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My Banh Mi Ranking

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When asked what he did for a living Henry David Thoreau famously replied that he was "an inspector of snowstorms". In a similar vein, I'd reply that I am an inspector of banh mi. So, with no further ado, here is my ranking based on my still too infrequent inspections:

10. Seattle Deli (Seattle)
Saigon Deli (Seattle)
9.Saigon Sandwich (Larkin Street, SF)
Baguette Express (Larkin Street, SF)
Wrap Delight (Larkin Street, SF)
8. Banh Mi Cao Thang (Montreal)
7. Nicky's (East Village-pork chop)
6. Paris Sandwich (Mott street, NYC)
5. Momofuku Ssam Bar (13th St, NYC)
4. Banh Mi So 1 (Broome St., NYC)
3. Saigon Bakery (Mott St., NYC)
2. Ba Xuyen (Sunset Park, Brooklyn, NY)
1. Banh Mi DC (Falls Church, VA)

But here's the shocker. I must do further research but I may have just had a banh mi last weekend that could unseat the Falls Church banh mi as #1. Very controversial as it's a new place and there's been mixed reviews (though kudos to Ed Levine at Serious Eats for daring to make the call early). Baogette on Lex last Saturday morning at 11am as they opened made me a Platonic banh mi. Perfect bread, perfect ingredients (including a homemade terrine that rivals David Chang's yuppie banh mi at Momofuku). Back to inspecting.

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  1. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts upon further eating. I just had a fantastic banh mi at baoguette, which was the first one I've had there(I've tried some of their other sandwiches though). Though I'm relatively new to banh mi(it hasn't been my "snowstorm" to use your/Thoreau's great analogy), it was at least as good as the half dozen or so I've had at Banh Mi So 1. For the total experience I love Banh Mi So 1, the proprietor's friendliness, the homey hidden gem vibe, the nolita/chinatown locale, the experience of eating outside on the folding chair on a nice day, etc.. But I live closer to Baoguette, and if we are just talking about the deliciousness of the sandwich, after a sample size of one it is right up there and a terrific addition to my gastronomical map.

    1. Boi to go. This place gets flack for being in Midtown(so therefore pricey yada yada yada), but the Banh Mi that I have had from there have been very, very tasty. And hey, if you can eat for less than $10 is the price issue important?

      I also recommend the intimate, delicious flagship Vietnamese restaurant around the corner - BOI.

      1. So if I have a bahn mi craving I can either drive 10 minutes to Sunset Park or get on I-95 and in 5 hours I'll be in Falls Church Va. Hmmmmm.

        Seriously, nice list. If you haven't been back to Ba Xuyen since the summer I strongly recommend that you do. They've changed their bread supplier and the sandwiches are even better now.

        1. OK-went back to Baoguette just now before closing. Ingredients get a A: terrrine, roast pork, pate, cucumber thinly sliced, carrots, not sure if there was any cilantro though, jalapenos and, while unorthodox, I like the sriracha sauce mixed with the mayo. The bread this time got a B for being a little too hard but understandable being the end of the day. I'm dropping it to #4 pending further investigation. Also have to try their "sloppy bao"-curry beef with mango sandwich.

          1. I had my second Baoguette banh mi today for lunch as well. The one I had yesterday was better, as today's was good but did not have enough roast pork and pate in the meat-vegetable ratio. The ingredients were terrific but the ratio a bit off. The one I had last night had a great balance between delicious pork-pate-vegetables. Per your note on the late night bread, I haven't been near closing, but have been on two or three occasions earlier in the evening(about 730) and the bread was still very good. The sloppy bao is definitely worth getting too.

            1. Thanh Da II is also pretty bad-ass in Sunset Park. Can't see Paris Sandwich on that list tho; pretty bad sarnies.

              4 Replies
              1. re: bigjeff

                I absolutely agree that Paris Sandwich should be on the top 10 Worst list, not the best list.

                1. re: kobetobiko

                  thanh da in sunset is just ok not greatness.

                  but then again seattle deli, if i'm recalling the right place, aint all that either and in chinatown banh mi so 1 is better than saigon on mott.

                  rankings aside -- i think for universiality this list is missing a lot of great banh mi places! for example, one in cleveland's chinatown i can think of right off the bat and also some i can almost imagine in houston, minneapolis and vancouver, all cities with substantial viet populations.

                  1. re: mrnyc

                    I am no banh mi expert and have no knowledge about the banh mi in other cities on the list. However, I would have a completely different ranking for those in Manhattan.

                    1. re: kobetobiko

                      Kobe-would love to see your ranking.

              2. I'm no expert on this, but is it normal for ingredients to be made out of house, and brought in packaged? Because that is the case with Baogette.

                1. I can't believe you forgot "Ba Le"! That's like the original!

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: takadi

                    Where's that?

                    1. re: guttergourmet

                      Somewhere around Route 50 or Graham road. I know it's right next to Pho Sate.

                      Anyways, Ba Le has been getting really good lately, the flavors are divine

                      1. re: takadi

                        Ba Le is good but is it spectacular? Not the couple of times I've eaten there over the years. It had changed alot when I was there a couple of weeks ago -- much expansion. If you're traveling on Lee Hwy/Rt 50, you'll see a Magruder's grocery store on the corner of Graham Rd, on your left if you're coming from Arlington towards Fairfax. That's the strip mall where you'll find Ba Le and Pho Sate.

                        Banh Mi DC is further down Graham Rd, eh? I'll have to look for it next time. I'm interested in the DC area research...

                        Brooklyn's Ba Xuyen is my #1

                        1. re: pitu

                          I didn't think it was that good either until I tried it a couple months ago, it was incredible.

                          At least from my point of reference, I haven't tried much outside of NoVA

                  2. A question: Does anyone know how banh mi in the US corresponds to the same in today's Vietnam?

                    When I spent a lot of time in Vietnam starting in the mid-80s I loved banh mi and had them when I could. My Viet colleagues wouldn't waste a meal on it, however; and it was a pretty common and uniform snack served on roadsides and at ferry waits in the Mekong Delta.

                    I loved the simplicity and clean and elegant flavors of so few ingredients. Is that the way it is in the US?

                    15 Replies
                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                      What's sold here usually have a combination of pickled/sour/vinegar and sweet. As is evident by the discussion on them, most eaters here like them spicey too. The pork is delicate and usually overpowered by those flavors, but when it's not, you can add that. They're pretty multitextured, and not what I would think of as simple.

                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                        Interestingly, I don't think I've ever had a sandwich in VN. I've had plain banh mi exactly once in VN, and that was my toasted baguette with eggs for breakfast. I didn't see it a lot either, actually.

                        There's way more interesting food I eat over there that isn't the same here.

                        1. re: jaykayen

                          Its really a roadside food. Always with the bread propped up in those little glass boxes on legs. Good snack if you're on the road in the middle of nowhere or waiting for one of the ferries between Saigon and Canh Tho.

                        2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                          Sam: Granted, it's been almost 2 decades since I've personally eaten in VN, but the feeling is still the same today as it was then and as it was in your days. Banh mi is still just street/road food. It's nice and good for what it is, but the thought of banh mi at Momofuku (and I'm sad it's now off the menu so I can't try it) is a little odd. The fam and I have had some conversations about the trend of upscale street food (mostly rotating around the Momofuku/Baoguette prices), and the general gist of the dialogue coming from the older generation was all about the ridiculous pricing of something that should be inherently cheap and readily available. I'm not surprised that you colleagues wouldn't waste a meal on it, and I wouldn't be suprised if that attitude hasn't changed at all. All in all, it's still just a sandwich - why waste a meal on it when you have time to sit down and have something nice instead? Not that I don't miss the banh mi with the nice, hot meatballs I used to get for breakfast as a child nor that I think it isn't great food when you're on a long highway in the middle of nowhere TX, but it's just a sandwich, no matter how good.

                          OP: My best banh mi experiences have been in Houston, Montreal, and Garland, TX (all else was decent but not worth noting). Admittedly, I haven't tried Baoguette yet, but I'm hoping to do that in a few weeks. :)

                          1. re: Ali

                            JUST a sandwich? There are some of us out here that think the best food in the world is meant to be eaten standing up. Sandwichistas unite!!!

                            1. re: Ali

                              Quite true! I knew my colleagues were holding out for the fantastic sit down meal they had planned up the road; but I had the banh mi AND the sit down!!

                            2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                              Here in OZ, they're only available at hole-in-the-wall bakeries in suburbs like where I work (HUGE Viet community), It's usually pate and mayo and 3 types of processed meat (2 pork, 1 chicken) with grated carrot, coriander, cucumber and chili. If you want hot meat, such as pork balls, or breaded chicken skewers, you have to specify.

                              1. re: purple goddess

                                Hmmm. Similar, but fewer meats and no mayo in VN.

                                1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                  Yeah, mayo is pretty uncommon due to refridgeration issues, but it's not unheard of, which is why it's completely common outside the country where refridgeration isn't an issue. (But most good spots will either buy a good whole egg mayo or make their own - there's a spot in Garland, TX that makes it's own mayo that is so so so good.)

                                  The "standard" for places I've been is head cheese, steamed pork-based sausage, pate, pickled daikon and carrot, coriander/cilantro, cucumber, jalapeno/the long and red chili - common variations include mayo, fish sauce, possibly some jambon. There is usually enough filling that it'll push out the back end a touch as you eat it but not enough to overwhelm the bread, because any respectable place also uses good, fresh bread. (Places in VN used to use giant, house-sized wood-fired ovens to bake the bread, but I'm guessing that's not the case here in the good old US of A ... or anywhere else, these days.)

                                  It's funny that there's all this thought given to, well, a sandwich. (Incidentally, the sandwich is really "banh mi thit" (really, I guess it'd be "banh mi nhan"), whereupon "thit" refers to meat and "banh mi" is just the bread.) I guess street food will never go out of style. :)

                                  1. re: Ali

                                    When I worked in Vietnam, I never thought that banh mi thit and pho would ever make it to the US.

                                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                      In NYC it is huge!

                                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                        You're right. One would think the royal cuisine would be exported since it's better set to compete with haut cuisine, but instead, I'm starting to think that the national dish of VN should be the banh mi from just how easily found it is.

                                  2. re: purple goddess

                                    Mmmm. When I'm feeling nostalgic, I dream of the great food I used to get every day in Cabramatta from the Vietnamese bakeries. I wish I were more food astute at the time to know how lucky I was and to do some serious banh mi comparisons... Talk about phenomenal vietnamese food at, literally, every corner...

                                  3. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                    I've been living in Ho Chi MInh (Sai Gon) for a year. The Banh Mi's on the roadside here are mostly of the Cha Lua (boiled pork sausage) and Op La (sunny side fried egg) variety- although my favorite are Banh Mi Cha Ca (fried fish paste), Banh Mi Xiu Mai (meatball) and Banh Mi Suon Heo (grilled ribs- a rarity but amazing). Cilantro, pickled veggies, cucumber and chili are standard. Pate and 'mayo' are usually available as well. When the baguettes are fresh it makes all the difference. Imagine what 96 degree heat and 97% humidity does to a baked bread. They definitely have less meat than those back in the states (i grew up in san francisco), and the overall size is smaller. It's funny because the chic air-con indoor banh mi spots are starting to pop up in the city center and around- although never as charming as the streetside variety. Finding a good banh mi hawker is tough- i'd say only about 1 in 5 can legitimately be called delicious and satisfying. Once you've got a Banh Mi lady though, ride that train. Oh yeah, for 35 cents you can afford to treat your friends.

                                    http://globaleats.blogspot.com/

                                    1. re: anthonyrza

                                      Next time you go to Canh Tho by road, have one at one of the ferry stops for me.

                                  4. Did you try others in the Washington, DC area?

                                    Thanks for putting out this list.

                                    Some places are part of a 'chain' like Banh Mi So 1. Have you been to others? I am wondering if there is a significant difference from one location to another. My favorite was at a Ba Le that closed down. Have not tried other locations, though.

                                    Are you always trying the same ingredients? For example, I can see someone posting about "Best Italian Hoagies" since most of them will be similar in nature. But since banh mi can range from grilled pork to meatballs to cold cuts, I am wondering what you're comparing. What did you get in Falls Church?

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: Steve

                                      i always try to stick to the combo (thit ngoi? dac biet? #1 special combo?) of Vietnamese pate, Vietnamese ham and/or pork terrine and roast pork with pickled julienned carrots, daikon, cilantro, sliced cucumber, mayo and sliced jalapenos for heat. The one exception which I noted above for that reason was Nicky's on 2nd Street where the pork chop banh mi is infinitely superior to my usual which is mediocre there. There are apparently many others in the huge Falls Church VA Vietnamese shopping area but its about 40 minutes roundtrip from downtown DC and while Mrs. GG and my daughter are very understanding of my obsession I was only able to make one trip during our last DC vacation. I had researched, however, that Banh Mi DC was the best of the best.

                                    2. Your ranking shows a geographical bias. The VA place is better than all 6 NYC places which are better than the Montreal place which is better than all 3 SF places which are better than both the Seattle places?

                                      I can only speak of the SF spots. They are all good, but not equal, and I doubt every one is inferior to the 8 rated higher and superior to the 2 rated lower.

                                      But thanks for the list. Next time I'm in NYC or Falls Church...

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: Zeldog

                                        Plus those three in SF are far from the best choices for the combo banh mi. I can rattle off at least three others in the Tenderloin that are superior for the sandwich used as the standard of comparison.

                                      2. Nice list. you also need to take a trek out to Southern California. Many a phenomenal banh mi. Particularly in and around "little saigon" (Westminster). But many others scattered around the greater LA area...

                                        1. My cousin and I just tried three Banh Mi places in Norther Virginia. Song Que in Eden Center was good, there was a place inside Eden Center that was supposed to be the best there but didn't like it due it's mustardy flavor and the chicken we got was as bland as could be, though it was the only place that served it with the bun toasted which I did like. My favorite were at Ba Le, 2822 Graham Rd, Falls Church, VA

                                          We skipped Bahn Mi DC after reading a lot of newer yelp reports saying it wasn't all that good. I'm down that way a few times a year so will have to check it out next trip!

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: Rick

                                            Okay, now we're getting somewhere!
                                            Did you have chicken at all the VA places? I never have that one -- #1 combo (pork pate etc), Viet meat balls, and occasional grilled pork are my standards.

                                            1. re: pitu

                                              No I mixed it up a little. A few months back I went solo and just did the head cheese type ones at a few places, Ba Le coming out on top. This trip we mixed it up at each place. Ba Le we had a roast pork and a fish ball, Song Que was a roast pork, the place inside Eden Center was chicken, I'm thinking if we got something different there I would have like it a lot better. BUT, my all time favorite so far has been in a place in Las Vegas, their roast pork Banh Mi was just incredible. For me, a lot of the places in VA don't put quite enough meat on their sandwiches. The place in vegas put a bunch of pork on and the flavor of the pork was just great. The place MAY have been Nhu Lan, but I don't remember!

                                          2. Today's NYT has a bahn mi article - Bahn Mi, Unstacked: Building on Layers of Tradition
                                            http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/08/din...
                                            with an updated list of the NYC twists of the sandwich that their makers feel they could not get away with in California...
                                            and a map
                                            http://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.co...

                                            8 Replies
                                            1. re: pitu

                                              Italian rolls? Kielbasa? Grilled onions? At what point does it stop being banh mi and become just a fancy sandwich which happened to be made by a Vietnamese person? :P

                                              1. re: huaqiao

                                                the moment the pickled veg and cilantro disappear
                                                : )

                                                1. re: huaqiao

                                                  "Authenticity" is an illusion that masks the most important goal of just having great tasting food. It doesn't make sense to eat something that gives you a less pleasurable sensory experience, no matter how "authentic" it is

                                                  Anyways, Banh mi stops becoming banh mi when a Polish immigrant is hired to pile on the pickled vegetables and cilantro

                                                  1. re: takadi

                                                    Most delicious is paramount for sure, but most delicious sandwich can split off from Bahn Mi at any time...and I don't think it has a thing to do with the ethnicity or cultural background of the maker. You might notice, the ladies at Ba Xuyen are speaking Chinese.
                                                    (or so my language scholar friend tells me. I know there's Vietnamese ethnic Chinese, but they tend to speak Vietnamese as far I know)

                                                    1. re: pitu

                                                      The last part was just a poorly executed joke on my part, but seriously, it'd be the best kielbasa banh mi I'd ever have

                                                2. re: pitu

                                                  Thanks for the link. I've been eating Banh Mi and trying to decipher what's in them to make them at home.

                                                  1. re: salsailsa

                                                    Check out the Home Cooking board on this site -- Cookbook of the Month was a couple of Vietnamese selections not long ago, and bahn mi were included.
                                                    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/5538...

                                                    1. re: pitu

                                                      Cool, thanks for the link!

                                                3. What's Chang's "yuppie banh mi"????

                                                  3 Replies
                                                  1. re: lynnlato

                                                    A fantastic banh mi with Chang's homemade terrines. "Yuppie" because I think he charges like $13!

                                                    1. re: guttergourmet

                                                      Wow! I'm not sure how I missed that, but now I'm bummed. Guess I'll have to trek on back AGAIN. :)

                                                      1. re: lynnlato

                                                        The Chang banh mi is off the menu as of the last time I checked, so you might want to call the restaurant in advance if your sole purpose is getting that.

                                                  2. split a roast pork banh mi from ba xuyen (#8 I think) and . . . I have to say, I think I prefer Saigon Bakery better; the sandwich is bigger but, doesn't quite get filled and the ingredients are not as delightful as saigon's, at least for the roast pork bbq. didn't compare the #1.

                                                    1. Cannot speak for any other place other than Banh Mi DC but I go to this place once every other week. It is a great Banh Mi. Bread back fresh on the premise (The bread is great, cross between french bread and good cuban bread, very crusty on the outside and soft in the inside) and the meat and the veggies are always fresh.

                                                      For $3 a sandwich, it is a much better deal than going to a fast food place and it is way more tasty. There are other Bahn me place close and they are also really good. But the fresh baked bread really sets this place a part. BTW, the pho place right next door is one of the best in DC area.

                                                      Why has Bahn Mi's not yet been franchised?

                                                      2 Replies
                                                      1. re: Soup

                                                        They have, albeit to a limited degree:

                                                        http://leesandwiches.com/

                                                        1. re: Humbucker

                                                          wow, what an eyesore of a website!
                                                          are their sandwiches of an equivalent caliber?

                                                          In NYC local bahn mi notes, I had a nice sandwich on Jerome Ave in the Bronx, 2614 Jerome Ave. Not worth a special bahn mi seeking trip (unless you're some sort of complete-ist, ha ha) but fab-u-lous if you find yourself up there. It's 5 mins from the zoo.

                                                      2. baoguette gets their bread baked from wenner breads out in long island. it does not taste very good.

                                                        1. I hit Banh Mi DC today and was extremely underwhelmed. The best part was the cheap price, but the sandwiches were average.

                                                          Not even close to Lucy's who runs the Banh Mi food stand in the Strip District of Pittsburgh. I suggest you try hers when you're in the Burgh.