Banh Mi (pronounced bun mee) is the Vietnamese word for bread (literally Banh = bread and mi = wheat) but is most commonly used in English to describe the Vietnamese-style pork roll sandwiches served on single sized baguette-style rolls. Although the Vietnamese style roll is directly influenced from french bread, it is normally lighter and has a thinner crust (which is why I’m always covered in crust crumbs when I eat Banh Mi.
The Banh Mi craze swept Australia several years ago and peaked in 2015 in Sydney when cut-price “pork rolls wars” bringing down prices to a ridiculous $2.50 per roll. There are well-known places like Hong Ha in Mascot that have queues of 30 people long at lunchtimes waiting to buy a traditional $5 Banh Mi or fancy variations including meatballs and schnitzel. In Canberra there are still a few Vietnamese bakeries in the outer suburbs that will do a $5 roll but most in the city and parliamentary triangle now charge around $7. The intrepid street-food bloggers at B-kyu recently found one in Goulburn!
I’ve been a connoisseur of Banh Mi since I spent a few years working in Cabramatta in the early 1990s when it was common to be able to find them for around $2. I learnt about the importance of having fresh bread, pate, mayonnaise, cucumber, pickled carrot and daikon (white radish), tasty pork and coriander, as well as sauce (Maggi sauce or light soy sauce) and fresh chilli. A traditional pork roll has three kinds of pork: barbecue, cha lua (Vietnamese devon) and nem (cured).
There are of course hundreds of variations and every bakery has their own peculiar style, however the basic contents are fairly universal, particularly in Australia where most of the Vietnamese expatriats seem to have adopted the Saigon-style ingredients. Common variations include Banh Mi with meatballs or chicken meat. Banh Bi variations have been making their way onto upmarket restaurant menus and many cafes around Canberra. I recently enjoyed a vegetarian Banh Mi at Bittersweet Cafe in Kingston. The Sydney-based bkyu-blog street-food pinterest page has a great selection of Banh Mi styles from around Sydney.
In Canberra there is also a wide variety available from various Vietnamese restaurants and cafes. I’ve tried quite a few but keep coming back to Little Saigon in Civic, where I think you can find the best balance of taste, traditional ingredients and value at only $6 per roll. Although I’m sure, like we found with kebab shops earlier this month, many people have their own local favourites and will never be convinced otherwise!
Little Saigon is located at 222 City Walk, not far from the fountain which faces Ainslie Place in Canberra City. It only opened in 2015 and recently changed hands. The new owners Van and Kim have been running the restaurant for the past six months and have been serving many old favourites. Their head cook Kim Lieu has worked in other restaurants in Gungahlin and Woden and clearly enjoys cooking and serving authentic Vietnamese cuisine.
As well as a large selection of à la carte menu items Little Saigon also serves Banh Mi to the busy Canberra lunchtime crowd. I asked co-owner Van about Banh Mi and why it was such a staple take-away menu item in Vietnamese restaurants and bakeries. She explained it was always very popular with children and students since Vietnam was a French colony and that the habit of eating Banh Mi for breakfast or lunch was something that still comforted adult Vietnamese.
The Banh Mi at Little Saigon is consistently outstanding. Van explained the baguette-style bread is freshly baked each morning at Kaleen bakery and all ingredients are freshly prepared each day inside the restaurant. They make their own pate and mayonnaise and Minh assembles the Banh Mi with skill and precision. At only $6 the price is also hard to beat in the city in Canberra.
— CBR foodie (@CBRFoodie) October 18, 2016
There are lots of other dishes worth trying at Little Saigon. If you’re a fan of traditional Vietnamese Pho (pronounced fur) noodle soup you will appreciate their Pho Dac Biet (i.e. Special Beef with all the extra bits like offal and liver – it’s a taste sensation!). Van explained that all the food at Little Saigon is made with love. They love making and sharing their authentic cuisine and it shows. Their fresh rice paper rolls are very good as well and are sold in packets of three for $6. I also tried a dish I had never had here before – Com Suong Nuon (basically a grilled pork dish with rice, pickles, cucumber and chilli) – it was outstanding.
Have you tried Banh Mi in Canberra recently? Did you enjoy it and was it made with love? Below are some other Banh Mi which I have had in Canberra recently.
Where is your favourite Banh Mi in Canberra? How much does it cost and what other dishes do you recommend?
Where: Little Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant. 222 City Walk Canberra. Ph: 0405 134 712
Opening hours: 8am-9pm 7 days
Website: Like many small family businesses, they’re still focussed on serving customers rather than websites or social media.
Social media: Find them on Facebook
Elias (aka CBRfoodie) Recommends: The Banh Mi and Pho is great but don’t be afraid to try other items on the menu. Its all good!
Elias Hallaj (aka CBRfoodie) is a part-time food blogger and full-time political staffer who has joined RiotACT as a regular contributor. All opinions are his own. If you have any tips or feedback you can find him on Twitter @CBRfoodie.