A Banh Mi For Everyone

My latest piece for Tuoi Tre newspaper is where to find the best banh mi sandwiches in Saigon.   These baguettes are probably the ultimate fast food in Vietnam.  I’ve sampled countless varieties and here are my favorites.  The text follows just in case this link doesn’t work:

http://www.tuoitrenews.vn/cmlink/tuoitrenews/city-diary/a-banh-mi-for-everyone-1.68236

The American magazine Food and Wine recently shared with the world a secret we in Vietnam have already long known to be true.   Vietnam is a foodie’s paradise, and more specifically Saigon’s ranking in the magazine’s top ten cities worldwide for street food is a testament to our sidewalk chefs knowing their craft and executing it well.

Great food is indeed one very pleasant perk of daily expat life in Vietnam.  Even if our Vietnamese language skills leave much to be desired, the selections out on the street require little translation.   We can simply follow our noses and choose with our eyes.

Walking more than a block or two without running into one of our city’s mobile food carts seems to be a difficult proposition.  But let’s be honest, descending into this wonderful world of sidewalk dining is most unnerving for the newly initiated.  We come armed with tales of horror from those adventurers before us whose stomachs did not quite take the journey intended while sampling the foods.

Rest assured though, as good eating options do abound here in Saigon, and what better way to dip our toes into this vast ocean of food than the banh mi.  A couple of stops on our sandwich tour are well known, and others not quite so.   Yet no matter which food cart becomes your go to source for an authentic taste of Vietnam, the basic premise remains the same…crunchy golden baguettes with fluffy insides, crisp vegetables, tangy herbs, a slather of sauce and, outside of eggs, protein choices unlike any easily found back home.

Nhu Lan is perhaps the best known sandwich stand in town.   The soaring Bitexco Tower across the street may symbolize a new Vietnam rising, but this food stand at 50 Ham Nghi Street still remains a vestige of the more traditional Saigon.  Order the banh mi thit nuong and watch as crispy barbecue pork sliced fresh off a rotating spit drops into the awaiting nest of bread.  “Tasty” and “delicious” seem such clichés when describing an almost bacon-like creation rounded out with mayonnaise and pickled daikon, cucumbers, and carrots; yet these two simple words truly say it all.

Banh Mi Ba Lac’s central District 1 location, at 41 Nguyen Hue, may be on the beaten path, but the rich flavors in these sandwiches are anything but common. Choose from neatly arranged pyramids of pork ranging from juicy roasted slices with reddish edges to sweet-salty cha lua sausage, with of course the normal complements of cilantro and pickled vegetables.  A generous portion of mouth searing chili peppers kicks the heat up a few notches into a sensory overload matching a hot Saigon afternoon.

Smoke wafting lazily from Banh Mi 37’s tiny charcoal grill draws us down quiet, narrow Alley 39 just off bustling Nguyen Trai Street.  37 fires up the flames after 4pm to grill up an “only in Vietnam” experience a world removed from this District 1 neighborhood’s more typical sit-down restaurant fare.  Tender caramelized meatballs hinting of lemongrass, teriyaki infused mayonnaise, sweetly pickled daikon and carrots, cilantro, cucumber slices and a hot pepper spread stuffed into a crunchy baguette all combine to launch our tastebuds on a blissful journey.

The top of the alley at 69 Nguyen Huu Canh next to The Manor highrise complex in Binh Thanh District hosts a no-name food cart allowing us to heed the advice that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  A friendly woman cracks eggs into a battered hot plate to cook up fresh banh mi op la while we wait under an awning offering respite from the morning sun.  A few strokes of her knife spread brown paté across an open face baguette soon filled with the omelet, hot peppers, soy sauce, cucumbers, cilantro, and tomatoes.  For those of us more accustomed to pastries and cereals, this is breakfast reinvented.

Looking for a great vegetarian option to start the day?  Tucked away on a quiet side street near the airport, Café Giai Khat (38C Tan Son, Tan Binh District) takes the ubiquitous baguette and turns it into a proper meat-free treat.  A fluffy omelet is paired with crisp cucumber, soft tomato, soy sauce, and a generous amount of hot sauce.  An ice cold ca phe sua da makes for both a complete breakfast and some sweet relief from this banh mi’s spicy heat.

Fast, fresh and affordable, at prices ranging from VND12,000 to 25,000 (US 50 cents to US$1), these sandwiches are a great introduction to Vietnamese street food culture. The varieties of banh mi available to us morning, noon and night provide a meal suitable to almost any taste.  Perhaps a few banh mi under our belts will whet our appetites enough so that we dare to venture deeper into our city’s rich cuisine.

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Categories: Vietnamese Food

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