Elevating the sandwich game

Elevating the sandwich game

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A beautiful stuffed Philly cheesesteak sandwich

The classic sandwich has been a lunchtime staple the world over for longer than anyone cares to remember. But this humble, ubiquitous classic Is trending in Australian bakeries, with international flavours and sandwich styles growing cult followings. Now, gourmet versions of the sandwiches we know and love are sweeping the nation, from Vietnamese banh mis and Japanese katsu sandos to jam-packed Reubens and Italian deli subs. Baking Business investigates the rise of the gourmet sandwich in Australia and some of the players on the edge of innovation in this sphere.

Sandwiches have gone on an evolutionary journey since the first, famed, sandwich allegedly came into being as a result of John Montagu’s, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, notorious gambling habit. Unable to bring himself to leave the gambling table for trivial things like eating, the Earl took to eating nothing but sliced beef placed between two slices of bread for the ease of consumption. The rest is history.

But since those humble beginnings, the sandwich has gone on an evolutionary journey. Now, bakeries around the country are turning their hands to gourmet sandwiches, packed full of artisanal cured meats and exotic and textured condiments and vegetables. The gourmet sandwich trend has gripped Australian bakeries, and it is becoming common to see gorgeous aesthetic sandwiches, jam-packed with locally sourced ingredients, across the social media pages of bakeries and cafes.

Banh mis

Traditionally Vietnamese, banh mis consist of fresh-baked baguettes filled (usually) with meats (typically pork of some kind), pickles, coriander, cucumber, and a range of other things. This version of a sandwich was born out of a dark period of Vietnamese history, when French colonists took their bread with them to Vietnam. The banh mi grew and changed over the years, making the transition to what it is now during the 1950s.

It made the jump across the ditch to Australia from Vietnam in the 1980s, and since then its popularity has only grown. Now, dedicated banh mi bakeries and stores can be found all around the country, with the banh mi remaining one of the most popular sandwiches with many people.

Banh Mi Factory is one (or two) such place, with two locations in Brisbane that are well-frequented and beloved for their take on the classic Vietnamese sandwich, which comes in a range of options, including grilled beef, chicken, pork, and tofu, topped with the brand’s signature lemongrass and honey marinade.

In recent years, the banh mi has undergone a bit of a transformation in Australia, with Chef Dan Hong popularising miniaturised banh mi sliders when he was working at Merivale’s Ms.G’s in Sydney. The pandemic also brought about innovation in the banh mi world, with Lit Canteen in Sydney, among others, offering make-it-yourself banh mi kits that could be delivered.

Another variation comes from successful Perth eatery Le Vietnam, which offers traditional banh mis with a twist. One of their popular sandwiches, which has been circulating for a couple of years, is the ‘el porko loco’, which takes the traditional pork banh mi and adds a South American twist, coupling traditional Vietnamese flavours with guacamole and Louisiana Habanero hot sauce.

The trick, says DJ Lee (who goes by Lee) from Le Vietnam, is making sure to listen to your customer base.

Le Vietnam’s banh mi

“We built this business with the support from Perth locals, so we ask them what they want and make dreams come true,” he says.

Lee also goes on to say the secret to the perfect banh mi is balanced flavours.

“It’s all about the balance on the tongue. Our original three-meat combination in the standardised banh mi that brought us to fame is the perfect example,” he says.

“The balance of the richness of the patê, the creamy butter-mayo, umami seasoned meats to the zing of the pickled crunchy carrots, smell of fresh herbs and a slight kick of the fresh cut chilli. A lot is happening in one bite, and it all works so well on the tongue.”

Lee from Le Vietnam with a banh mi


Finding its roots in Northern America, the Reuben sandwich consists of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and a dressing (typically thousand island dressing or Russian dressing) all on slices of rye bread that are then toasted.

Although it is wildly popular in its homeland, the Reuben hasn’t quite reached the same heights in Australia. Despite this, it remains a stalwart classic on menus around the country, with many bakeries, cafes, and delis offering up a Reuben option alongside their other sandwich classics.

The Flying Fig Deli in Adelaide takes this one step further, with their range of Reuben sandwiches including an original Reuben, a Reuben with pastrami, one with lamb, and even a vegetarian version of the traditionally meat-based classic (using mushrooms instead of beef).

The Flying Fig’s lamb Reuben

Although the Reuben is a straightforward sandwich that has a set list of ingredients, a whole host of variations to this classic can change the experience significantly. Different cuts of meat can be used, or different types of bread.

Although rye bread is most commonly used, to add an extra layer of flavour to the sandwich, other types of bread can also be used. Some variations of the Reuben will be encased in classic white bread, although these will typically have other elements that add extra flavour to the sandwich.

The Flying Fig’s vegetarian Reuben

Something that can achieve this extra layer of flavour is smoking the meat.

Big Don’s Smoked Meat in Perth exemplifies this. The Texas barbecue-style pop-up smokehouse offers up gigantic Reubens with classic beef fillings with a twist. Instead of the regular corned beef that most commonly graces a Reuben, Big Don’s offers up a smoked Wagyu brisket filling that remains popular with the customers who frequent Big Don’s pop-up locations around Perth.

Philly cheesesteaks

Speaking of Big Don’s, another classic sandwich on offer at the pop‑up store is a sandwich that is becoming increasingly popular with customers around the country: the Philly cheesesteak.

A young player in the game of sandwiches, the Philly cheesesteak has only been around since the 1930s, when two brothers living in Philadelphia in the USA began serving chopped steak on Italian rolls. In addition to the ubiquitous chopped steak, a cheesesteak sandwich also contains onions. The original versions of the sandwich didn’t contain cheese, which was later added, giving the sandwich its classic oozy and stretchy quality that is so beloved.

As the cheesesteak sandwich has evolved over the years, more and more toppings have been added and changed to customise the experience. The bread, the hoagie roll, that is needed to hold all of the toppings must be robust enough to support everything that goes into it.

The Cheesesteak Factory in Lawson, NSW, knows all about this. They make a range of different variations on the cheesesteak, all made with scotch fillet steak and the customer’s choice of cheese. The popular sandwiches also come with a range of less conventional toppings, like Mexican salsa, house made coleslaw, and a fried egg, among others.

The menu of The Cheesesteak Factory also highlights part of the reason the sandwich is rising so swiftly in popularity. Lining up alongside burgers, the cheesesteak presents a fantastic burger-like option without actually being a burger. Customers enjoy the point of difference that a cheesesteak sandwich can offer.

Katsu sandos

With Japanese food currently sitting at the top of the trend list across the board, it’s only natural that a classic Japanese sandwich is doing the rounds as well. The katsu sando (from the Japanese word for sandwich: sandoitchi) falls into the food genre of yoshoku (a Japanese style of Western-influenced cooking) and combines a traditional Japanese cuisine with a typically Western classic.

To create the katsu sando, a cutlet of meat (a katsuretsu in Japanese), typically chicken, is crumbed on both sides and fried. It is then placed between generous slices of Japanese shokupan (a Japanese milk bread that has a soft, pillowy texture) and topped off with whatever condiments and toppings will best compliment the flavours of the sando. This typically consists of a curry sauce and shredded cabbage, there is a host of other options used by bakeries around the country.

For Le Bajo Milkbar in Melbourne (a successful sando-centric bakery in Melbourne), one of these toppings is a smoked cheese sauce, which is generously grated over their chicken katsu sandos. The brand also offers prawn katsu alongside tako (octopus) katsu sandos with a variety of different sauces and toppings.

Chicken Katsu Sando

For Café Monaka in Sydney, their signature sandwich takes the form of a tonkatsu (pork cutlet) sando smothered in Bulldog sauce, as is typically seen in Japan. Tonkatsu is a popular filling for a sando, with Sandoitchi in Darlinghurst also offering a version of the classic Japanese street food.

But katsu sandos aren’t just for meat-eaters, as proved by Melbourne’s Kuu Cafe & Japanese Kitchen, which offers a very popular tofu option alongside its chicken and prawn katsu sandos.

The Lucky Pickle in Sydney is opting for a slightly less traditional offering with their katsu sando – while everything else is the same, the soft white shokupan has been swapped out for a crusty baguette-style roll, which is enjoyed equally well by The Lucky Pickle’s customers.

Although this sandwich is predominantly featured in bakeries in Melbourne and Sydney, its popularity is only increasing, and it won’t be long before we see katsu sandos and their beloved shokupan in bakeries around the country.

Artisan sandwiches

No discussion about sandwiches would be complete without a mention of the artisan gourmet sandwich, which has taken a large step into the limelight in recent years.

A prime example of recent sandwich enthusiasm is the collaboration between Neil Perry and Baker Bleu, which has stores in Melbourne and Sydney. The artisan bakehouse announced a Sydney-based collab with the acclaimed Australian chef in September of last year, which has focused on one of Neil’s greatest loves: the sandwich.

Inspired by Baker Bleu’s classic sourdough, the collab between Neil and the bakery includes fresh ficelle layered with cured meats and cheeses, as well as a classic bagel and packed sliced sandwiches on various different breads.

Another bakery stepping up to the artisan sandwich trend is Falco Bakery in Melbourne, who pride themselves on their focus on traditional techniques, locally sourced produce, and generous seasonal offerings. The bakery recently announced a new sandwich in their line-up, curry chickpea salad, which boasts lashings of pickled carrots, spring onion, vegan mayo, and curried chickpeas (among other things) on a house-made sesame ciabatta.

Falco is one in the line of bakeries expanding their offerings to include artisan sandwich options for vegans that are just as multi-layered and deliciously complex as their meat-based offerings.

Vegetarian gourmet sandwiches

Italian deli sandwiches

The ranks of the artisan sandwich are bolstered by another addition, the Italian deli-style sub sandwich, which is growing in popularity.

This rise in popularity is exemplified by Sydney-based Dom Panino, which recently made the move to a bricks-and-mortar location after a successful turn operating out of a food truck. Although the paninoteca (sandwich shop) has only been open a short while, that has been long enough for them to establish themselves as the place to go for a panini in Sydney.

Dom Panino’s Mortabella panino

Using owner Dom Ruggeri’s classic family recipes (handed down from his Nonna), the sandwiches at Dom Panino’s are stacked high with classic Italian ingredients and combinations. There’s something for every customer, from the Serafina (eggplant, capsicum and onions sautéed in a sweet and sour tomato reduction, rocket, and basil) to the classic Prosciutto (prosciutto di parma, roma tomato, mozzarella di buffala, basil, and EVOO).

Something that all Dom Panino’s sandwiches have is a true staple of the Italian deli sandwich: cheese. No Italian sandwich is complete without the perfect cheese to complement the other ingredients. Whether it be mozzarella, burrata, fontina, ricotta, or any of the many other delicious Italian cheeses, the tang, salt, sweetness, or stretch that a cheese can bring to a sandwich can change the whole experience.

Dom Panino’s Prosciutto panino

It’s important that the cheese and the meat in the sandwich work together harmoniously, as they are the backbone of the sandwich.

Other classics of this genre include olives, pestos, olive oil, and a wide variety of herbs. Each addition will change the way that the sandwich tastes and the overall flavour profile of each bite.

Putting together the perfect sandwich

Although there are many different ways to put together the perfect sandwich, especially depending on what type you’re going for, there are some things you can do and add that will really lift your sandwich to the next level.

Don’t forget those condiments. Mustard, mayonnaise, relishes, and chutneys can all add something extra to whatever ingredients are already gracing your sandwich and can really lift and enhance what might otherwise be a ‘nice’ meal into something truly fantastic. Make sure that you’re adding condiments and sauces not for the sake of it though; every addition must contribute positively to the balance of flavours in the dish.

Chutneys, for example, can add sweetness to smoked meats, which helps to bring out the flavour of the smoke. Tapenades and pestos will bring a layer of tart, salty flavour to your sandwich, which will pair excellently with soft goat’s cheese or tomatoes.

The sandwich classic that is mayonnaise is also experiencing a resurgence in Australia. From Kewpie to wasabi, citrus to honey, there is a version of mayonnaise for every sandwich out there.

To smoke or not to smoke? This is the question faced by purveyors of sandwiches around the country. Smoking meat adds a depth of flavour that is difficult to achieve through other means. On top of this, due to chemical reactions that take place during the smoking process, smoked meat also has a great visual appeal than its non-smoked counterpart. All of this adds up to an enticing filling for a sandwich, especially when paired with a range of complimentary condiments and toppings.

This is something that successful Brisbane-based bakery Flour & Chocolate knows all about. Flour & Chocolate has found that smoking their meat in house has greatly improved the quality of the sandwiches they produce, and this is now something they are well known for.

Artisanal sandwiches on baguettes

An extra layer of texture. It’s a well-known fact that the texture of a sandwich is just as important as the balance of flavours. Often, cafes, bakeries, and delis will fancy up their offerings by adding in different elements of crunch to their sandwiches in the form of toppings—things like crispy fried onions or a fresh coleslaw.

Seeds are a classic choice; these can be baked into the bread that the sandwich is placed on or sprinkled across the top once complete. These tiny additions can also contribute to the flavour profile of the sandwich, adding tiny extra notes of nutty flavour to each bite. This is exemplified by the rise in popularity of Everything But the Bagel seasoning, which is quickly making its way over to Australia after experiencing high levels of popularity in the US. Combining sesame seeds with a range of herbs and spices, this seasoning adds layers of flavour and texture to a sandwich.

The cheese you choose. Although the protein is the star, the whole sandwich experience can be made or broken by the cheese that you choose to complement this. Choosing the right cheese can depend on a host of factors: has the meat been smoked, what condiments you are using, whether or not you will be toasting your sandwich – but the most important consideration is around how the cheese will contribute to the flavour profile.

An Italian deli sub, for example, with its strong flavours of cured meats and olives, favours a softer and milder cheese like burrata or mozzarella. On the other hand, a Philly cheesesteak favours provolone, which adds a great note of sharpness to the steak used as a filling and has the extra added bonus of being a great melter – being responsible for the classic stretchy element of the cheesesteak. Some sandwiches, such as the banh mi, will traditionally appear without cheese, but the addition of cheese can be an interesting and flavourful deviation from the norm.

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