"I never thought a sandwich could save my business," says chef Thi Le as we chat in Anchovy's empty dining room in Melbourne's inner suburb of Richmond.
Like many restaurant owners, Le and partner Jia-Yen Lee moved to takeaway at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. But they soon began thinking about their next step.
"JY [Jia-Yen] and I started craving Laotian. It's something I grew up eating and JY kinda joked that I should cook Lao food.
"Towards the end of our two-week break, we were like 'yeah, let's just do it'," says Le. "We didn't want to play catch-up, but treat it like we were opening a brand new restaurant, a brand new concept, to keep things exciting for us and to draw people in."
So in a matter of days, Anchovy transformed from a modern Vietnamese-Australian restaurant to a Lao takeaway joint.
Growing up in Sydney’s western suburbs, Le's family and friends would often turn to Lao food for celebrations.
Le says, "We would always go to each other houses and do BBQs and cook predominantly Vietnamese, but there was always a moment where the mums and dads couldn't be bothered, and what became a treat for the family was Laotian food."
Meet the khao jee pâté
On weekends, Anchovy is now slinging khao jee pâté, the Lao cousin of the bánh mì, for $12 a pop.
The baguette sandwich is a popular street food in the Southeast Asian country of Laos, often eaten for breakfast. Liver pâté, pickled vegetables, chilli, and pork and herb sausage are the most common fillings.
Le has kept that spirit, playing around with fillings: "Lao food is very herbaceous and quite spicy. We decided to make a red curry paste with fresh chilli. We smear that onto the khao jee pâté.
"Then, in Laos, there are lots of wild pigs, so we don't use chicken liver to make pâté, we do pork liver pâté. And pickles are a mix that we change up."
"Towards the end of our two week break, we were like 'yeah, let's just do it'."
Depending on the weekend, the sandwich will also be packed with pork and herb sausage, chicken marinated in turmeric and galangal, pine mushrooms, veggie spring rolls or suckling pig.
"We were actually overwhelmed by the amount of people who came in the last few weeks," says Le.
"Some people said they've always wanted to come, but that we were slightly out of their price range. This sandwich epitomises what we do as a restaurant in 10 or so bites."
Fresh, vibrant and spicy
Le continues to use the best ingredients she can get her hands on; Great Ocean Road ducks for the larb, slow-grown Milking Yard Farm chickens for the khao piak sen (chicken and noodle soup), whole pigs from Bundarra Berkshires that get broken down for several dishes, and a fish sauce that has been fermenting for 2-5 years that is now spiking the goi pa (fish salad).
Last week, Le and Lee marked Anchovy's fifth anniversary by roasting a suckling pig for the khao jee pâté. They didn't expect this milestone to happen in the middle of a pandemic, but this wasn't going to stop them.
"It needs to be celebrated, life continues. Every time there's a celebration, I want to do a suckling pig. I don't usually get to share these moments with lots of people. Now, we can share it with everyone else.
"I know we can't go to restaurants, but we can still bring joy and excitement to people, that's why we do this," says Le.
While Le and Lee are excited to welcome customers in their dining room again, they are not in a rush. They want everyone to feel safe and comfortable when it finally happens, so you can expect Lao takeaway for a bit longer, and possibly these flavours to become a permanent fixture on Anchovy’s menu.
"Whatever we do when we come back, there needs to be a fire in the kitchen," concludes Le.
338 Bridge Road, Richmond
Dinner (takeaway only) Wed–Sat 5:30pm–8pm
Lunch (khao jee pâté, takeaway only) Fri 11:30am–2pm and Sat–Sun 10:30 am–1pm