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Jun 8, 2009 12:05 PM

My War on Banh Mi (West End)

Banh Mi is booming, and a lot of people have bought into the burgeoning cultural cachet of these mysterious little sandwiches. New York City, for example, has seen the widespread gentrification of Banh Mi, and—like oversize novelty eyewear—the phenomenon may have reached saturation:

I certainly wouldn't visit an upscale resto offering a Banh Mi which is actually duck confit on a flaxseed torpedo roll, but to my knowledge these "innovations" have not yet made it to Toronto, nor do they represent the Banh Mi that so many Chowhound types seem to be fond of. We are talking whole-in-the-wall, real-deal Banh Mi.

But I'm going to suggest that, as much as upscale Banh Mi is laughable, these so-called "real" Banh Mi are generally pretty terrible sandwiches and it is little more than their cultural cachet and low price that keeps them at or near the top of forum topics on more than one Chowhound board. Low quality food is counter to the spirit of Chowhound, I think, so have you ever—be honest—eaten a Banh Mi and felt like you've been lying to yourself about how great these things are? Have you ever felt like, despite getting two sandwiches for 3.50, you would rather get one really good one for $5? Why is nobody ever critical of Banh Mi (that I can see), when every other type of food is routinely the object of every imaginable scrutiny?

Let's start with the bread: the lowest grade white roll imaginable is the order of business at 90% of Banh Mi shops. It's tasteless, dry, and often outright stale. Give me an example of another style of sandwich you would willingly purchase that uses such a low quality bread. I'm sure these sad little loaves have a stake in the low prices at which we're able to enjoy our lunch, but like I say, wouldn't you rather have something nice?

Next, how about that revolting pink pâté? It doesn't seem to have any flavour and, although appearance is highly subjective, I can't think of anything appetizing about it. There is a Banh Mi shop (the only truly legendary one) called Saigon Givral in Edmonton that uses a different pâté: it's darker, peppery, a little salty, and quite rich. Other than the pâté, the meats are pretty much the only thing that most Banh Mi places get right. I like some of the more imaginative ones: meatball with faint taste of curry, grilled shredded meat of some kind, and even the soybean substitutions can be pretty nice. A regular "combo" is fine for me, though, and I wouldn't begrudge a Banh Mi shop for not offering much else.

But what makes a Banh Mi a Banh Mi to me isn't just the meat, otherwise I'd go sit down for grilled pork on vermicelli. It's the salad toppings. Probably my biggest overall gripe about these sandwiches is how unwilling many Banh Mi shops are to allow me to customize my order in any way. "I like a lot of cilantro," I say (sometimes I say "coriander" or "green stuff" just to ensure it isn't a terminology problem). No reply. The same three or four tired leaves of cilantro arranged on the sandwich. I happen to like the stalks. "Do you have any cucumber?" I ask. "No." I think it's a shame that cucumber is a rarity as a Banh Mi topping, despite being listed as one of its "traditional" ingredients. I suspect corner-cutting on the part of some shop owners here.

What's also frustrating is that, at Saigon Givral in Edmonton, I became accustomed to getting Sriracha on my sandwich. (I didn't suggest it, she offered it.) You wouldn't believe it until you've tried it how well a chili garlic sauce marries all the ingredients together and adds a more evenly distributed heat than those irrelevant little chili peppers you find dotted around your sandwich at most places. In the case of Saigon Givral's exceptional and slightly untraditional sandwiches, it's an enhancement. In the case of other Banh Mi, it would help mask the flavour of stale bread. Why have no shops thought of offering what is, after all, a Vietnamese condiment? Or, why do no customers seem to want it? The closest I came until today—in either Toronto or Montreal—was at the much-vaunted Rose Cafe. After asking for hot sauce, they initially said "no." But moments later a couple of squeeze packets of something resembling Taco Bell hot sauce were discovered and included with my order. Not the best solution.

Which brings me to today. There is a little Banh Mi place on Dupont, just west of Dundas mentioned on a couple of other topics. Nobody seems to know the name of it, and I don't either, but I thought I'd try it out. It's sparsely decorated, with a few tables for sit-in (she also does some hot food like noodles, grilled meats, that sort of thing). I ordered a couple of grilled pork Banh Mi and, spying a bottle of Sriracha that was intended for sit-in diners to add to their Pho, I asked the owner if she would put some in my sandwiches. She agreed, but I couldn't shake the impression that it was the first time anyone had asked for it. The guy next to me in line, perhaps inspired by my claim of "even distribution of spiciness," asked for it too.

The sandwiches were really pretty good, I must say. Very nice pork and a lot of cilantro, stalks and all, without having to beg. No cucumber was to be seen, and the bread was average, but like I say the pork was very nice. I was very encouraged by what I ate and by the idea that someone else out there in the world might now take Sriracha on a Banh Mi.

So I guess what I'm saying is that I think we should be more picky about our Banh Mi and encourage each other to push for better quality and more customization instead of a) misguidedly singing the praises of low-quality food, or b) totally ruining it by taking it "upscale." That's it.

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  1. That's the first I've ever heard of Sriracha in banh mi. I much prefer cut up pieces of actual chili peppers.

    1. i'm not actually a fan of sriracha. i don't dislike the stuff but i don't find it often enhances my experience the way a really good chili oil does with nice roasted flavour. it's a difference animal i know but i don't get it.

      i've had more than a few bahn mi's around town and i always go back to nguyen huong. i don't need no fancy grilled meats, i LIKE the cold cuts. i'll admit the ones at roses have a bit more of a home made feel to them (mostly in the rougher texture) but i found the flavouring bland. what i like about a good bahn mi is the crunchy/chewy bun, the nice clear flavours of the cold cut meat, refreshing bits of cucumber and sourness from lightly pickled veg (roses was tooooo pickled and limp!), the creaminess of a well balanced mayo and light pate... it's just one of the most perfect sandwiches in balance of salt, sour, barely sweet and spice. i always have them put on extra cilantro. always. i crave them all the time and if the cost me $3 i'd still gladly pay the price... btw, their bread comes in fresh in the morning, no stale crumbs here. i think nguyen huong is great and i'll point it out when they have off days and lament the eventual "downhill" slide... but they spring back.

      no one's attempting anything upscale here so guess what... something that we don't have to complain about yet! hurrah!

      16 Replies
        1. re: Davedigger

          to each their own. it's a texture delight to me.

          1. re: Davedigger

            What in particular do you find revolting?

            1. re: Stephanie Wong

              I dunno. Texture and flavour of the meat I guess. Reminds me of bologna, which I also can't stand.

              1. re: Davedigger

                Actually there are many varieties of meats in banh mi that you can order (interestingly, like meat varieties you can choose for pho lol.) and not all of them taste like bologna. You may have run into a bad batch which means the quality of that food place is in question, or maybe find the cold cut combination that you like.

                A couple of things I always watch out for: the butter and the pate. These are supposed to be good French style butter, and of course good French pate, but enterprising shops are known to create their own specialties which don't always work for me. There are acceptable substitution/Vietnamese-derived butter spreads and pate, and if you find them then the rest is easy.

                1. re: chuynh

                  Interesting. I may have to give it another go. Not soon, but sometime in the far future. ;-)

          2. re: pinstripeprincess

            Hi psp. I agree in principle with most of your comments, although I have had equally tasty bahn mi at both Rose's and Nguyen Hong. The buns are almost always fresh (not sure where the original poster got the idea of poor quality buns).
            I do like sriracha in some situations, but it tends to dominate whaterver it's on. I've never had it on bahn mi and don't want to.
            I'm in Nashville at the moment, so can't run out for a spontaneous one at the moment. Oh well, it'll have to be pulled pork today. Not so bad.

            1. re: pinstripeprincess

              "btw, their bread comes in fresh in the morning, no stale crumbs here" FYI that's not always true. I have been in there a few times and because they've been so slammed those days, they reheated frozen pre-baked baguettes. I know this because the lady working there advised me not to buy them on those days - perhaps because I'm a regular purchaser of other deli items and am Vietnamese as well.

              1. re: LTL

                i thankfully haven't experienced that. how often have you known then to do that? they do get pretty busy....

                1. re: pinstripeprincess

                  It has happened three times that I was there within the last 2-3 months. When in Chinatown, I go to Ba Le for my banh mi and Nguyen Huong only for my deli products.

              2. re: pinstripeprincess

                I love the sandwich, it its simplest cold cut form, and also really enjoy Nguyen Huong. But lately, I've been regularly disappointed by a lack of spiciness in my "spicy" sandwich. Has anyone else had this problem? The distribution has always been spotty, but I never used to have any complaints about the amount of spice. The fruity/spicy hit from the peppers is part of why I find them so addictive.

                For even heat distribution without resorting to sriracha, you might try Ba Le 2 - north side of Dundas, just west of Spadina. They use a chopped chile paste, so it gets more spread out. They also use cucumber, but not as much pate as I would like them to. My last sandwich there was also not spicy enough, but I think the girl making it may have been new - the sandwich in general wasn't as good as it usually is. I'm hoping this was a one-off, because they've been my go-to place since I can't get a good chile hit from Nguyen Huong any more.

                1. re: Wahooty

                  recently i've noticed a lack of the peppers when ordering spicy... i'll ask for extra spicy and extra cilantro most days.

                  1. re: pinstripeprincess

                    i used to ask for the peppers separately, so u can distribute it yourself if you wanted a more even spicyness.

                    1. re: Wahooty

                      I've also noticed that the amount of all vegetation in the sandwiches at Nguyen Huong have dropped off lately. one or two spare sprigs of corriander, miserly chilis and low pickled veg count too. Will ask for more next time I am in and see if they are amicable.

                      1. re: elrik

                        Was there for some sandwiches and shopping last night (we go to the Steele's and Middlefield location and shop at the T&T). Asked for more chilis and cilantro and the lady was quite accommodating. Lately it's been one to two bites of the sandwich had chilis, but this one had them in every bite ;)

                        On an unrelated note. Love the soft tofu soup at the korean fast food place in the T&T there, so tasty. They used to be an owl of minnerva, but changed names a while ago while not having a staff turnover.

                  2. Actually I believe that Sriracha (rooster sauce) is considered an American condiment. I think I read some article about it in the NYT recently. I sometimes order my banh mi "hot" I like the little peppers. I do not recall ever having distribution issues...funny the things you take for granted.

                    1 Reply
                    1. Like many other Americanized ethnic foods, low price becomes the governing factor. At times there are attempts by some to go upscale so that they can charge more - they'd love to sell the banh mi at $5-7 that, say, a Subway or Quiznos can command. In either case authenticity and quality are both questionable. For banh mi to be authentic, it needs to be fresh French bread, with various "better than average" ingredients used. Around where I live, I and other Viet know what's god and what's not, but if I find myself in an unfamiliar place and chance on a banh mi shop, then the clientele (many Viet customers) can be a good indication.

                      1. Sorry I couldn't read your entire post, but my thoughts on Banh Mi are that in my year in Toronto I've yet to find a single decent edible Banh Mi compared to the good ones they serve in Calgary.

                        1 Reply