After the event with Andrea Nguyen the other night, I sat down to read her book. She rightly describes banh mi as a synergy of bread, protein, vegetables and condiments which must be in the proper proportions. Synergy? When properly done, it’s more like a symphony. And just as some enjoy Beethoven, some John Williams, some John Cage I expect there is room to interpretation as to what that proper proportion should be. So is there such a thing as the best bahn mi?
I have never been to Vietnam, but that doesn’t disqualify me from judging an American banh mi any more than not eating a burrito in Mexico disqualifies me from judging a burrito. (And that was a misdirection since burritos are American, not Mexican; actually, I have eaten burritos in Mexico and they weren’t particularly memorable.) What I am looking for is the best representation of what we in the U.S. think of as a Vietnamese sandwich based on the choices and experiences we have here.
We all know that Lee’s are okay for a chain but far better can be had. On the east coast, as a rule there’s dramatically less filling than in the U.S. west and south. That’s just wrong.* All drums and horns without the sweet violins and woodwinds in the middle. I want more filling, period. West coast style. The question is what that filling should be.
Andrea let me in on a secret which turns out not to be a secret at all: a hole in the wall in a divey section of San Francisco that many people judge the best banh mi. (She did not say that by the way, just that I should go there.) It’s Sing Sing Sandwiches, and it’s just over a block from the iconic Saigon Sandwiches shop.
There was no line, a few guys waiting, and they asked you to take a seat while they made your sandwich. Totally nice people and winsome décor. Vietnamese music playing and a window counter which had originally been meant for eating, but their plants are doing so well they have been allowed to take over the people area. Outside the passing parade was as if, to quote one Yelp reviewer, many of the denizens had spent time in another place with the same name.
I brought it home to inspect it more closely.… would not have felt comfortable dissecting it in the presence of these gentle folk. It doesn’t look like much when you unwrap it, but when you split the halves there’s a visual explosion of variety. That’s because they hollow out the bun to get as much stuff as possible in there while preserving a trim profile.
The stuff included pate, sliced fancy pork (but a less processed kind than that used at some places… note the strand of real casing hanging off the edge in the “closed’ photo), mayo, daikon, carrot, green onion, cucumber, jalapeno and cilantro. More ingredients than at Saigon and in better proportions.
The taste? A symphony indeed. Everything went together so smoothly I could barely discern individual ingredients and went more by texture: the crunch of daikon, the slippery smoothness of cucumber, the satisfying mouth feel of pate. And I pretty much forgot about the bread. It was minimally crackly but faded in importance because the filling was so spectacular.
Is this the best banh mi? Is Snow’s the best smoked brisket? Does Burger House in Dallas make the best cheeseburger? Maybe something better is out there, but the chance of finding it is like tracking the elusive Higgs Boson. Why speculate when greatness is staring you in the face?
*A few days after writing this post, I was in Westminster’s Little Saigon and picked up a couple of sandwiches at one of the Banh Mi Che Cali locations. Long on bread, short on filling, just as I remember from previous visits. But the place was full of Vietnamese people who were very happy with their choices. One’s banh mi mileage can obviously vary. Lots of pate and extra spicy, pour moi!