Banh Mi Cafes in the Tenderloin [San Francisco]
For my contribution to P. Punko’s banh mi mapping project, I’ve been visiting the small banh mi cafes in the Tenderloin’s Little Saigon neighborhood to see what’s new. I thought I’d post about them now before Sunday’s Tet festival.
I’ve passed over the well-known delis (Lee’s, Saigon Sandwich, Baguette Express, and Wrap Delight) on Larkin Street to seek out the smaller places with seating to hang out with a sandwich and Vietnamese coffee. In most cases, they only make the one type, the classic combination with a mix of pork cold cuts, and unlike the Larkin shops, are frequented by almost exclusively Vietnamese clients. Despite the “no smoking” signs posted, customers smoke inside, and even for the couple that don’t allow it, there’s a smoky haze just outside the door. In some cases, the beeps of video card games are part of the scene adding to the dull roar of the noisy Vietnamese game shows on the TV.
Yet in spite of those drawbacks, these little cafes have numerous chowing advantages beyond a seat for a quick banh mi breakfast or lunch. First off, there’s rarely a line. The person who takes your order also makes your sandwich right in front of you, so that miscommunication about special requests are easily avoided. With less pressure, more care becomes possible in assembling sandwiches to exacting proportions. While all these cafes seemed to use the same overly sturdy French roll, the bread was handled properly, hollowed out with some of the crumb removed and then heated long enough in the toaster oven to become hot and crackly, releasing the yeasty fragrance. The red-colored roast pork is housemade, using the fatty and tender bacon cut rolled up and sliced in spirals. The rich, butter yellow-colored mayonnaise-like spread, called “Vietnamese butter”, is nearly always made from scratch using fresh eggs and oil. One café owner sniffed that the big places don’t take the time to make their own and use “too much Best Foods from Costco”.
I’ve found nine banh mi cafes so far. Three are still a mystery to me, as the stars haven’t aligned to try the food yet. I’ll describe my attempts thus far in hopes that another ‘hound can use it to advantage to check them out.
Our friends de chow at Bunrab couldn’t get a sandwich here, nor could I on two attempts. As described , cigarette sales appear to be this café’s bread and butter. Yet, I did get confirmation that Minh Tan does indeed make banh mi.
At 8:00am, the lady said that her bread hadn’t been delivered yet, but I should try back after 10:00. Returning at 10:45am on Friday, she apologized that she was still bread-less and couldn’t make a sandwich for me. She suggested I go down the street, and asked me to come back another day. Maybe I’ll bring my own baguette next time.
At Kien Thanh, the sign on the door seems to be perpetually on the “closed” side even though there’s activity and quite a few people inside. Here’s what I’ve observed.
Fri, 1/9 – 1:15pm, “closed” sign on the door, woman enters with bags of groceries, men inside huddled around a table, I didn’t try to go in
Sun, 1/11 – 12:30pm, “closed” sign, a couple men exited and told me it was closed
Mon, 1/12 – 8:15am, metal grate shut and locked, overflowing garbage can in front
Tues, 1/13 – 8:45am, “open” sign, man inside counting out the register and making drip coffee said that only coffee was available at that time
Fri, 1/16 – 8:00am, someone opening the metal grates
Fri, 1/16 – 10:30am, “closed” sign, men inside playing videos told me it was still closed
Fri, 1/16 – 1:00pm, “closed” sign, many men crowding inside the doorway and smoking outside in front
I’d appreciate any first-mouth reports or insight into what the business model is here.
A woman came outside to yell at me for photographing the café’s sign without asking her permission. Two very young and skinny “chickens” standing on the sidewalk looked scared.
Now, on to the cafes where I have tried the banh mi.
Bien Hoa’s location is blessed with free parking on the street. The two blocks of Ellis Street between Jones and Hyde are meter-free with a parking limit of one-hour. When I said that I’d have my sandwich “here”, the proprietress bid me to take a seat and I didn’t watch her make my combination banh mi. This turned out to have only boiled deli ham and cha lua (pressed and steamed pork roll) as the meats, and lacked jalapeño chilis, Maggi sauce, or black pepper. The mayo was Best Foods, not homemade, and applied in excess. The bread was a bit tough, probably from the day before. I saw that headcheese was available at the sandwich-making station, but oddly, didn’t make it into my banh mi either. Describing this “white girl treatment” to a Vietnamese friend afterwards, he used a term that translates directly as “unemployed”, meaning lacking the flavor punches. While this was the least of the banh mi I’ve tried, serving it on a dinner plate instead of in a basket is a nice touch. The coffee here was the strongest, too strong and bitter for me and I had to let all the ice melt to dilute the flavor. Coffee and a banh mi came to $5.25, including sales tax.
CAFÉ MONG THU
It’s been a few years since I’ve stopped here. The café looks the same, just dingier now. Walking in, my nose was greeted with the scent of cigarette smoke, frying oil, and fermented fish/shrimp. Unlike in the past, the combination banh mi here was put together quite sloppily on an unevenly sliced roll. On Sunday afternoon, the crust of the roll was rather tough. The barbecued pork was from the tenderloin rather than the belly here. The one saving grace is that the housemade “butter” was applied with a liberal hand. Also it was nice to be offered a complimentary glass of hot tea.
CAFÉ DUONG DONG
This was the smokiest inside, as unlike the other cafes, the puffing customers didn’t put out their cigs or step out when an “outsider” came in. The combination banh mi here was the most highly seasoned, maybe the house style for the smoker’s palate. A sneezing amount of black pepper and too much saltiness from the big splash of Maggi left a fishy aftertaste and me thirsty. I got this one to go due to the smoke, so no photo.
HOANG DAT COFFEE SHOP
I’ve posted on the delicious xiu mai nuoc (meatball soup) here,
A couple video terminals were busy both times I’ve been here. The proprietor and the clientele mostly speak Cantonese with some occasional Vietnamese. He’s quite proud of his food and checked with me at the table to be sure that everything was satisfactory. Hoang Dat has quite a social feel to it, filled with regulars who seem to know each other. In addition to the combination banh mi made with cold cuts, other choices are sardines or meatballs. The combo, filled with cha lua, head cheese, and bbq pork belly, is made quite well here with good placement and toasty, hot roll slathered with homemade “butter”. The proportion of black pepper and Maggi are just right for me, and I liked the addition of a stalk of scallion to the usual cucumber, pickled carrots, and cilantro. The banh mi was $2.75, including sales tax, a little higher than the competition.
TU KIM’S CAFÉ
Only five small tables here, plus a couple stools near the window, where the regulars visiting with the owner’s mom take up several seats. While there are smokers out on the sidewalk, “no smoking” is enforced here. The proprietress is quite friendly and welcoming. The banh canh (noodle soup) is exceptionally good, as posted here, but not made every day.
On my first visit I had the meatball banh mi, $2.50, which is available on occasion. The roll was too hot for me to hold and I had to wait a little bit for it too cool down. This made the crust extra crackly, scratching the roof of my mouth, but I appreciated the extra effort nonetheless. The meatball has an uncommon delicacy with a fine-grain and soft texture, making it very different from Hoang Dat’s. Everything about this banh mi was in harmony, flowing in one stream and not separate flavors. No butter or mayonnaise used here, and the extra juices from the meatball moistened the hollowed out roll.
The combo made with cha luo and barbecued pork bell is also good, but the restrained house style doesn’t serve this as well. Again, the bread is handled well, cut and hollowed out with good symmetry, and toasted to a solid crunch.
The Vietnamese hot coffee with sweetened condensed milk, $2.50, is excellent here. Made with Kirkland dark roast, the brew is very concentrated and deep with no bitterness. At first I missed the bite of chicory, but the richness grew on me. I’ve also had a salted plum soda, $2.50, here. I asked for one, and when the owner didn’t understand what I wanted, I pointed to the jar of “salty prunes” sitting on the ledge above the counter. Her mixology is different than other versions I’ve had, as she muddles a couple slices of fresh lemon and adds a little bit of sugar. I really liked her touch with this and I won’t be satisfied with others anymore. And, when I left, she refilled the club soda in my cup to make use of the remaining bit of plum pulp. There’s a jar of pickled lemons on the shelf too, so a salty lemon soda should be possible. I like the food and this café very much.
SING SING SANDWICH SHOP
Sing Sing was the funkiest of the cafes, a couple steps below street level with red and white linoleum flooring. The back room has a TV going and a smoky haze.
Only one choice here, but it is a great banh mi made by a tall dude with a ponytail. Unlike the standard operating proceduce, the slabs of barbecued pork belly are heated with the bread, so that the meat is hot and the striated fat glistens and melts into the roll. This makes for superb temperature contrast between the hot pork and the cold, crisp vegetables. The roll is stuffed quite precisely in its alignment, and packed with veggies and more cilantro than typical. The cuke component is larger spears for more crunch. The stalk of fresh scallion and homemade mayo add a lot of personality. I would have liked a little more black pepper, but that’s easily remedied, and otherwise the seasonings suited me just fine. At $2.50, this feels like a larger sandwich than the others, and certainly has a lot more flavor impact.
* * * *
As a footnote, I’ll pass on the instructions from my Vietnamese friend on how his mother makes the fluorescent red-colored barbecued pork roll. I haven’t tried to make it myself, but here goes. Season both sides of a 5-lb. or larger piece of skin-on pork belly with a generous amount of kosher salt, white pepper, crushed garlic, grated ginger, five-spice powder, fish sauce, soy sauce, and red food coloring. Roll into a cylinder with the skin on the outside and tie, refrigerate for two-days. Poach until cooked through, then roast in moderate oven. Allow to cool, refrigerating will make it easier to slice. Cut into thin slices crosswise for sandwiches.
Sing Sing Sandwich Shop
309 Hyde St, San Francisco, CA 94109
Duong Dong Cafe
315 Leavenworth St, San Francisco, CA 94102
930 Geary St, San Francisco, CA 94109
Tu Kim Cafe
609 Ellis St, San Francisco, CA 94109
Kien Thanh Coffee Shop
431 Eddy St, San Francisco, CA 94109
Kim Huong Banh Mi
325 Leavenworth St, San Francisco, CA
248 Hyde St, San Francisco, CA
463 Ellis St, San Francisco, CA
Minh Tan Coffee Shop
749 Larkin St, San Francisco, CA 94109
Oh yeah, Sing Sing has loads of atmosphere. I mispoke, the oilcloths on the tables are red and white, not the flooring.
Sing Sing's is quite a robust style of banh mi. I'm not always one for big, bigger flavors, but I like this one very much. I forgot to mention that it also has some pate' spread on the bun, but no head cheese. The refrigerated display case here has at least 100 foil-wrapped cha lua rolls (made by Huong Lan) and also several plates stacked high with slices of the bbq pork belly. That's enough meat on hand to make hundreds and hundreds of banh mi, yet it didn't seem that busy when I was there.
I went to Sing Sing this past summer on the advice of Andrea Nguyen, who's written a book on bahn mi, and fell in love. The atmosphere was charming and there was an endless side show outside the window and the sandwich was big, feral and cheap (I had the combination, dac biet). I was especially pleased with a healthy drizzle of Maggi sauce soaking into the bread.
Unfortunately, when I returned in October 2014 everything had changed. The bread was smaller, obviously from another supplier and the prices had gone up. I had the dac biet and also a grilled pork and they were light on filling.
Now I'm back to Saigon Sandwich, rueful and hoping they'll take me back after my infidelity.
re: Melanie Wong
the ones i've had from sing sing (most recently about two weeks ago) look very much like the photos you posted in 2009. i like them well enough that i have not been exploring other options in the neighborhood. they keep well, too. that last one i ordered after a noodle breakfast at tuyet mai, and a few hours later it still made a fine lunch. but i had my first sing sing banh mi in 2014, so i can't account for flavor discrepancy over the years. they're $4 now, and there's a xiu mai and i believe a chicken option as well. in fact i think i know what's for lunch today.
This is how the house special at Sing Sing looked in July of last year.
Incidentally, Naomi Duguid, author of "Burma, Rivers of Flavor" and several other books on ethnic foods, once blogged that she found Sing Sing's Banh Mi the best she's had in North America.
Last Friday Sing Sing was closed for vacation (reopening in early march), so I decided to pass by Kien Thanh once again to see if it might be open and selling sandwiches. Well, at close to 11:30am, the door was open and a few people were actually eating inside!
The lady at the counter advised that they make the "big" ones, based on a larger baguette and would cost $3. My friend and I decided to split one. It's a nice banh mi, toasted a little longer to have some charred spots on the crust. The bread tastes blanker, more bland than the Bakers of Paris rolls used by the other shops, so it might be a different source . . . or just my imagination. Just one kind here, the standard combo with alarmingly red-dyed head cheese, steamed pork roll, roast pork belly, and pate. The bun was spread with homemade mayonnaise, and garnished with scallions, cilantro, thick slices of jalapeno chili, and cucumber. Oddly this didn't have any pickled carrots or daikon. The scallions were thin slivers of just the white part, which had a more delicate flavor.
Kien Thanh Coffee Shop
431 Eddy St, San Francisco, CA 94109
Yep, I don't do lines well. I'd rather spend the time finding something as good or better than the popular places that have been "discovered". I was at Tu Kim again a couple weeks ago to have the meatball sandwich. But this time it had homemade mayonnaise on it. I didn't mind, but after the owner had made such a big deal about serving it "dry" because that's how Vietnamese people like it, I was surprised that she'd even made any mayo to have on hand. Did yours have mayo too?
I did ask her about many sandwiches she sells a day. She said 7 or 8, and some days none at all.