy kick. Unfortunately the salad was lacking and the dressing not as strong as it could be.
263 Chapel Street, Prahran
I’ve been putting off a visit to N. Tran for sometime because by comparison to other places around Melbourne, it is so expensive. I mean, I guess I got to give them slack, it’s a pricey part of Chapel Street and the rent must be high. And looking at other cafes, $7.00 isn’t that bad at all. Inflation works in curious ways I don’t yet understand. Once you’ve tasted a $3.80 banh mi it is hard not to get carried away with the amazing value for money. Being a student in one of the world’s most expensive cities, I can’t simply divorce my enjoyment of food and its cost.
Many people go to N. Tran (note: they’ve since opened a second store not far away on Toorak Road) because their salad rolls are definitely solid. When ordering make sure to ask for Vietnamese salad because the default option comes with beetroot and tomato. Not at all what I want when I want banh mi. They charge an extra 30 cents for coriander which is pretty stiff for such a staple ingredient. The bread that the front window claims they are known for excels at N. Tran. It is a sesame seed roll, perhaps not traditional, but certainly appropriate and in fact one of the best I’ve had in Melbourne. The BBQ chicken, salad and dressing all works well without reaching the benchmark set by the bread. Maggi sauce makes it too salty here. Directly across the road is a fast-food franchise whose storefront sadly reflects onto this reliable banh mi spot.
116 Hopkins Street, Footscray
Price: $3.80 (note: price has gone up)
Nhu Lan has had a strong reputation for years and the place is always chockers. The range of products is stunning, from sweet to the salty. My brain and stomach were dancing when I walked in, food on all walls and a big colourful menu behind the counter. I’d happily spend day after day queuing up in the line ordering a different banh mi of each type, such is the variety. Once again I got the grilled pork and it came at an excellent price.
Once you get a taste for juice exploding banh mi, it’s hard to go back. Nhu Lan delivers expertly on most points: succulent pork, killer bread roll and the right balance of salad. But the pate and butter are sadly light on and leave the banh mi overly dry, whereas Maggi sauce, despite its spiritual flavour properties, can be applied too liberally, as in this case. It prevents the nuanced flavours from emerging, which is the one hurdle to an otherwise delicious banh mi.
322-326 Coventry St, Shop S9, South Melbourne Market
There used to many open air markets in Melbourne, but now there are only a handful. South Melbourne Market has always had a buzzing energy, entirely chaotic on weekends. It’s a go to for groceries, although there is a good range of takeaway food to eat at the market.
Two months passed since the last banh mi and I was getting cravings. BaBa is a small cafe in the market’s cosy food court. I ordered the banh mi with “chicken kaffir lime” and as the name suggests it had a tangy flavour unlike the norm. It was nice, with a soft texture similar to tofu. Also different was the replacement of (sometimes) ingredient lettuce with cabbage in a coleslaw. The salad worked well with the lime chicken but there was probably too much of it in the roll. And with the saucy dressing it made the bread fairly soggy and formed a pond at the bottom of the bag. Juices were dripping dangerously close to my clothes. The banh mi at Baba is not as enticing as the spring rolls at iconic market store South Melbourne Dim Sims, but they give it a good shot.
62 Little Collins Street, Melbourne
Situated at the opposite side of the city to Roll’d is the city N. Lee store. It caters to the office workers on the east side, open for weekday breakfast and lunch only. Whereas Roll’d is a Vietnamese fast-food restaurant, N. Lee is a cafe offering gourmet sandwiches, sweet snacks and seating to read the newspaper while you eat.
From the Little Collins pavement, catching a view of the massive deli-fridge and frantic staff, busily filling bread rolls to control the peak hour queues, is thrilling. Fans of the traditional Vietnamese bakery may not get the same feeling inside this N. Lee but the standard is expectedly at the same level as its Collingwood counterpart. Disappointingly, a new location comes with a price rise. You have to pay $1.50 more for the same product than on Smith Street.
I went to the counter and without much thought asked for a grilled pork banh mi. I was met with “no”. Surprising and a little disappointing. Hot pork isn’t the be all and end all but I’m super hooked and nearly every Melbourne bakery serves it. Being N. Lee the pork loaf is better than most other places, though its coldness brings it just short of the drool-over amazement at the Smith Street store. The dressing was superb; that combination with the pork was meant to be. What truly sets N. Lee apart from the competitors is their wonderfully fresh bread rolls. It seems they have just come out of the oven each time, keeping your hands warm through the paper bag as you step back into the cold. I get such pleasure slouching back in my chair and letting the bread crumbs scatter all over my front, it’s a sign of a good quality roll. Inside, equally as fresh and crunchy, the salad waits with stealth, packed minimally but with the right ratios. I’d rather go to Collingwood but if you can’t get any further than Little Collins Street for your upcoming feed, it hits the spot excellently.