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What We Talk About When We Talk About Banh Mi

Bánh mì is without a doubt a Vietnamese staple. Versatile, convenient and affordable, the sandwich has gotten so popular in recent years in Vietnam and elsewhere that phở shouldn’t be complacent, as its reign as the country’s most iconic dish could be toppled soon.

While we’re all bánh mì fanatics at Saigoneer, at times it’s challenging to devote an entire Hẻm Gem to a single type of sandwich. A vendor could come up with an amazing bread creation, but not all stalls can be Bánh Mì Hòa Mã, a decades-old bánh mì institution with stories to tell for days. So this week, instead of the usual Hẻm Gem, we decided to round up our editors and ask them to present one of their favorite bánh mì in Saigon. Our picks might not necessarily be the most delicious, affordable or interesting, but they offer a certain zing that distinguishes them from the cold cut sandwiches omnipresent in every corner of the country.

 

1. Beefsteak and Fried Egg Bánh Mì

Banh Mi Ga An An, 593 Nguyen Trai, Ward 7, D5

Khoi Pham: Imagine all the glory of a complete set of bò né: a luscious sunny-side up egg, a slab of seared beef that straddles that fine line between soft and chewy, a dollop of decadent pâté accompanied by lettuce, sliced tomato and a loaf of freshly baked bánh mì. Well, you won’t get all of that goodness with my offer to the bánh mì banquet today, though it’s still formidably edible.

Admittedly, my beef-and-egg bánh mì is something of an afterthought; I initially planned to introduce a caramelized short rib bánh mì that would wipe the floor with all of your tributes in this bánh mì Hunger Games. Alas, I came back one morning after months just to get my heart stomped on and world domination ambitions dashed: the cart now only sells whole roast chicken, as if these dry, wrinkly birds are not already over-represented in the Saigon protein stratum.

Dejected, I had to think of something quick and trusty, so this modest cart on Nguyen Trai came to mind. They even deliver, so what’s not to love? Like its name suggests, Banh Mi Ga An An traditionally sells miniature bread with chicken floss at an affordable price of VND7,000, though there are bigger options for hungrier diners. They only started offering steak bánh mì this year as a “premium” choice at VND20,000: the beef is slightly chewy, but really well-seasoned; and you can add a fried egg for VND5,000. Instead of traditional accoutrements like pickles and cucumber, it comes with mayonnaise, ketchup and lettuce — essentially a burger within a baguette.

Thi Nguyen: This bánh mì is a delight! It’s like bò né in a bread. Although I’m not a fan of mayonnaise, the creaminess adds a nice touch to the flavor and texture. The egg was fried until all the edges are crispy, which is clever because those edges not only give out a smoky flavor, but can also absorb sauce and flavor better than a typical fried egg.   

Mike Tatarski: I agree this is a pretty excellent option, and a variety I haven’t had before. The meat isn’t as high-quality as my entry below, which isn’t surprising as this one is cheaper, but it’s still very good, and the added crispy egg is a nice touch. I appreciate that it doesn’t explode in the sandwich, which can leave yoke dripping everywhere on lesser versions.

Paul Christiansen: I’ll echo Mike in noting the meat of dubious quality, but the gravy-like sauce ensconcing it hides any flaws the way a beard conceals the double-chin of a fat man. Similarly, by adding egg and a variety of condiments, any singular shortcomings were masked the same way punctuality can make up for a dearth of wit.

 

2. Bánh Mì Chả Cá

12 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, D1

Thi: Bánh mì chả cá is my guilty pleasure. While I would normally go with shredded chicken or roast pork that comes with a generous amount of daikon, pickled carrot, cilantro and cucumbers to balance out the meat, I don’t mind having the greasy-yet-wholesome fish cake fillings once in a while. Bánh mì chả cá often comes with chili sauce, which is not my cup of tea. This one, however, comes with a type of soy sauce that’s infused with garlic and chili flakes. The condiment alone deserves a place in heaven, should heaven exist. Another thing I love about it is that instead of adding rau mùi (cilantro) like other types of bánh mì, the creator decided to use rau răm (Vietnamese coriander) to go with the fish cake, which merge extraordinarily well with the savory fillings, as the chewy fish slabs absorb the herb’s citrusy, peppery delight .   

Mike: I believe this is my first-ever fish cake bánh mì, though don’t quote me on that. This is rather delightful, even though Khoi ate pretty much the whole thing before I even got to taste it. The microscopic crumb that I receive was delicious — fish cake texture may not be for everyone, but I don’t mind it, and the accompanying sauce added a pleasant kick. 

Paul: Tasty, undoubtedly, with a fantastic texture. But I cannot focus on flavor when I am plagued by questions of what fish species constitutes the cake. Is it a common barb, featherback, snakehead or gourami? A confluence of fish? Am I eating a delicate seahorse? Noble sunfish? Ignoble eel? Can I assuage my concern by thinking I am consuming an invasive species such as a lionfish? What if instead, I am eating a coelacanth? The quandary has robbed me of my appetite.

Khoi: To quell Paul’s fishy quandary, I did a little digging to find out which poor creatures gave up their life for the sake of our fish cake delights. Conventional chả cá elsewhere in Saigon uses the mashed-up meat of cá thác lác (featherback), a freshwater fish, but since our bánh mì’s filling hailed from Nha Trang, it’s likely that the slabs of fried fish flesh originated from, indeed, a confluence of saltwater fish. These are usually smaller and less commercially viable species like cá nhồng (barracuda) or cá lanh (wolf-herring), though there are more high-end versions of chả cá Nha Trang that’s made from mackerel.

I would also like to go on record that I did not finish the entire bánh mì before others got to it — trust me, if I ever do that, I’ll admit to my triumph with pride and smugness. Due to a logistical mix-up, I already offered both samples of fish cake bánh mì to our photographer and intern, and in my house we don’t take back offered food. Taste-wise, I’m still an avid fan of featherback fish cake, sorry chả cá Nha Trang. While I will happily chow down this Nha Trang bánh mì when provided, if I ever have a hankering for fish cake, I think I’ll still make a beeline for chợ cũ’s brilliant version.

Mike: I apologize for accusing Khoi of selfishly finishing the entire bánh mì first.

Paul: Barracuda? My first impulse is to say, hell yeah, we should relish chomping on any creature that would otherwise eat us, but then I think about tigers and sharks, bears and leopards…I don’t think we should be eating those. I’m not sure why we don’t eat leeches though. 

 

3. Roast Pork Bánh Mì

82 Nguyen Huu Cau, Tan Dinh Ward, D1

Paul: Second only in popularity to mystery-meat, roast pork bánh mì is so ubiquitous in Saigon that I didn’t actually plan to bring it to this discussion. But my proposal of plain bread and mayonnaise was widely panned; my favorite shredded chicken stand had sold out by the time I emerged from my rice-wine coma this morning; and the vegetarian sandwich cart was nowhere to be seen, so I went with the living room-sold pork version across the street from Tan Dinh Market. I must say, this is one of the better versions I’ve had. While it skimps a bit on filling, there is a delightful sweetness to the meat that balances the acidic pickled vegetables. The pork is somewhat leaner and crispier than at some places, which I appreciate as well. It’s not a flashy style of bánh mì, but it’s achieved notoriety for good reason. 

Mike: This was indeed a solid entry in the heo quay canon, a cinematic universe littered with mediocre remakes and sequels. As Paul mentioned, the pork has a bit of a sweet side, which meshes well with my southern palate. The rest of the concoction was fairly standard, but when your primary ingredient is this good, that doesn’t matter very much.

Khoi: F*ck yeah roast pork bánh mì!

Thi: This one is my favorite of the bunch. It’s humble and delicious with a good balance of meat and vegetables, which is everything I want in a good bánh mì. I sampled the heel of the loaf, the part of bread that is kind of like an annoying supporting character of a good TV show that never goes away. However, whoever assembled this bánh mì must have given this unwanted heel more love than others usually do, because it still tastes scrumptious and juicy. The sauce can be a bit too sweet for some, but definitely not me. 

Mike: “The heel of the loaf?” I’ve never heard this phrase before and am confused. Was the bread shaped like a foot?

Thi: It’s the part at the end of the bread. I prefer calling them the bánh mì elbows but after a few Google searches, “heel” seems to be the correct term in the English-speaking world.

Paul: Definitely the heel…Mike, what have you been calling the ends of sliced loaves?

Mike: The end!

Khoi: Now, bánh mì heo quay is a tried-and-true contender that’s very hard to do wrong: if your pork is cooked to perfection, then you’re pretty much set. The nuanced balance of taste and texture in this bánh mì, however, pushed it to the next level. Great find, Paul! I agree that the subtle sweetness is what makes you come back for more, though I accidentally had two bites of raw chili and was reduced to a slobbering mess. Personally I think sharply searing raw chilis have no place in bánh mì, because other spicy condiments like chilli sauce and sa tế can do that job with aplomb.

Thi: I have to agree there. Raw chili in bánh mì is plain evil.

 

4. Bánh Mì Bò

Banh Mi 362, 33 Thao Dien, D2

Mike: My nomination for this Oscars of Ốp La, the Grammys of Glazed Pork, is the beef bánh mì from Banh Mi 362 in Thao Dien. Yes, like the haughty District 2-er I am, I couldn’t be bothered to venture out of the “bubble” to procure a sandwich. Unsurprisingly this one comes in as the most expensive of the lot, at VND48,000, but we’re talking quality here — the pepper-crusted beef is tender and extremely flavorful. I love a good heo quay, but let’s be honest, sometimes that stuff can be a bit texturally dubious. No such problems here, and judging by the groans of pleasure emanating from my illustrious colleagues, they agree. 

Your usual accoutrements filled out this option, with some pâté smeared along one side of the bread, along with some greens — though the grilled onions are a nice touch, and put this delicious bánh mì one step closer to a full-blown steak sandwich. We denizens of District 2 may be snobs, but at least we eat well!

Paul: It’s surprising to say that this VND48,000 sandwich represents a great value, but it does! The beef was tender and sensuous and the bread unassuming. The pâté is an unnecessary distraction, but otherwise, this bread is a true delight. My issue, however, is that it’s a wee bit messy. I often put bánh mì in my pocket for easy portage, and this would grease-stain my slacks, so it’s best eaten on-site.

Mike: Pocket bánh mì? That’s just asking for trouble. Also how big are your pockets?

Khoi: It’s like Pokémon GO — Pokémì, if you will — but instead of collecting Pokémon, you collect grease stains that can only be removed with enzymatic detergents.

Thi: The beef is definitely the star of this bánh mì. It is well-seasoned, juicy and tender, which goes well with the crispy bread outside. I agree with Paul that the pâté is unnecessary. While I like pâté, the combination makes it heavy and confusing. I’m fine with it being a bit messy, but I’m concerned with the price tag. Bánh mì is a very egalitarian type of food: it doesn’t require much time to prepare and it’s accessible to many. So while I enjoy this fancy bánh mì, the abundance of beef and pâté seem a bit extra.

Khoi: Came for the beef, left because of the pâté. I was taken aback by the price — VND48,000 is a hefty price for a sandwich, but the amount of beef in that thing was respectable. Scrumptious slices of meat stir-fried with onion and black pepper that could soothe wounds and chase away sorrow. Of course, just when you’re on top of the world, bits of unnecessary pâté shatter your high and leave your taste buds covered in pasty, grimy cooked animal liver.

 

Bonus: Plain Bread and Mayonnaise

Paul’s kitchen

Paul: Enough gilding the lily and placing gems on spider webs, why must one try and improve on what is perfect? Crispy, flaky crust concealing a moist, fluffy interior: Vietnamese-French bread represents a pinnacle of culinary simplicity. There is no need to clutter it with carcass parts, vegetable scraps and sloppy sauces. Can’t we allow our taste buds to savor its singular aw-shucks sophistication? If we must add to it, I suggest nothing more than a heavy dollop of the world’s greatest condiment: mayonnaise. The rich, creamy — dare I say, euphoric — spread helps ease the harsh edges of the bread while sashaying across the tongue like a cool breeze tussling the velvet curtains hung inside a cinema screening an illicit film. If you think you are too good for bread and mayo, you need to reconsider your place in this ecosystem.

Mike: I only accepted Paul’s offered section of this “bánh mì” to be polite, in honor of his native state Wisconsin and its famously nice people. Anyone who has listened to food-related segments of the Saigoneer Podcast (plug plug) knows that Paul has an outlying opinion of mayo among us four: while his admittedly eloquent description of this remarkably bland creation waxes poetic on the virtues of the condiment, I honestly would be okay with a world sans mayo. It doesn’t have a distinct flavor like ketchup or mustard to make it stand out, and this basically just tasted like damp bread. The only thing mayo is good for is squirting out one end of your Subway foot-long after the staff puts entirely too much inside. This mayo-bread combo has no redeeming qualities.

Thi: Although I was too full to sample this mayonnaise-bathed bread, I was sure I could hear the bread’s gluten webs going through an existential crisis as Paul smeared their inside with the shameful condiment.

Khoi: Agree, I’ve thoroughly ruminated on my place in this complex world and I believe we — as an advanced species capable of meaningful arts, space exploration and discerning palates — are above soiling good bread with mayonnaise. I ate a piece of Paul’s mayo bread special and I have to say that I’ve never felt more alone, uninterested and saddened. Bánh mì is a powerful vessel that could propel any filling to immediate stardom, why shackle it with a sub-par white sauce that is the physical embodiment of the word “beige”?


Related Articles:

– The Saga of the Bánh Mì

– Hẻm Gems: Saigon’s Original Bánh Mì Breakfast

– A Bánh Mì-Inspired Dress Might Be Vietnam’s National Costume for Miss Universe



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