And to add to the cultural mix, Le Bajo was initially supposed to be in Indonesia. Co-owner Jason Gunawan, who lives between Melbourne and Jakarta, was looking to open a beach club and resort in Labuan Bajo. But the co-founder of Bali’s Potato Head Beach Club had to put that project on hold at the beginning of the pandemic.
A regular at cafe 279, he joined forces with its co-owner, Kantaro Okada, to turn Le Bajo into a cafe. Set in Gunawan’s North Melbourne garage (he owns the vintage cars you see when you enter the building), Le Bajo brings together the community spirit and décor of Australian milk bars with a menu inspired by kissaten (Western-inspired cafes that emerged from Japan's Shōwa era).
“Melbourne is the perfect place to try this concept. I have an Indonesian background, Kantaro has a Japanese background, and Melbourne is a melting pot,” says Gunawan.
From green bar stools to floral plates, Le Bajo’s furniture and tableware have been gathered from antique markets around country Victoria. As a result, the cafe feels lived-in, like it’s been there for decades.
“We wanted people to feel the warmth when they walk in,” says Gunawan.
The menu is centred around shokupan, a fluffy Japanese milk bread, which is used to make bouncy sandos (sandwiches) and toasts. It’s baked on-site, in special Japanese tins that produce its recognisable geometrical shape.
“Melbourne is the perfect place to try this concept. I have an Indonesian background, Kantaro has a Japanese background, and Melbourne is a melting pot.”
“We could have bought the bread to make sandos, but the reason we like to make it is that we can fine-tune the recipe to suit our food. We could make sandos with any bread, but not the fruit sandos. We tried to make fruit sandos with bread that we bought and the savouriness just killed the cream,” explains Kantaro. The cafe's version of shokupan has a much lower salt content than typical sandwich bread for that reason.
Toasts are covered in toppings like mentai (spicy cod roe) and ogura (azuki bean jam). On the sando front, the co-owners recommend the fried chicken, spicy fried octopus or egg. La Bajo is also one of the few places in Melbourne selling fruit sandos, a slightly sweet sandwich filled with cream and seasonal fruit (so far, they've used mango, kiwi, banana, strawberry, grape and fig). It tastes just as good as it looks.
If you feel inspired to create your own sandos and toasts at home, you can buy loaves and half loaves of the shokupan from Le Bajo. “In Japan, many households would buy shokupan, cut it thick and toast it. You’d also found it in kissaten. It’s a little different to this [Le Bajo], but they have thick toast with a black coffee on the side,” says Okada.
"We tried to make fruit sandos with bread that we bought and the savouriness just killed the cream.”
Okada and Gunawan are bringing to Melbourne the morning set, a type of breakfast popular in Nagoya. It's a light breakfast that Nagoyan cafes bring to customers when they order a coffee. At Le Bajo, it only sets you back $12 and includes a cup of batch brew coffee, potato salad, a boiled egg, yoghurt and butter or spiced sugar toast.
Le Bajo also serves melonpan, which “doesn’t have anything to do with melon, except that it looks like a melon,” Okada specifies. The sweet bun is covered in a cookie crust that has a pattern similar to rockmelon (though there are a few other theories as to where the name comes from). In Japan, you can find versions filled with cream or custard, but Okada wanted to keep theirs simple: “We like to emphasise the soft bread with the crumb on top,” he says.
Homemade sodas, milkshakes and spiders are a nod to milk bars, with flavours ranging from strawberry to peach milk tea.
The cafe might occupy a garage, but it welcomes cyclists as warmly as petrolheads. Couples will appreciate intimate tables among greenery; solo diners might take a spot at the bar, and families can enjoy large tables with space to park a pram. Le Bajo succeeds at being welcoming to everybody.
“That’s the milk bar vibe that we want to keep, a community-friendly space,” says Okada.
8-14 Howard St, North Melbourne
Tue - Sun 7.30 am - 4 pm