Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Banh Mi, Where have been all my life?

Have you ever had a Banh mi?  I hadn't until today, when I went on a hunt for them in Boston's Chinatown.  I was inspired by a conversation about them with my friend, Annie, who I just went to Portland with.  We were talking about charcuterie, and Banh mi came up.  She was waxing on quite poetically about them, and I was embarrassed that I had never heard of them before.  She filled me in that they are Vietnamese sandwiches that are made with various lunch meats, pates, mayonnaise, pickled vegetables, and cilantro.  In fact, you can fill them with a myriad of all sorts of different delicious things.  They were invented when the French occupied Vietnam as a result of the two cultures coming together to make possibly the most delicious lunch you'll ever hope to eat.

I took the T down to the Boylston street stop and walked a couple of blocks to the intersection of Beach and Washington where there are three Banh mi places on a single block.  I picked up a sandwich at each of them for comparison and took them to work as a surprise for my friends.  Annie, Beth (the pastry ninja), and I all ate them together at family meal and compared notes.  I cut each sandwich into three parts and put a piece of each on separate plates.  It was fun talking about them together and we ended up liking each one for different reasons.

Saigon Sandwich Shop:  This one is probably the most talked about Banh mi place about here in Boston along with Mike's.  They also had the most variety of the three places I went to, and offered quite a wide array of side dishes such as fried rice and Spring rolls to go along with their wonderful sandwiches.  I bought a pork one from here.  We liked it for its bright sweet and sour notes.  It had the most cilantro and pickled vegetables of any of them and was by far the tangiest.  It cost $3.00 and was Annie's favorite.

Pho Hoa Restaurant:  I bought a "cold cut" Banh mi at the counter in the front of this Pho restaurant on Beach Street.  The lady who made my sandwich seemed to be doing it as a one woman operation and she was the most congenial of any of the sandwich makers I met today.  She even complimented me on my Paul Frank iPhone cover.  For me, this Banh mi was the earthiest sandwich with lots of meaty flavor.  It had the least amount of vegetables and the most even texture.  It was also the spiciest with chili peppers that had seeds in them.  This was Beth's favorite.  It cost $3.00.

Mei Sum Bakery:  This one was my favorite.  It was the only place that took a moment to toast the bread before making the sandwich, which I felt gave it the most interesting textural contrasts.  I also thought it had the most harmony in terms of balance of flavores - at least for my palete.  There was a rich pate spread that I would guess was made with liver along with a few different kinds of cold cuts and the right amount of pickled vegetables balancing out the richness of the meat, mayo, and pate.  It also happened to be the cheapest at $2.75.

Although we each had our favorites, you can see that finishing them off was no problem.  There is no doubt that I will be having Banh mi again and very soon.  What a discovery!  I can't believe that I have lived as long as I have without having eaten one of these fantastic sandwiches before.  And the price is certainly right, too.  For $8.75 I fed three people for lunch.  We all felt quite satisfied with our impromptu tasting too.  What a treat for an afternoon Vietnamese feast!


  1. I love banh mi! It is one of my favorite cheap lunches in Chinatown and SO filling. I've heard Myers + Chang does a version too but I have a tough time getting out there for lunch during the week.

  2. good to know about myers + chang banh mi. i'll have to check it out.

  3. Mmmm...I grew up eating banh mi dac biet. It beats a $5 sub from Subway any day. Glad you got the chance to try them out.

  4. just did a google search for banh mi dac biet. it looks amazing. i will try it next time. thanks!