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What's a REAL banh mi roll supposed to be like?

I've never been to Vietnam, but I'm a big fan of banh mi. However, my understanding (which might be wrong - hence this question) is that the roll is supposed to be a rice-flour baguette, or at least a regular baguette with a CRISPY outside and a LIGHT, SOFT inside. That's what I think of as a traditional baguette, and the few I've had with this kind of roll have been some of my favorites.

However, it seems like most of the "higher end" places that do banh mi (i.e. not a hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese place run by people who moved here from Vietnam) use a soft, bready roll, more like you'd find on a cheesesteak. To me, these don't work with the sandwich and turn it into something just like a Vietnamese-flavored cheesesteak (without the cheese). But the chefs at these restaurants are often renowned and have presumably done their research, and made the decision to use the softer roll.

Am I wrong, and the soft roll is in fact traditional? Is there much variation in Vietnam, so that it's just a matter of preference (like Connecticut lobster rolls versus Maine lobster rolls)? Or are these US chefs just screwing up what should be a simple, perfect sandwich with a crisp-crusted roll?

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  1. I don't know what's actually traditional, but I've never had a banh mi on a soft roll. In both the hole-in-the-wall type places and in the more fusion-y places, it's always on a baguette. The baguette is usually softer on the inside, with a more delicate, but VERY crispy outside than a traditional baguette, but it's a baguette nonetheless.

    1 Reply
    1. re: alysonlaurel

      That's what I thought. But there are a couple of otherwise very, very good restaurants in my area that both serve their banh mi's on soft rolls, and also a well-reviewed food truck that does the same. I don't get it.

    2. Banh mi means bread in Vietnamese...and as many as I've eaten in my lifetime, there are two ways of putting together a traditional banh mi. There's a French-style baguette, but because of the rice flour added to the bread dough the inside is light and fluffy and less dense than a traditional baguette. These are cut into 10" portions for sandwiches. There's also a roll that's made in the same style as the French-style baguette, but sized and portioned into individual sandwich size. If my memory is correct these are about 8".

      8 Replies
      1. re: attran99

        At our favorite banh mi place, Ba Le in Falls Church, VA, they give you the option of "long roll" or "short roll." I'm pretty sure this fits exactly into the description attran99 gives. We've had both and prefer the long roll.

        1. re: attran99

          But what's the crust like? That's really my issue - does one have a crisp crust and not the other, or are they both pretty crisp? I feel like that crispiness is a critical element of the sandwich, and gets lost when you use a soft roll of any kind.

          1. re: monopod

            The crust is shatteringly crisp and very thin. Much thinner that a traditional baguette.
            the addition or the rice flour gives a less stretchy lighter dough.
            I agree that the breads texture is a important part of a Bánh mì sandwich.

            1. re: chefj

              Actually, the traditional baguette in France is "shatteringly crisp" -- makes a mess of the tablecloth.

              1. re: pikawicca

                I have had wonderful Baguettes in both France and Belgium and they are assuredly crisp but to me not in the same super thinness of the Vietnamese loaves.

                1. re: chefj

                  Agreed. The rice flour baguettes have a much thinner crust than wheat flour ones.

            2. re: monopod

              Yes, the long roll is crispy, short roll is soft.

              1. re: monopod

                The crust for both the long and short rolls should be crisp. Traditionally, the bread should always have a crispy crust. The texture adds to the banh mi's yumminess. While the flavors of the banh mi should be salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and spicy...the textures should include soft, crispy/crunchy, and chewy as well.

              1. Hi Monopod,
                During the Colonial Period, the French had introduced a variety of French foods to the Southeast Asian region called the Indochine (which included Vietnam). Some of which still lingers today, such as the baguette. As you suspected, the banh mi roll is supposed to resemble the classic French baguette – wheat-based, thinly shaped, crispy crust and soft white center. The one difference is the bahn mi roll is usually shaped for a single sandwich serving, rather than a long roll. Other French food elements that survived and are currently offered as standard fare for banh mi include: head cheese, pate, mayonnaise and a cup of french-pressed iced coffee.

                1. i lived in Westminster, CA - aka Little Saigon - one of the biggest Vietnamese communities in the country, for many years, and definitely the bread should be crispy crispy crispy on the outside,and fluffy on the inside. I had one recently (in San Francisco) that was so crisp and sharp that it cut a wedge into the roof of my mouth! not fun, but boy was the bread good.

                  more on the issue of its French origins: one of my favorite little factoids is that "banh mi" comes from the French word "pain de mie", a type of bread. Say it fast.

                  1. Andrea Nguyen took on the baguette challenge. Interestingly she found rice flour made the bread heavier. In the comments after her post someone mentions success using cooked rice.


                    1. Kirk and His Missus had a vacation in Vietnam in 2008 . Here is his quote from one of his bahn my posts (from Hanoi) : "The baguette is very light and airy. In fact, if you bit an end off, you could almost deflate the whole deal. It does have a bit of chew, and a nice light, yeasty flavor. The crust is thin and super flakey; the Missus said it explodes like a croissant. The crust is not hard and crusty...in other words, you won't tear the dermis off the roof of your mouth."

                      The post, with photos is here http://mmm-yoso.typepad.com/mmmyoso/2...

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Cathy

                        that description, and pic, reminds me of all the banh mi (or my) places in Westminster - love that bread. the one i had here that tore up my mouth was definitely an anomaly, but still good.

                      2. Thanks all. This definitely confirms my feeling that the "high end" banh mi's are somehow missing the boat on the bread. Maybe I'll leave a comment card next time I encounter one.

                        1. Not sure I have definitive answer but in my limited experience, in the Vietnamese banh mi places I've been, I'm pretty sure they are heating/toasting the rolls before making the sandwich - I know at one local stand the banh mi lady is constantly rotating rolls in and out of a small toaster oven but I'm sure it's set to a very low temp as the sandwiches never really feel "hot" (her rolls are very fresh so I've always assumed she's heating it for texture reasons).

                          I am surprised these baguettes routinely have rice flour although most experts seem to say so? (see Meatn3's post with link to one of my favorite Viet food sites) I always assumed crust and crumb (interior & exterior textures) was very dependent on methods of handling dough and baking (slow rise vs rapid, initial steam vs dry baking, baking temp, etc,)? I think it also goes to what we define as a baguette? Interesting discussion of this in the book "52 loaves : one man's relentless pursuit of truth, meaning, and a perfect crust" by William Alexander where he mentions that the Parisian version can be the Wonder Bread of baguettes (my paraphrasing) with little resemblance to those made in rest of France. I've always found banh mi rolls to be be a little different than what I would call a traditional baguette closer to say a good quality hoagie roll (don't go ballistic yet, read on).

                          Don't knock those Philly hoagie rolls (all self respecting Philadelphians know from whence the cheesesteak originated). Spent (or misspent?) my youth there. I know the Hoagie rolls are commonly thought of outside the area as soft but that isn't really always the case. There is a lot of variation in Delaware valley on roll crispness with some shops even toasting rolls before or after assembling sandwiches (then it's usually called a "grinder" vs hoagie). I remember a lot of shops parking supply of rolls above or near their ovens. Your allegiance in that area to a particular shop often revolves around the rolls (freshness & crispness key factors). Usually you can't get these same rolls (texture wise at least) in packages - only fresh from bakeries or deli's. While some would call these "Italian" rolls, they are a breed unto themselves; you'd never find them served in any even moderately upscale Italian restaurant.

                          I think the key similarity with the banh mi discussion is the roll freshness and a community of quality commercial bakers (no we're not talking artisan or hearth baked here) providing fresh product to a bustling sandwich making marketplace. I'm guessing like the Hoagie roll universe there is no one standard but an awful lot of good variations leading hopefully to good banh mi. In my experience best banh mi rolls have crisp exterior with soft interior crumb, but not too chewy - ideally roll should hold up to sitting for a while without getting overly soggy (okay I only know this from the 2nd or 3rd sandwiches I've bought for eating later).

                          I once had an approximation of a banh mi at a place in VT (to their credit they even called it "banh mi style" sandwich) where they served it on a ciabatta roll and texture was just all wrong - too chewy. I've made mistake of making banh mi at home on soft Italian style rolls and result is too soggy.

                          for a great Banh Mi tutorial and discussion see http://battleofthebanhmi.com/