The cab driver stopped on the bustling boulevard Pho Hue and pointed at a mishmash of incongruent four and five-story buildings across the street. I hopped out and dodged buzzing motorbikes and exhaust-belching cars, trying to get from curb to curb.
Then I spotted it:
Banh Mi Pho Hue (118 Phố Huế; 84-4-3822-5009), the no-frills sandwich shop
named for the Hanoi street on which it sits. Nearly everyone I’d asked had said
Banh Mi Pho Hue served the tastiest banh mi in Hanoi. But the family that’s run
the shop since 1974 has a reputation for closing it whenever the cooks run out
of ingredients. So when I arrived at 7pm on a Saturday and found it still open,
I was delighted.
Translated simply as
“wheat,” the banh mi is a delicious and ever-varying combination of deli-style
pork, pate and veggies (think carrots, cilantro, cucumber, etc), stuffed into a
soft and crunchy French baguette. Regional variations in Vietnam involve adding
headcheese, pork sausage and various other vegetables.
In an age of hipster food
mashups – Korean tacos, anyone? – the banh mi is the product of a true cultural
and culinary blend. No food trucks, Instagram photos or tweets led to its
creation. The sandwich began with colonialism – specifically, the establishment
of French Indochina in 1887 – when the occupying French simply slathered butter
and pate inside a baguette. Then when the Vietnamese sent the French packing in
1954, they put their own spin on the sandwich, adding slices of pork, herbs and
pickled vegetables, and creating the banh mi as we know it.
The rest of the world
didn’t learn about this spectacular sandwich until after the end of the Vietnam
War in 1975. As many southern Vietnamese emigrated to the United States, Europe
and Australia, they brought recipes, including one for their iconic sandwich. As
a result, if you’re eating a banh mi outside of Vietnam, you’re probably enjoying
a southern-style snack: the baguettes are generally bigger and they’re crammed
with more veggies and herbs, such as cilantro, carrots and hot peppers.
Oddly, the banh mi has
always been the one kind of food I liked better outside its home turf. When I
tried a banh mi in Ho Chi Minh City a few years earlier, I’d found the bread
stale and the ingredients skimpy; inside was a paltry mix of a few slices of
ham, a smear of pate and flaccid cilantro and carrots. I gave up after one
sandwich. I’d had far better banh mi in New York City; even Minneapolis! Was I
crazy? Could the banh mi outside of Vietnam actually be better? Now back in Vietnam, I was determined to find
out the truth. Would my faith in the banh mi in its homeland be restored? Is
the banh mi the best sandwich in the world?
At Banh Mi Pho Hue,
Geoffrey Deetz – a chef and Vietnamese food expert who’s been living in the
country for nearly 15 years – was peppering the sandwich maker with questions
about ingredients. Meanwhile, I’d just been served my banh mi, partially
covered with piece of white paper affixed with a rubber band.
I pulled back a side
of the baguette to get a look at the ingredients: pork deli meat, fatty char
siu pork, pork floss, creamy pate, Chinese 5 spice and, curiously, butter. The sandwich maker finished it off by pouring
pork-chili gravy inside. Interestingly, I saw none of the herbs and veggies
that spill out of the baguettes served in southern Vietnam or outside of the
“The banh mi
sandwiches in Hanoi are much more one dimensional than other parts of the
country,” Deetz told me. “If you gave someone here the kind of over-stuffed,
herb-laden sandwich you’ve eaten in other parts of the country, they’d probably
Happily, I didn’t
throw up. This banh mi was radically different, true. But it was just as good
as the sandwiches I’d eaten elsewhere. The crunch of bread was followed by an
interplay of porky goodness with a slight kick of spice. It was more like a meat sandwich. I loved it.
“They don’t really
like overly complex food in Hanoi,” Deetz added. “But so many things in here
have a function: the pork floss soaks up the sauce, the pate adds moisture and
the fact that the baguette is lightly toasted keeps it from getting soggy in
this immense humidity.”
While in Vietnam, I
also tried a banh mi in Hoi An, a Unesco World Heritage-designated city on the
central coast. In a region known for fertile soil and vibrant herbs, it’s no
surprise the sandwiches there are stuffed with verdant vegetables.
As I did in Hanoi, I
asked everyone who would listen where I could find the best banh mi around. The
answer was Banh Mi Phuong (Phan Chau Trinh 2B) a diminutive shop in
the centre of town. I ordered the classic, which the menu board indicated contained
“bread, pork, ham, pate”. But there was so much more: long slices of cucumber,
fresh cilantro, pickled carrot and even juicy tomato slices. Phoung finished it
off with a flurry of sauces: a squirt of chili sauce and two different pork
sauces, one from boiled pork and one from smoked pork.
The key to a good banh
mi is, in fact, the bread. A bad baguette – a hard, crumbly log – will ruin an
otherwise fine sandwich. Phuong’s bread, baked right next door, was ultra-soft,
almost deflating when I took a bite, while also maintaining a crispy exterior.
Top that (literally) with high-quality pork, two different pork-based sauces
and a few surprises like tomato and pickled papaya and I had a very good
sandwich in my hands.
All told, I sampled
about 15 banh mi sandwiches over two weeks in Vietnam. Happily, I’d eaten some
of the best sandwiches I’d ever had. That banh mi I tried in Saigon a few years
ago – the one that turned me off to the sandwich for a while – was just a
But is the banh mi the
best sandwich in the world?
There’s scene in The Simpsons in which Homer expresses
bewilderment when his daughter, Lisa, becomes a vegetarian.
“What about bacon?” Homer asks.
“No!” Lisa says.
“No!” Lisa says. “Dad, those all come from the same
“Yeah right,” Homer says. “A wonderful, magical,
combines so much pork with fresh herbs all stuffed into a crispy baguette is, I
have to say, a pretty magical sandwich.