Pork or chicken, pâté or no pâté…no matter how you take your banh mi, there are a few elements we can all agree on. For one thing, you have to get the bread right: pillowy soft on the inside, crusty AF on the outside (if it’s not covering your lap in crumbs and bread-shrapnel, it’s not a proper banh mi at all). The meat should be a little bit fatty and suspicious. The carrots crisp and crunchy. Always a ‘Yes’ to margarine, and go heavy on the cucumber and coriander (yep, we went there). Oh yeah, and it shouldn’t cost you more than a tenner under any circumstances. If you’re shelling out more than $10 for a banh mi, you’ve actually ordered a gourmet sandwich by mistake. Get the hell out of there.
Want to know where to get Melbourne’s best banh mi? Get your gob around these.
Okay, it’s hasn’t got the street cred of an N. Lee or Bun Bun, but the Pho Nom juggernaut gained momentum for a reason. And that reason is one of the most insane banh mi anywhere in Melbourne: the crispy fried chicken with Sriracha mayo. It began as a special back in 2015, but within a few weeks Pho Nom realised they’d accidentally created some sort of legally addictive superfood, and added it to the permanent menu. We’re talking gnarly fried chicken bits with pickled carrot, cucumber, chilli, coriander, crispy fried onion bits, all lathered in zingy Sriracha sauce. It’s not traditional, but after one bite you really aren’t going to care.
If you live near Smith St, you’re either Team N-Lee or Team Sunny’s. The two Vietnamese bakeries are very similar. Both do cheap bread, pies, grilled meat and sandwiches. Both churn out banh mi on an industrial scale. Which one you favour is down to personal taste. For us, it's really too close to call. Sunny's bread has that classic crust, the grilled pork is always juicy, and they go heavy on the carrot, grilled onions and coriander. Service with a smile guaranteed, too. These bad boys used to be an insane $3.50 a pop, but thanks to our old mate Inflation they’ve climbed above a fiver. What a world we live in…
Saigon St Eats
This Balaclava gem is known for its knock-out pho (they use a secret family recipe that’s carried them to soup success in Paris, Amsterdam, Saigon, and now Melbourne). But the banh mi are nothing to sniff at either. Fresh-baked French baguettes with carrots, pickled daikon, onions and a Saigon Eats ‘special sauce’. The grilled chicken or pork are both good, and you should probably double-down with a plate of chicken & prawn spring rolls, served piping hot with lettuce cups, Vietnamese basil and dipping sauce. Vegos take heart: there’s a salt & pepper fried tofu banh mi to keep the food envy at bay.
Bun Bun Bakery
The OG of Melbourne Vietnamese cuisine. These guys were making banh mi before it was cool, and they’ll keep on making them even if a comet hits the earth and we descend into anarchy and cannibalism (probably). Bun Bun churn out over 700 banh mi a day, and there’s always a steady queue outside at lunchtime—hungry diners impatiently waiting to tuck into a BBQ pork with extra coriander (all for under $5 bucks). This place is the epitome of old-school Melbourne eats. It’s not flashy or trendy. It doesn’t try to be cool. It just knows how to make incredible Vietnamese food, and makes a lot of it. Who’s up for a Springvale road trip?
Uncle now has two locations in Melbourne (the CBD and St Kilda), and the menu’s are a little different for each. What hasn’t changed though is the ridiculous crispy pigs’ ear banh mi. Now for those of you who think pig’s ears are a treat you give to your dog on his birthday, you need to suspend your scepticism. Uncle’s pig’s ears are bloody DELICIOUS. They’re more like crackling, really—salty, crispy and crunchy all at the same time—and Uncle dishes them up in beautifully cooked baguettes with pickles and peanuts. Pigs already give us ham, bacon and salami, but this might be their greatest contribution to Melbourne’s food scene yet. Try it before you knock it.
Also known as Chapel St’s best hangover cure, these banh mi are not your traditional sort. N Tran has opted for a softer rye roll over the Viet-French baguette, whose crustiness (delicious as it is) does sometimes chainsaw the roof of your mouth. The fillings are Western-orientated too: think beetroot, cheddar cheese, sundried tomatoes and roasted mushrooms. The purists will roll their eyes and dismiss N. Tran as a Prahran/South Yarra cop-out, but we’re here to tell you these rolls are bloody tasty. One more thing: always go the ‘pork sauce’. Pro tip.
Nguyen’s Hot Bread
Two words: pork crackling. Four more words: in a banh mi. Yep, you read that right. Nguyen’s does a pork crackling banh mi that comes with fresh roast pork, a fluffy-white baguette, a good lug of soy, house-made mayo and all the usual banh mi suspects. The crackling and pork combo is ludicrously good, and the cucumber, carrot and coriander help cut through any greasy meat-guilt you may be feeling. They also smash out an all-day brekky menu if you want to mix your cuisine. Chasing a roast pork banh mi with a bacon and egg roll might just be the best idea we’ve ever had #YOLO.
Hiding in plain sight on one of Footscray’s busiest strips, this place doesn’t look like much, but then that’s kind of the case with most of Melbourne’s best banh mi joints. They focus on food more than marketing, so it’s easy to dismiss them from the street. In the case of To’s, that would be a big mistake. Give the grilled chicken a miss and stick to the BBQ pork: it’s not too salty, and it comes with meaty pate, pickled veg and pork floss to boot. The rolls always come with a big smile (which isn’t always the case at other bakeries), and you can upgrade to ‘extra meat’ for a cheeky $1.50. Highly recommended.
N. Lee Bakery
We couldn’t include Sunny’s and not N. Lee, right? This place is a Smith Street staple for a reason. The combo of perfectly baked baguette, warm homemade pate and margarine, topped with grilled pork and tonnes of veg is an absolute winner, and the lunchtime queues prove that N. Lee do it better than most. The prices are cheap (around $5.80 for a pork roll these days) and the banh mi always come with a dusting of crispy shallots on top. Just remember to bring cash: there’s nothing worse than getting to the front of an N. Lee queue and holding out Visa like a chump. Whether you go Sunny’s or N. Lee at the end of the day doesn’t matter—either way you’re going to walk away with a great lunch. Tuck in.
Ba'get owner Duy Huynh has banh mi in his veins. His parents owned and operated the renowned Fresh Chilli Deli in Sunshine for over 25 years. And it shows: this is the CBD spot you come for crusty bread (baked hourly to ensure freshness), authentic house-made charcuterie, pickled vegetables, a generous smear of paté, loads of Asian herbs and, of course, a healthy dose of fresh red chillies. There's something to suit all tastes, with everything from grilled lemongrass pork to Buddha's tofu on the menu. Need to grab a quick breakfast on your way to the office? Try the Egg and Bacon Ba'get – it's got a sneaky hit of chilli that'll have you sweating through your 10am WIP meeting.
Nhu Lan Bakery
Last but definitely not least, we have Nhu Lan in Footscray. To's nearby neighbour. With one bakery on Victoria Street in Richmond (known as the street pho/ real pho) and the other just past Footscray station, Nhu Lan makes some of Melbourne’s best authentic banh mi. Offering nine classic varieties including mixed ham and shredded or BBQ pork, Nhu Lan’s brightly dressed employees efficiently fill their sponge-like, snow-white baguettes with coriander, shallots, pickled carrots, cucumber, and chilli. Always happy to modify a banh mi to your liking, vegetarians will be more than pleased with Nhu Lan’s flavour-heavy salad banh mi.
Can't have banh mi without a big bowl of pho, right? Check out Melbourne's best.
Image credit: Federica Portentoso