Banh mi are increasingly becoming part of the mainstream food culture, because as Liz Lemon says on 30 Rock, "We're all the same sandwich." And for good reason.
The perfect banh mi is a beautiful fusion of French and Vietnamese cuisines; it combines all the elements of a delicious, well-balanced sandwich. Crisp crusted bread encompasses salty, rich fillings with a touch of creamy mayonnaise, cool vegetables with a tinge of acidity to round out the flavors.
While there are many familiar fillings, some may be less well-known to those who haven't eaten much Vietnamese food. This guide breaks down what's between the loaves, both the long-established regulars and the new kids on the block. The regulars are the ones that are found at almost every banh mi shop, and what's most often found in Vietnam. The new kids on the block are fancier banh mi taking common Vietnamese dishes and tucking them into bread.
Bread: Taking from the French, banh mi are served on baguettes or ficelles. Banh mi shops that make their own bread or commission another bakery often use a mix of rice flour and wheat flour for an extra crackly, brittle crust.
Vegetables: Pickled julienned daikon and carrots add piquancy to banh mi, and they're accompanied by a long wedge of cucumber, sprigs of cilantro, and slices of jalapeno. Some might substitute jicama for daikon, and others sneak bits of onion into the mix.
Mayonnaise/butter: Most banh mi are spread with mayonnaise, though some shops will call it butter. Further investigation will reveal that the butter is simply egg yolks blitzed with oil and lemon, or mayonnaise. Some shops will also go for the store-bought mayonnaise for expedience.
Maggi sauce/soy sauce: Many sandwich shops will season their banh mi with the vegetable protein-based Maggi sauce or soy sauce. Just think of it as the umami-rich version of oil and vinegar.
The Established Regulars
Combination (??c bi?t or thit nguoi): Because of the typically high number of filling permutations for banh mi, most are ordered by number. The combination sandwich is almost always listed as #1, always features pâté, and some combination of porky bits — Vietnamese bologna, ham, or headcheese.
Where to find it: Nhu Lan, Song Que, Banh Mi So 1, Ba Le, Saigon Bakery & Deli
Bologna (ch? l?a or giò l?a): Vietnamese bologna is more elegant than what typically comes to mind when one thinks of bologna. A paste of pork is seasoned with fish sauce, black pepper, and sugar, then dotted with bits of crushed black pepper before being cooked in a banana leaf. The result is peppery and pale in color, but lighter in texture than Oscar Mayer.
Where: Banh Mi DC Sandwich, Pho Nom Nom
Pâté: It's not uncommon to find banh mi topped only with pork liver pâté. But often it accompanies other toppings, such as ham, bologna or eggs. At Pho Nom Nom, it's possible to add pâté to a sandwich at no extra charge.
Where: Nhu Lan, Banh Mi DC Sandwich, Ba Le
Chicken (ga): Roasted and grilled chicken both make appearances as banh mi fillings. Often left plain or marinated with lemongrass, it's one of the simpler fillings.
Where: Pho Nom Nom, Nhu Lan, Song Que, Phonation, BonMi, Saigon Bakery & Deli, Banh Mi So 1, Pho DC
Beef (bo): Slightly less common than pork and chicken, beef most often shows up grilled with a sweet caramelized sauce that makes it reminiscent of bulgogi.
Where: Pho Nom Nom, Sprig & Sprout, Pho Bar & Grill DC, Pho DC
Pork (heo): Pork is one of the meat that comes in the most forms in banh mi. And there a number of variations on grilled or roasted pork marinades for those who prefer their pork as more identifiable cuts.
Where: Phonation, Nhu Lan, Song Que, Pho Nom Nom, Banh Mi So 1, Pho DC
Roasted pork (xia xu): Various forms of the Cantonese roast pork dish char siu is popular though Asia, showing up in Japanese ramen, and inside steamed buns in the Phillipines. So it's no surprise that it shows up inside of banh mi.
Where: Pho Nom Nom, Banh Mi DC Sandwich, Ba Le, Banh Mi So 1, Pho DC
Shredded Pork and Skin (bi): There are many different renditions of pork that are found on banh mi, and the shredded pork in the banh mi bi tends to be the least seasoned. But the key point of interest is the skin that is mixed with the pork. Rather than the anticipated crispy chicharron of other cuisines, this skin is soft and chewy adding a gelatinous texture that is much loved throughout Asia.
Where: Nhu Lan, Banh Mi DC Sandwich, Pho Nom Nom, Ba Le
Sour ham (nem chua): Sour ham is raw pork cured or fermented with vinegar, garlic, Thai chilies, and sugar. Sweet, sour, salty and spicy it's a piquant counterpoint to the bread.
Where: Nhu Lan, Banh Mi DC Sandwich, Ba Le
Meatball (xiu mai): A slightly spicy, sweet tomato-based sauce makes the pork meatballs in this banh mi the Vietnamese version of the meatball sub. Though not as heavily sauced as the Italian-American version, these are often deeply flavorful with the sauce penetrating throughout the ball.
Where: Sprig & Sprout, Banh Mi DC Sandwich, Song Que, Ba Le, BonMi
Sardines (ca moi): Somewhat akin to tuna, canned sardines make for a quick banh mi. One of the commonly used brands of sardines is Sumaco, which are picked in a tomato sauce.
Where: Pho 14, Banh Mi DC Sandwich
Tofu/seitan (chay): Many Buddhists in Asia are vegetarians, but most never lost their taste for meat products. As a result there are many excellent mock versions of numerous meats — duck, chicken, beef, pork — made of tofu or seitan (wheat gluten). Most of these have been marinated with a savory sweet sauce with a flavor akin to char siu.
Where: Banh Mi DC Sandwich, Song Que, Pho 14, BonMi
Eggs (op la or tr?ng chien): Some of the best sandwiches are breakfast sandwiches, especially those with a runny egg to saturate the bread. And that's the case with banh mi; in Vietnam you'll often find vendors making breakfast banh mi stuffed with fried eggs that have been seasoned with Maggi. Be sure to order it with pâté for an extra indulgent sandwich.
Where: Pho Nom Nom, Ba Le
The New Kids
Fish cakes: Fish cakes are popular throughout Asia, where they're added to noodle soups and hot pots. The cakes are made from surimi, the same fish paste used for making imitation crab. But the version at Banh Mi DC features dill as a unique spin.
Where: Banh Mi DC Sandwich
Shrimp cakes (chao tom): A spin on shrimp on sugarcane, shrimp is ground into a paste, sweetened and formed into cakes. And yes, they can be fluorescent pink in color.
Where: Ba Le, Banh Mi DC Sandwich
Pork belly: It's what bacon is made from. It's fatty, and it's delicious when braised in a sweet sauce, and will take over your sandwich. What more is there to say?
Where: Dickson Wine Bar, Pho Wheels, Sprig & Sprout