Banh mi is street food with some serious cred. Influenced by the French colonists’ love for a simple snack of pâté on bread over a hundred years ago, the granddaddy of mash up sandwiches is having a moment.
Santa Cruz-based culinary author Andrea Ngyuen, who released The Banh Mi Handbook (Ten Speed Press) earlier this year, traces the history of the sammy, its simple start, and its ever changing ingredients. At its heart, the banh mi is meat and veggies with mayo layered onto warm French rolls. But, to go full banh mi, it’s really about the variety of vegetables, meats and herbs, and how they’re treated: pickled daikon and carrots for zing and crunch, cucumbers for more crunch, cilantro for zest, and chiles for mouth-searing heat. The final ingredient, Maggi Seasoning Sauce, is the real secret, helping to blend everything into the unique juxtaposition of flavors.
When asked about her favorite banh mi in SF, Ngyuen replied, “It's hard to say because there can be inconsistencies. I recently had a dac biet banh mi at Sing Sing and the owner, Harry Lam, had just pulled the pork belly from the oven. It was fabulous. People send me banh mi tips and I have so many on a hit list, such as old school versions at Hoang Dat on Geary and the newfangled Kobe beef banh mi at O'Mai Cafe on Clement.”
And for the greater Bay Area, she said, “Well, I really like the banh mi that come out of my own kitchen. When out I'm out and about in the South Bay, there's a wealth of banh mi opportunities in San Jose, such as Phat Tri and Thanh Huong in the Viet enclaves. In the East Bay, I was surprised by the tasty yuba banh mi at Oakland's Fresh and Best. For traditional Viet sandwiches, Ba Le is reliably good.”
We spent some time recently eating as many different banh mi as we could, to let you know where the best in SF are.
Plopped in the Castro underneath Books Inc. (best entered via 16th Street), this banh mi shop serves up a varied roster of crispy tofu, grilled chicken with lemongrass, and spicy tuna, but I always go for The Special ($5.89), what I think of as quintessential banh mi: three kinds of pork (roasted, fancy loaf, and a pâté) with the requisite pickly vegetables, sliced jalapenos, cukes, and mayo. The bread is light with thin crust, and it has the right balance of meats, veggies, and mayo without becoming a wet oozy mess. // 2275 Market St.
Duc Loi is an international grocery store (it has special sections for Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Thai, and Mexican foods) that also sports a banh mi deli, the Duc Loi Kitchen. Their Classic Vietnamese Banh Mi ($5) includes three kinds of pork, crunchy pickled carrots and daikon, and a seemingly heavy pour of seasoning sauce. This is by far the largest and messiest banh mi I have ever experienced, so large in fact that I couldn’t finish it, making it a better choice if you have a lunch pal to share it. Also, grab extra napkins as it starts to disintregate under its own weight. // 2200 Mission St.
Their Bun Mee Combo ($6.75) claims to be loaded with grilled lemongrass Kurobuta pork, pâté de campagne, mortadella, garlic mayo, shaved onion, pickled carrot & daikon, cucumber, jalapenos, and cilantro. Unfortunately, mine came without the pâté or mayo, which seriously undercut the flavor combo. This is a new location (the original is on Fillmore near California), so I’ll chalk this up to staff in training dealing with a line of 30 plus people waiting in line at the FiDi lunch hour. // 650 Market St.
In 2011, The New York Times T Magazine wrote that Saigon Sandwich’s pâté combo “may be the best in America,” and I won’t argue with that, especially since it costs all of $3.25 and is practically perfect in every way. It has the right combination of ingredients (roasted pork; chicken liver pate; pickled onions, daikon, and carrots; loads of cilantro stalks; and thick slices of jalapenos), and it’s the perfect size. You can order ahead to avoid the line that’s always present. // 550 Larkin St.
Right on Mint Plaza, this coffee shop gives Saigon Sandwich a run for its money. Their combination ($4.50 for steamed pork, ham, and pâté) is also perfectly sized and has the mix of ingredients down pat. Plus you can get donuts for dessert. // 48 5th St.
At least they have the decency to not actually call their lunch time sandwiches banh mi, but their Saigon Roast Pork Sandwich is $10. I can’t even. // Ferry Building