food‎ > ‎

The Vietnamese Sandwich | Banh Mi in America

Andrea Fuentes-DiazA banh mi Vietnamese sandwich at Saigon Deli in Seattle.

Some food arguments may never be settled. For one, who makes the best Vietnamese banh mi sandwich in America?

Banh mi sandwiches may inspire heated debate, but some facts are incontestable. A culinary embodiment of French colonial rule in Vietnam, banh mi sandwiches are composed equally of French and Vietnamese parts. They all begin with a whole baguette, preferably baked in-house and dressed with an aioli spread infused with pork, garlic and fish sauce. These ingredients then hold a wide variety of fillings: barbecue pork, fried tofu and thick-sliced ham are the most common options, along with pork pâté, grilled chicken, meatballs, sauteed vegetables and, occasionally, whole sardines.

Ingredients are mixed and matched at the whim of the kitchen, but there’s a common denominator to all banh mi — a bright, crunchy vegetable slaw made with daikon radish, shredded carrot and fish sauce (nuoc cham), accompanied by sliced jalapeño pepper and fresh cilantro. While these sandwiches, usually found in bakeries and delis in Vietnamese neighborhoods, are endlessly customizable, they should always be inexpensive — beware the banh mi over $6.

The Pacific Northwest’s Vietnamese community is thriving, and consequentially, Seattle has dozens of excellent banh mi options. The consensus pick seems to be Saigon Deli, in the bustling International District neighborhood. A veritable indoor street market, Saigon Deli is a hot-lunch counter, bakery and dessert emporium all in one. It’s also a bit of a mess. The line quite literally goes out the door midday, and the parking situation is a disaster. But the sandwiches are second to none, especially the $3 banh mi dac biet — pork, ham and chicken liver pâté. Just down the block, Sun Bakery and Deli is less trafficked but has its share of ardent loyalists, drawn to a combo sandwich made with Chinese-style ham, grilled chicken and cucumber — and delicious egg custard for dessert.

A few hours south in Portland, Ore., 82nd Avenue (the “Avenue of Roses”) is home to Best Baguette, where top-notch banh mi is served in a reclaimed former chain restaurant. Don’t let the drive-through scare you away; the place is family owned, all the bread is baked in-house, and the banh mi thit nuong — barbecued pork and pâté – comes slathered in savory yellow garlic aioli. Try yours with a paper cup of fresh-pressed sugar cane juice.

Not that banh mi in America is strictly a Northwestern phenomenon. New Yorkers in search of a cheap lunch visit Baoguette in droves, at one of three locations — Murray Hill, Wall Street and Gramercy — for traditional Vietnamese sandwiches, as well as for a unique catfish banh mi made with honey mustard and pickled red onion. The David Chang-owned Momofuku Ssäm Bar offers a deliciously upscale take made with three kinds of offal terrines (admittedly at $10 a pop). Stroll through the small Brooklyn Chinatown in Sunset Park for several worthwhile options, including Ba Xuyen and Tan Thanh.

Some of the best Vietnamese sandwiches in America can be found in the South. In New Orleans it’s called a “Vietnamese Po Boy,” and most of the best spots can be found clustered east of Downtown on Chef Menteur Highway. Of these, the most unique experience is arguably Dong Phuong Oriental Bakery, where the banh mi seeker is shepherded around to the back of the bakery, past the brightly colored sweets and cakes, to be greeted by pork floss and chicken in a sliced baguette, made onsite and dressed with a butter-based aioli spread.

Adam Egan Banh mi at Saigon Sandwich of San Francisco.

In Atlanta, a recent influx of Vietnamese immigrants has transformed the Buford Highway into a banh mi lover’s paradise: start with the sandwiches at Lee’s Bakery, prepared on a perfectly crunchy baguette and dripping with fish sauce, before moving on to the wildly popular Quoc Huong for a banh mi of red pork, marinated tofu and fried egg. Sandwiches at Quoc Huong go for around $2.50 and are consistently rated among the best in Atlanta — not surprisingly, its “buy five, get one free” program has an ardent following.

California is not to be left out. Lee’s Sandwiches, a San Jose-based chain with dozens of locations across the state, makes an exemplary banh mi xiu mai, made with Vietnamese pork meatballs. In Los Angeles, Nom Nom Truck, a brightly colored mobile eatery, has made a name for itself with grilled lemongrass chicken offerings, available in sandwich or “Vietnamese taco” form. Decidedly less bright are the surroundings at San Francisco’s Saigon Sandwich, a no-frills joint in a particularly rough stretch of the Tenderloin. Get the combo: fatty roast pork melts into creamy chicken liver pâté, buffeted by a noticeably sweet aioli and overflowing with cilantro leaves and stalks. The space at Saigon Sandwich isn’t much to look at, but the banh mi — fresh, cheap and astonishingly delicious — may be the best in America.

Disagree? Let us know your favorite banh mi spots in the comments section below.

Seattle: Saigon Deli (1237 South Jackson Street), Sun Bakery & Cafe (658 South Jackson Street)
Portland: Best Baguette (8303 SE Powell Boulevard)
New York: Baoguette (61 Lexington Ave, multiple Manhattan locations), Momofuku Ssäm Bar (207 Second Ave, Manhattan), Ba Xuyen (4222 Eighth Avenue, Brooklyn), Tan Thanh (5818 Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn)
New Orleans: Dong Phuong Oriental Bakery (14207 Chef Menteur Highway)
Atlanta: Lee’s Bakery (4005 Buford Highway NE), Quoc Huong (5150 Buford Highway NE)
San Jose: Lee’s Sandwiches (260 East Santa Clara Street)
Los Angeles: Nom Nom Truck
San Francisco: Saigon Sandwich (560 Larkin Street)