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Banh Mi in San Francisco: A Brief History

Photo via Flickr. Banh Mi from Little Green Cyclo

Take a French baguette, slather it with a thin layer of mayo, add pickled vegetables, carrots, cucumber, jalapeno, marinated meat, and cilantro, and you've got yourself a banh mi sandwich. If you haven't tried one yet, I'm betting you will sometime soon. A byproduct of the French colonization of Indochina in the mid 19th Century, banh mi (literally "bread" in Vietnamese) have existed in San Francisco for at least thirty years, although until now they were mostly confined to the Little Saigon region of the Tenderloin and the Vietnamese-dominated area around Clement Street in The Richmond district.

In the past year, all of a sudden, there are food trucks, a pop-up restaurant and a posh Pacific Heights quick service joint helping the formerly obscure sandwich break new ground. As banh mi tradionalits grumble over the sandwich's newfound trendiness, the question remains as to whether the more mainstream iterations hold up to their more ethnically authentic forbears. We'll leave that debate to the comments section. For now let's get the conversation started with a brief timeline of the banh mi in San Francisco—from its humble origins to this glittery Renaissance we're seeing now.

1981 (ish) - Saigon Sandwich (560 Larkin St.) was among the first in a  small enclave of Vietnamese-American eateries to establish themselves in the Tenderloin about thirty years ago. The area known as Little Saigon now holds many of the city's best Vietnamese eateries, including Bodega Bistro and Pagolac (655 Larkin St.). There are also several shops serving banh mi, like Lee's Sandwiches. For decades, these and a few hole-in-the-wall establishments like Little Vietnam (309 6th Ave.) in the Richmond have defined the banh mi market in San Francisco. 

September 2010 - Little Green Cyclo is the first food truck to offer "gourmet" Vietnamese food, including banh mi sandwiches. Many of their ingredients are sourced from notable farms, including the pate made from Rocky Jr. chicken liver, Niman Ranch pork liver, and LaTourangelle Truffle Oil. 

February, 2011 - The New York Times pens a controversial piece about banh mi. Although they say Saigon Sandwich's banh mi "may be the best in America," the author doesn't really seem to "get" the sandwich. I'll spare you from the minutiae, but let's just say the banh mi almost never comes with fish sauce, nor is it commonly made on house-baked bread, as the article asserts. For a fun rant, I'll defer to Serious Eats. SF Weekly counters that Little Vietnam's banh mi has always been its preference. 

Late February, 2011 - Saigon Sandwich fails its routine health inspection and is forced to to close for some major cleaning. They install new countertops, sinks, cuttings boards and more.  

March 31, 2011 - Local bloggers Katie Kwan and Valerie Luu  launch a grass roots pop-up shop called Rice Paper Scissors featuring their take on authentic Vietnamese banh mi made with pate, mayo and daikon pickles they make by hand. 

April 1, 2011 - Denise Tran, a former lawyer who immigrated from Vietnam with her parents at the age of  3, gives Pacific Heights its first pedigreed banh mi. Named to prevent white person phoenetical trip-ups, Bun Mee uses locally sourced ingredients and takes some more American liberties with the sandwich. Its "Sloppy Bun," a "Vietnamese spin on the classic American sloppy joe" is a best seller.

April 11, 2011- Saigon Sandwich reopens after a month-long refresh. Chowhound reports that prices are up 25 cents, bringing the grand total per sandwich to around $3.25, "still a good deal for excellent banh mi."

April 14, 2011 - The New York Times features a glossy picture of Rice Paper Scissors, just a month after they open, leading into this feature about underground dining across the country.

Early July 2011 - Appearing to build off of Tran's success with banh mi for the under-initiated, another phoenetically spelled banh mi shop, Cafe Bunn Miopens on Clement St. in August. Their menu also offers Chinese American foods such as egg rolls and Korean-style chicken wings. 

July 28, 2011 - Cult-followed LA food truck Nom Nom makes its debut in San Francisco at Off the Grid with a menu featuring four different kinds of banh mi. From day one, it trumps most of the other trucks with the length of its lines. Owners Misa Chien and Jennifer Green say the only item they have to explain regularly to San Franciscans is the pork loaf, a wad of steamed minced pork wrapped in a banana leaf Green describes as "my bologna sandwich as a child." 

Sept 4, 2011 - Partly inspired by an episode of No Reservations, the ladies of Rice Paper Scissors introduce a fried egg banh mi to San Francisco at a brunch pop-up outside Blue Bottle in Hayes Valley over Labor Day weekend. They go through 140 sandwiches in a span of three and a half hours. They say 90% of their customers understand what a banh mi is. Their next pop-up will be their first during the daytime, at an undisclosed location in the Mission on October 8th. 

Please note this timeline is by no means exhaustive. Add your favorite new-school or old-school banh mi in the comments sections and share your thoughts on the recent rise of the Vietnamese sandwich.