Sandwiches deserve your respect. Some people think of them as interchangeable quick fixes for harried lunchtime consumption. But just because a sandwich comes between two pieces of bread and (ideally) requires no utensils doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take it seriously.
The best sandwiches mirror the achievements of any thoughtfully composed dish: They deliver a variety of flavors and textures; they transport you and linger in your memory.
The Vietnamese bánh mì is one of the world’s great sandwiches and one of my favorites. A byproduct of French colonialism in Vietnam, the sandwich pulls from both countries’ culinary traditions — mayonnaise, myriad pork products, veggies, herbs and chili peppers all sandwiched between French bread. There’s so much happening, and all in harmony: tangy, sweet, spicy, savory, crunchy. Sandwich nirvana. If I could only eat one sandwich for the rest of my life, the bánh mì would be in a select group at the top of the list for consideration.
I took to the streets recently in search of the city’s best bánh mì. Not every place serves the exact same style, so I went with versions that I thought would give me a solid representation of each establishment. I examined the quality of ingredients, the proportions of each element, the overall execution and a certain je ne sais quoi. Some places eschew tradition, some add their own spin on things, but the aim is the same: sandwich alchemy.
Editor’s note, April 2018: Prices and menu items below might have changed since this article’s publication.
1. Saigon le Vendeur. 2404 E. Seventh St. 512-351-6916, saigon7th.com. Chef Tebi Nguyen grew up next to a bánh mì shop in Saigon before moving with his family to San Antonio, where he graduated high school and worked at a hibachi restaurant. While the charcoal-cooking will have to wait until Nguyen can move from a trailer to a brick-and-mortar restaurant, he applies the quick kiss of the torch to char pan-seared juicy grilled pork ($6.95) that’s marinated in fish sauce, garlic, red shallots and a touch of honey, to aid in the caramelization. The savory meat is contrasted by tangy housemade mayonnaise made daily and the crunch of hot jalapenos and cool cucumber and the snap of carrots and daikon.
Nguyen finishes the O.G. ($6.95) — layered with firm and fatty head cheese, thin-sliced pork belly, springy and mildly sweet steamed pork roll, and fragrant housemade pate — with a splash of Maggi sauce, the salty secret ingredient of many great bánh mì. The Daruma Ramen veteran may not make his own bread from scratch, but he does bake the imports twice daily, so whether you go at lunch or dinner, you will get a baguette with crunchy exterior and delicate pull inside.
2. Baguette et Chocolat. 12101 FM 2244, Building 6. 512-263-8388, baguetteetchocolat.com. Chef Chi Minh Pham Ding is the embodiment of the multiculturalism of the bánh mì ($7.99) he makes at his Bee Caves bakery, which recently celebrated its seventh birthday. He was raised in Versailles, and his sandwich pays tribute to the recipe of his Vietnamese grandfather, a journalist who fled Southeast Asia for the safety of France. I was shocked that there was no pâté on the sandwich, so rich was the razor-thin roasted pork that marinates for 24 hours in a bath of secret ingredients. Or maybe it was the housemade mayonnaise. There are some twists here — a grip of lettuce, sweet diced onions and no jalapenos — but the meat, a splash of Maggi, and the best baguette of this bunch combine for a stellar sandwich. Pro tip: Order an eclair (or anything) for dessert.
3. Pho Please. 1920 E. Riverside Drive. 512-354-9779, phopleaseaustin.com. This counter-service restaurant, opened in January 2016 by Tien Do and her husband, Anh Nguyen, is a slick, modern update on the many Austin Vietnamese cafes Nguyen has worked in over the years. Charcoal leaves its tasty marks on grilled beef ($7) served in a soy sauce dressing that turns this sandwich into something that reminds me of a Philly cheesesteak, sub minor swipes of pâté and mayonnaise for cheese. The grilled pork ($7) hums with a five spice buzz, and while they don’t make their own bread, the soft, flaky baguette overflowing with pickled vegetables and jalapeño slices has a satisfying crunch. This sandwich is a case of me having trouble pinpointing exactly what I love, but the whole is worth more than the sum of its parts.
4. Bon Bon Banh Mi. 8557 Research Blvd. Suite 144. 512-730-1155, Facebook.com/bonbonbanhmivietnam. It’s really all about the bread (and the friendly service) at this little stand. And Bon Bon is playing with a big advantage, as it sources its bread from Lucky Bakery, in which it has been serving for about three months. The chicken liver pâté gives depth to a roasted pork bánh mì ($3.95) made on a crunchy and flossy roll that yields with a nice shatter.
5. Pho What. 251 N. Bell Blvd #105, Cedar Park. 512-284-7267, phowhat.com. The sign on our visit read “Help Wanted,” and I could see why. A crowd quickly overwhelmed the small staff, but it is a testament to the food at this tiny spot in a Cedar Park strip mall. The 501 ($4.95) with pork meat loaf, head cheese and pâté that overflowed with daikon and fierce jalapeños was brimming with aromatics (and I think a splash of Maggi). It’s the kind of sandwich that will leave you picking cardamom from your teeth later in the day. (Editor’s note, April 2018: This restaurant is now closed.)
6. Elizabeth Street Cafe. 1501 S. First St. 512-291-2881, elizabethstreetcafe.com. The house special bánh mì ($11) is working with some in-house advantages. The bakery at Elizabeth Street creates a sturdy baguette (the roof of your mouth has been warned), and a peppery pork pâté comes from sister restaurant Lambert’s. I dig the one-two punch of slightly boozy mousse and sambal mayonnaise.
7. Pho Van. 8557 Research Blvd #120. 512-832-5595, facebook.com/pages/Pho-Van/158743614176210. There is nothing different or fancy or tricky about the bánh mì ($4.99) at this North Austin staple. The salty and tender pork, creamy pâté and shatter of the baguette are exactly what you expect when you think of a traditional bánh mì.
8. Dang Kitchen. 9070 Research Blvd #303. 512-454-3264, dangkitchen.com. These guys changed their name and concept from Dang Bánh Mì to Dang Kitchen because they felt you can’t build a restaurant solely around sandwiches. But their Loin King ($7) would be a good place to start. It’s not a true bánh mì, but with savory pork tenderloin marinated in lemon, mirin and soy; the sweet crunch of honeycrisp apples; and the cool breeze of mint and cilantro, it’s painting from a very similar palette. (Editor’s note, April 2018: This restaurant is now closed.)
9. Tam Deli. 8222 N. Lamar Blvd. 512-271-6817. A restaurant is more than just its food; it’s the people who run it. When Tam Bui sold her restaurant last year, the small space lost the warmth with which she and her sister Tran Ngoc filled it. And despite getting the recipes from Tam, the new owners stumbled out of the blocks. But a recent visit revealed the familiar tangy housemade mayonnaise and a giant, fluffy and crackling baguette filled with ginger beef specked with peanuts ($5.95). A sign that things may be getting back to the way they once were.
10. Heo Eatery. 6214 N. Lamar Blvd. 512-243-5906, heoeatery.squarespace.com. It takes some chutzpah to try and improve on a classic like the bánh mì, but the tender and flavorful duck confit ($10) here proves that sometimes risks are worth taking (though I’m not so sure about the Tater Tots on the side). Those wanting a slightly more traditional sandwich should order the perfumed lemongrass beef ($8).
Since I know some people will be upset I didn’t name their favorites, here are some of the other contenders I tried: Baguette House, Bee Grocery, Bun Belly, Dong Nai, Lily’s Sandwich, Pho Nom, Pho Thaison, Thanh Ni, Toastie’s Subs.