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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.

            3. The original comment has been removed
                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.