Michael Thai lived in Australia for 20 years before he had his first taste of Vegemite on toast.
He was running late for work and he ate it out of convenience and desperation – rather than curiosity about the iconic (and polarising) sandwich spread. His mother, Bac Cang, meanwhile, had never even tried it before they decided to add the salty ingredient to the menu of their latest Bau Truong restaurant, located at Sydney’s Darling Square. The Vegemite is smeared between baguette slices, along with a rich dose of Laughing Cow cheese that becomes ultra-creamy after the sandwich is battered and run through the deep-fryer with bone marrow.
This might seem like a far cry from pho and other Vietnamese staples Bau Truong is known for – but the dish is more traditional than you’d think.
“It’s not a new invention. On the streets of Saigon, you’d see deep-fried banh mi with just one prawn on top,” says Thai. “Like the Vietnamese version of a banh mi prawn toast.”
You could dip it into fish sauce – but he preferred it just as it was.
As for the addition of Laughing Cow cheese? That’s a throwback to his adolescent days in Vietnam, in the 1980s.
“I grew up in the Communist years,” he says. “It was difficult to get Western ingredients. You had rations.” That’s how locals ended up with baguettes – which were given away when farmers had a bad season and couldn’t offer rice. He remembers people ripping out the middle of baguettes to turn into animal shapes to entertain children.
And as Vietnam opened up as a country, so did a black market: imported foreign goods would arrive via the Thai border. We’re talking hardcore stuff, like M&Ms chocolates, instant noodles and cheese.
“I grew up in the Communist years,” he says. “It was difficult to get Western ingredients. You had rations.”
“They started selling Laughing Cow cheese with bread,” he says. And it was expensive. Just one tiny triangle of the French processed cheese cost the equivalent of five bowls of pho.
It was a premium purchase, just like M&Ms. He remembers going to a famous ice-cream shop, which specialised in ice-cream served with coconut, chocolate topping and “one single M&M”, he says. “And that became a luxury. We lived through those years.”
At home, his family would bottle fish sauce and send it to the market, to earn money. And food always had a strong presence under their roof. He recalls the time his mum aired out intestine skins “near where we dry our laundry”, because she wanted to make lap cheong. “The smell was so bad, it turned us off the sausages for years,” he says.
His mum was “quite experimental” with food and once steeped pineapple in wine, hoping to create a fancy drink. Thai and his young siblings were unaware of her methods, saw the fruit and got “absolutely” drunk by consuming the boozy pineapple pieces.
Magazines were hard to find, but his mother came across an old issue of a pre-war publication, which mentioned hamburgers. Not understanding what it was, she tried making her own version anyway – which resembled “extremely sweetened” minced pork, mixed with banh mi and served with rice.
“You should try it, it’s really popular overseas!” she told them – a memory that her son laughs at. “We were excited, we didn’t know what hamburgers were.”
So perhaps it’s no surprise that when the family arrived in Australia, more than two decades ago, his mother pursued a career in hospitality. She’d trained by cooking wedding banquets for 100 or so diners, with just her cousin helping out.
She eventually took over Bau Truong in Cabramatta and turned it into the much-loved institution it is today.
“At the beginning, I worked 17 hours every day, it was very hard,” she says. She served broken rice, noodles and pho – lots of it. When she began, she was simmering 15 litres of pho a day. Now, it’s 120 litres daily at Cabramatta alone.
The Bau Truong empire has expanded to various suburbs over the years (Canley Vale, Marrickville), and currently there are three locations: Cabramatta, Mount Pritchard and the newest outpost, Darling Square.
And while it serves staples such as pho, rice paper rolls and vermicelli salads, Thai has been pushing the boundaries by suggesting ideas that go beyond typical Vietnamese dishes. Like the deep-fried banh mi with Vegemite and cheese.
When she began, she was simmering 15 litres of pho a day. Now, it’s 120 litres daily at Cabramatta alone.
It always leads to a creative tug-of-war with his mother, who is in charge of the menu.
“Because it’s a brand that she built, whenever I come up with a concept, we normally have a fight!” he says. “That happens with every project that we do. But we don’t hold any grudges.”
It happened when he suggests putting Vietnamese-inspired tacos on the menu.
Or salmon and dill in a pho. “Her first reaction is no,” he says. “Two days later, my mum will calm down, she’ll say ‘I tried this, what do you think?’”
It was her testing that refined the deep-fried banh mi. Or she’ll rework the sauce in a pork belly dish that her son suggests.
“The essence of the food is Vietnamese. Deep-fried banh mi is a Vietnamese thing.”
“We don’t try to make it ‘out there’. We try to make it work,” he says. “The essence of the food is Vietnamese. Deep-fried banh mi is a Vietnamese thing.”
Even the bone marrow that flavours the Vegemite and cheese is a twist on a traditional bone-marrow snack (although, because the deep-fried banh mi is made to order, you can ask for a vegetarian version without it if you like).
So although the Darling Square menu might seem left- field at first glance – with Vietnamese tacos and pizza on offer – these dishes actually have a connection to his birthplace. The ‘pizza’ is made out of rice crackers and might house beef and makrut lime leaves, while the tacos are like a salad cup, shaped by deep-fried rice paper, and filled with tofu and mushrooms – or beef jerky and pawpaw (there’s even a prawn cocktail version).
“I told him, nobody eats like this!” his mum says, in response to his initial ideas. But that’s what makes the Darling Square outpost such an interesting branch of Bau Truong. It’s the push-and-pull of a mother and son’s approaches to food – traditional methods vs Instagram-age experimentation – that leads to these surprising dishes. After all, his mother did accidentally pioneer burgers that tasted like pork banh mi. And you don’t always need a pre-war magazine to inspire your best ideas.
Shop 4, The Exchange, Darling Square, 1 Little Pier Street, Haymarket, NSW
Daily 11.30 am – 10 pm.
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