Unpacking Australia’s most iconic sandwiches

Foodservice travelled around Australia this month to find and deconstruct the country’s most transcendent sandwiches. In each city, we asked the makers of those sandwiches why theirs is so popular, before collating the data on what goes into the perfect sandwich.

Nhu Lan’s Mixed Ham Bánh Mì – Melbourne
By Aleksandra Bliszczyk

In 1977, America’s Voyager spacecraft launched with no destination and little on board besides two 12-inch records of Mozart, folk songs, “hello” in 55 languages, and whale calls. Its creators hope that one day, unknown lifeforms will find these “Golden Records” and hear the sounds of life on Earth.

If we Melburnians were to record the sounds of our city, extraterrestrials would hear tram bells, coffee grinders, thumping bass, and the crackles of Vietnamese baguettes, shattering under teeth.

Melbourne’s most iconic sandwich can only be the bánh mì. Brought here by Vietnamese immigrants in the ‘70s and ’80s, the rolls procured almost immediate popularity among non-Vietnamese communities for their hot and cold meat fillings, pickled freshness, spice, and unique crunch, and have since only burrowed deeper into our culinary ether. Every Melburnian, Vietnamese or not, can participate in a hot debate over the city’s best bánh mì. One that will inevitably come up in conversation Nhu Lan’s – a Vietnamese bakery institution that has been serving customers of all backgrounds from its Richmond and Footscray (Melbourne’s two biggest Vietnamese hubs) outposts for more than 25 years. Owner Khanh Ziccardi says it’s the freshness and crispness of the bread that sets their bánh mìs apart.

“We actually start baking at 3:30am, then we open at 5am, and then we bake until 3pm, 4pm, 5pm in the evening depending on demand,” says Ziccardi. “That way, the customers come in and the rolls are hot.”

At each store the teams bake between 1000 and 1500 long rolls every day, half of which get filled and sold as a bánh mìs.

The most popular, Zaccardi says, is the mixed ham, reminiscent of those found on the streets of Saigon, where it’s too hot for street vendors to be grilling meats over coals. The roll is sliced open, then each hemisphere is coated in a smear of housemade pate (a heavily guarded recipe) and housemade mayo. Next, in go the cold cuts, also housemade. There are thin slices of white pork luncheon loaf, barbequed fatty pork belly, and terrine made with pork loin and pigs’ ears for extra crunch. Then, it’s a handful of house-pickled shredded carrots, batons of fresh cucumber, coriander springs, fresh chilli, a squirt of soy sauce and salt and white pepper to finish. 

Looking at the finished product, in mass it’s about 60:40 roll to filling. Biting down, the reverberant crunch will disturb anyone within a 5-metre radius.

25 years after these bánh mìs sold for $2 each, the gorgeous roll now rings in at just $5.50. Perhaps in another quarter-century they’ll finally be able to charge a tenner.

Da Rosaria’s Porchetta Roll – Canberra
By Anthony Huckstep

The best sandwich in the nation’s capital? It’s a no brainer. A mere mention of suckling pig on a sandwich and people will form queues faster than a buttered bullet. In Canberra there are plenty of good sandwiches, but there’s only one you need to worry about.

Da Rosaria’s wood-roasted suckling pig porchetta ‘alla Romana’, with shaved fennel, green apple and mostarda served on wood-baked focaccia made in house every morning. Case dismissed.

“It’s based on the traditional Roman dish where most of the trattorias have the big porchettas out on chopping boards, and as you know they’re a bit more relaxed with their health and safety in Italy than we are, so they carve them to order in front of you on the street. It’s wonderful,” says owner Pasquale Trimboli, who also owns Italian & Sons, Bacaro wine bar and Mezzalira.

“Fresh fennel and pork is a classic combination of the Romans’, the combination is almost like a romantic notion – if you have the right memory bank.

“There’s a reason for that, it is a perfect marriage,” he says.

Da Rosaria, the hole-in-the-wall Italian offering under the wing of CBD fine diner Mezzalira, has had the sandwich on from day one, over four years ago. Trimboli concedes there would be public outrage if they took it off the menu.

The fresh fennel and porchetta is one thing, but combined with walnut pesto, garlic, rosemary and mustard fruits, it’s one of the most rich, yet balanced sandwiches down under.

“The mustard fruits lend themselves to cut through the savoury notes of garlic and rosemary and the fennel cuts through the rich, fat of the pork.

“People think the pork is the hero of the dish, and I guess it is, but the mustard fruits have an incredible way of enhancing that beautiful pork flavor,” says Trimboli.

Pork, fennel and friends; what more do you need?

Rick Shores’ Rick’s Fried Bug Roll – Brisbane/Gold Coast
By Elliot Baker

One of the city’s most iconic sandwiches isn’t actually found in Brisbane, but many locals would agree the one-hour drive down the M1 is worth it for a Rick’s Fried Bug Roll.

Since Rick Shores opened at Burleigh Beach in early 2016, the Moreton Bay bug roll has unquestionably been the most popular item on the menu. Head chef James Brady says they sell around 200 per service. Once, they recorded 1,100 rolls over two hot summer days. “Everyone who comes to work for us can’t understand how we are selling so many,” Brady says.

So, why is it so popular? Brady puts it down to approachability (“it’s not too big and not too small”), minimum fuss, and the restaurant’s location. Overlooking the beach with waves crashing metres from the closest tables; there’s no better place to bite into a fresh bug roll.

Brady credits the dish for keeping the coastal restaurant busy all-year round, something quite rare for a venue of its kind. “It’s a major reason why we have a wonderfully consistent trade,” he says. “Normally you get massive highs and lows, but we are super lucky.”

The bug roll was created by the original head chef Jake Pregnell, who’s now head chef at Little Valley in Brisbane – owned by the same team behind Rick Shores. Since then, the recipe has changed little.

The Moreton Bay bugs are sourced from northern Queensland, and the brioche buns are baked off-site. As Brady needs 1800 buns per week to ensure 100 per cent consistency.

The buns are split horizontally, buttered, and lightly toasted in a frying pan. The bun base is layered with bug mayonnaise (made with poached bug meat, spices and lemon juice), gem lettuce, and then crowned with a beer-battered bug tail. Brady likes to use a mid-strength beer as the lower alcohol content creates a crispier batter. Lastly, Sriracha is squeezed over the bug, before the bun top is placed on.

“We often get people buying rounds,” says Brady, laughing. “We don’t realise that someone has eaten four or five to themselves because they’ve been ordering them one-by-one.”

Africola’s Tea Sandwich – Adelaide
By Tomas Telegramma

While there’s a lot to love about Adelaide’s inimitable Africola, the tea sandwich is perhaps its most recognisable dish. Leading the fancy-sandwiches-in-restaurants charge since its birth three years ago, around 75 serves now hit the pass nightly.

The sandwich was created out of necessity for a hungry friend. When S.C. Pannell winemaker Stephen Pannell went snack-hunting after a day of wine judging, Africola head chef and co-owner Duncan Welgemoed reached for a loaf of Wonder White set aside for staff meals and some hot drippings from his signature peri peri chicken. Pannell insisted it go on the menu.

“We couldn’t just serve bread and drippings,” Welgemoed says. So chicken skin became the star. “We scrape off all the fat so it’s completely clear, then we put it between two very, very heavy metal trays and cook it for two hours until all the fat is rendered,” he adds. It has to be ultra crisp. Once it’s cooled, two layers are topped with flat-leaf parsley (dressed with olive oil, lemon juice and salt) and a peri peri mayonnaise made with Africola’s signature hot sauce, Mpumalanga Fire. It’s then encased in two slices of super-soft, crust-less Wonder White, true to its inception. “You don’t want to do posh bread with it, the sweetness [of Wonder White] balances the salt and acid,” says Welgemoed. Alongside is a bowl of intensely flavoured hot drippings for dipping, which have been refreshed with an extra hit of lemon, chilli and garlic.

Beyond the sandwich’s inherent Insta-appeal, Welgemoed wagers its unexpected success lies in the delicate balance of flavour – it’s an all-bases-covered snack. “A little bit dirty but also fresh; not like a big, fat fried-chicken sandwich you eat once and can’t eat again for six months,” he says. It’s perfectly sized, gone in a couple of bites, and leaves you primed for the meal ahead.

Oratnek’s Katsu Sandwich – Sydney
By Nicholas Jordan

Katsu sandwiches are everywhere in Sydney. They’re spreading across menus faster than poké, uni and things in bowls. But before Paper Bird (RIP), Cho Cho San, Sandoitchi, Rising Sun and all the others were posting katsu sandwiches on their menus and Instagram accounts, there was Oratnek. The Redfern cafe, owned and run by former Bill’s head chef Kenny Takayama, opened in 2015 with a simple pork katsu sandwich on the menu, the same recipe they’re famous for today.

The bread comes from Adzuki, a Japanese bakery in Newtown. Takayama asks for it how Japanese people like it, thick cut, absurdly soft and porcelain white. On one half goes a light layer of tonkatsu sauce, which is like barbecue sauce but fruitier but not as sweet, Takayama says. On the other slice goes a touch of American mustard and grated fresh cabbage.

In the middle goes the katsu, a thick and messily juicy hunk of panko-crusted pork. Slapped with sake before frying and seasoned only in salt and pepper, it comes out soft enough to bite through without having to saw your teeth but with enough texture to contrast with the bread.

Crucially, it’s served hot. Takayama and his team deep fry every piece of pork to order. “Our menu says 15-minute wait, but people don’t care, it’s nice when it’s juicy and hot,” he says.

And that’s it – bread, cabbage, sauce and pork. Takayama says he doesn’t know why it’s been such a big seller, he just wanted to put it on the menu because he wanted to eat it. His advice for any chefs wanting to replicate his success is this: “Try not to be famous or popular, just do what you want to eat. That’s what I always want to do. If you don’t love it, it won’t be tasty.”

Re Store’s Conti Roll – Perth
By Max Brearley

“There’s not really anything like the continental roll in Australia,” says Fiona Berti of Northbridge institution Re Store. A baguette-like roll and a mix of cold meats, cheeses and condiments, the “Conti Roll” has grown in stature since its inception in the 1950s. Back then, workers would buy diamond-shaped loose rolls, cold meats and antipasto, and make their own sandwich on the spot. Deli-founder John Re soon caught on.

While Re Store isn’t the only deli to make one, it’s arguably the most famous. Berti likens it to an American sub or hoagie – something Besha Rodell of the New York Times also noted about Australian sandwich culture. The American comparison has legs beyond the roll, and the experience has a distinctly New York feel: queuing with your number, faced mainly with ladies of Italian heritage who chide you good-naturedly should you slow the queue. While a crusty “banana roll” from Vastese bakery in North Perth was part of the equation for decades, the bakery’s closure in 2015 didn’t spell the end for this key component.

Grainaissance in Osborne Park took on the recipe, the ovens and a former Vastese baker. Berti says that it’s “not exactly the same”, but pretty close.

The Conti Roll is made to order from a counter of choice, and Berti says you can spot the uninitiated. Other than the bread, it’s about the meat – a choice of mild, hot or the traditional mix. Salami, coppa and mortadella are sourced from Australian smallgoods firms, while prosciutto is from San Daniele. Cheese is again a mix, from Italian provolone, to Swiss cheese and Australian cheddar. Building blocks in place, it’s onto antipasto: sundried tomato, artichoke, pickled capsicum and marinated eggplant, much of which made in store, and shredded iceberg lettuce get layered in, before the roll is closed with a hefty crunch.

Data Analysis
Across Australia, the best and most popular sandwiches are incredibly diverse, yet they do share some characteristics. Here’s what our computers deduced: