Banh mi battle

Inspired by Kate at Eating Melbourne’s Hot Cross Bun blind tasting, I decided to organise a panel of banh mi enthusiasts to see if we could find Melbourne’s best Vietnamese baguette. So one Sunday afternoon, we gathered at @jeroxie‘s house, to see if we couldn’t settle this turf war.

Originally, we were hoping to have good representation from the three epicentres of Vietnamese food in Melbourne; Footscray, Richmond and Springvale. Unfortunately, our Springvale representative had to pull out at the last minute, so I fear we have somewhat unrepresentative results.

Another caveat: we were sorely aware that iconic Vietnamese bakeries N. Lee, Sunny’s (both from Collingwood), Kenny’s (around the CBD), and N. Tran (South Yarra) have been omitted, but there’s only so much bread a team can eat in one afternoon! Things are shaping up for a second heat, perhaps.

All in all, we had banh mi from nine different bakeries.

From Richmond (all along Victoria St):

  • Lee Lee
  • Huong Huong
  • Phuoc Thanh
  • Saigon Bakery

From Footscray:

  • To’s – 122 Hopkins St
  • Nhu Lan – 116 Hopkins St
  • Ba Le – 28A Leeds St

From Preston (both on High St):

  • Tina’s
  • Mai Lan

On the day, we tested banh mi thit nguoi, which is known ubiquitously as the Vietnamese pork roll. It has various cold meats in it, which we thought a fair (and classic) example on which to judge bakeries, as it’s a staple, and no bakery would be disadvantaged by us sampling a banh mi which should otherwise be consumed while hot (as is the case with a banh mi xiu mai – meat ball – or one with grilled pork or chicken).

In order to ensure that this was a true blind testing, I devised a scheme which involved a two-step masking process. So we split into two teams. Team A was responsible for removing the banh mi from the packaging, and attaching numbered tags to each plate of two banh mi, while Team B were in another room. At the changeover, Team A left the room, and Team B switched the banh mi around, noting the change in tag numbers.

Then the tasting commenced! The scoring system allowed us each to award up to five points for each of the criteria:

  • Bread
  • Salad
  • Meats
  • Overall Flavour

giving each banh mi up to a potential 20 points. But what do you look for in a good banh mi? Well, that’s totally subjective I realise, but my judging for each criterion essentially broke down like this:

Bread: I like the crust to be almost crispy rather than crunchy. I’ve had a few incidents in the past where I’ve injured the roof of my mouth on a too-crusty bread roll. The interior should be pillowy and soft, with a decent amount of baguette-y bread aroma coming through. I’m not a fan of seeds on my banh me baguette.

Salad: For me, this is largely to do with two elements – firstly, the amount of coriander. I like a lot, but this is rare. Secondly, the pickled carrot and daikon – it should be reasonably tart, but also carry some sweetness. It also should still have a hint of the carrot’s natural crunch, and not be a soft mess. I’m not all that fussy about the cucumber element.

Meats: I’d be lying if I said quantity didn’t matter – it’s nice to get a decent amount of meat in the banh mi. Indeed, that’s what I find distinguishes a banh mi you’d get in Melbourne (or Australia, I suppose) from one in Viet Nam. A banh mi in Viet Nam is a snack, or a light meal at best. It’s cheap, and it tides you over. An Australian banh mi is closer to a lunch-sized meal. There’s a substantial amount of filling there. Another factor in judging this criteria is the variety of meats. The standard three meats in a banh mi thit nguoi are cha lua (pork loaf), a Chinese style roast pork, and another preserved ham (gio heo) which is almost terrine-like in its complexity. Due to its being encased in a layer of gelatin, we fondly referred to it as the ‘jellymeat’. Some bakeries had more than these three types of meats, with variations on cha lua, or the jellymeat. Finally, of course, was the perceived freshness and quality of these meats.

Overall Flavour: for me, this came down to three things: the amount of chilli – I like it challenging, but not crazily hot; the ‘butter’ – which is really more just emulsified oil (or eggless mayonnaise); and the pate – which really should be home-made and choc-ful of MSG for my liking.

I’d like to go into what made each banh mi WIN or FAIL, but I was a little too excited, and didn’t take very many notes. So here are my scores:

Lee Lee Huong Huong Tina’s Nhu Lan To’s Phuoc Thanh Mai Lan Saigon Bakery Ba Le
Bread 3 2 2 4 1 2 2 3 3
Salad 2 3 2 3 3 3 4 2 1
Meats 3 3.5 2 4 3 2 2 3 4
Overall Flavour 3 4 2 3 2 2 3 4 3
Total 11 12.5 8 14 9 9 11 12 11

In the end, the Footscray branch Nhu Lan emerged a clear – though not quite unanimous – winner, with Huong Huong bakery in Richmond also making a good showing.

My fellow panellists:

Tris and Gem from Eat Drink Stagger
Penny and Mr from Jeroxie
Ms Baklover from Footscray Food Blog
Alex from MSG: the Melbourne Social Guide

3 Replies to “Banh mi battle”

  1. Thanks again to Penny & your good self for the awesomeness that was the banh mi blind tasting. I'm sufficiently rested up and would love a second round! 🙂

  2. Banh mi brother! You know, I still have not gone the thit nguoi since that day… It was epic!

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