Banh Mi, 233 Hunter St. Newcastle, Tue-Sat 8am-8pm, Sun-Mon 8am-5pm.
Even for a city with tastebuds as worldly as ours, a new and fiery passion for the Vietnamese pork roll seems a little out of the ordinary. You could be excused for thinking these weighty, flaky baguettes will up and disappear from our lunchtime menus as quickly as they arrived. It's just a bread roll with pork you might say. It's a fancy ham sandwich disguised as a weird, trendy fad.
Yet here we are. We're queueing up for these things like they're the elixir of life itself. We're suddenly using daikon and pâté in the same sentence. We're dragging our friends away from their comfy lunch hour rituals and then proudly introducing them to Banh Mi - the bread, the sandwich, the amazing but humble Vietnamese temple of the Newcastle pork roll.
A few doors up from the Lucky Hotel, opposite the Crown Street tram stop, Banh Mi might be the best thing to happen to your lunch hour since Chiefly East opened around the corner on King Street. Named after the famous pork roll itself, which in turn is the same name given to any kind of bread in Vietnam, Banh Mi is an unnassuming sandwich spot with a passionate following.
Of course you can order, as their name suggests, a banh mi pork roll abounding with all sorts of juicy, spicy goodness. But what the name doesn't give away is the whole host of dependable lunch staples that round out the Banh Mi menu. There aren't many spots in the city where you can walk out with a works burger ($10) in one hand and a bo la lot (grilled beef wrapped in betel leaf, $12.50) in the other.
Or where a skilful Vietnamese team can prepare you exotic, homeland delicacies whilst still naming their rolls and wraps after Newcastle landmarks. A Fernleigh Track (schnitzel, bacon, lettuce, avocado, chargrilled capsicum & ranch on a roll/wrap, $9.50)? Why not? There's even pies and sausage rolls in the counter oven and bacon and egg rolls ($7.50) on the grill. It's as though a Novocastrian has shipped off to Saigon and is living happily ever after in a bespoke kitchen of fusion.
Fortunately for us, it's been the other way around. Manager Cathy Phan has brought Vietnam to Newcastle and is proud and excited to have done so. You can hear it in her enthusiastic greeting and you can just as easily taste it in her authentically flavoured food. It's delicate, yet rich and hearty fare served to you warmly and swiftly.
Which brings us back to the pork rolls themselves: the famous, jaw-cracking banh mi. Whether they were roast pork, grilled pork, lemongrass beef or grilled pork sausage (all amazing value at $9.50), Cathy and her team must have handed over 50 of these when I first came in for one of my own.
The first thing you encounter when you unwrap a banh mi is the aroma - a sharp, citrussy, sudden pinch in the nostrils. Then come the flavours. Layered through fresh chilli, red onion and coriander are crispy slabs of roasted pork spread over a subtle, savoury pâté. Whilst your free diving into the depths of all this salty wonderment, you won't even notice that your freshly baked French baguette has capsized under a blizzard of crumbs, leaving your shirt covered, your table in all sorts of a mess and your tastebuds bursting into song.
Elsewhere on the menu it's a sound idea to go for the mi gà da gin, a huge portion of crispy skin chicken served with rice and noodle soup ($15). You can dip your perfectly brittle, flakily encased morsels into a side bowl of smoky red chilli sauce before finishing off with a light, cleansing soup sheeted with coriander leaves.
A faster delight can be enjoyed with any number of gi cun, colourful rice paper rolls ($3-$3.50 each) that are packed tight and swollen with crunchy goodness. They're all such a simple but delicious weaving together of flavours and colours; bright, wholesome and light but still meaty and succulent.
Similar things can be said for the pho, a rice noodle soup that is famous in Vietnam for it's earthy, hearty savouriness. At Banh Mi, the rare beef pho ($12.50) is a fragrant, steamy bowl of cheeriness.