Man Food: Quest for the Ultimate Banh Mi

Welcome to Man Food, where burger pro Richard Chudy steps away from his usual beat to explore food challenges, street eats, and other gut-busting delights. Ladies are welcome, of course.

The Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwich may seem exotic to some, but when you break it down it contains the essentials of any great sandwich: bread, protein, vegetables, and sauce. In this case, the bread is a crusty sub roll, while fillings typically include pork, pickled carrots and daikon, pate, cilantro and a sweet mayo sauce. It’s all wrapped up in a crinkly paper sleeve. Once a staple of hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese joints, the uniquely bold flavor profile of this sandwich has led to fancified versions served everywhere from sit-down restaurants to food trucks. I consider myself a Banh Mi novice, so I decided to do my due diligence and sampled versions from three different buzzed-about spots: 163 Vietnamese Sandwich in Chinatown, Pho Viet in the Super 88 food court in Allston, and, of course, the much-hyped Bon Me food truck.
Banh Mi 1 At 163 Vietnamese Sandwich (above), the roll was a hybrid between an Italian sub roll and a French baguette. It was perfectly warmed and crackly, while the pate inside proved the star of the sandwich. The requisite carrots, cilantro, and daikon were added sparingly, however, and the slabs of pork were overly fatty and tough. Though it has some flaws, it’s still a satisfying sandwich — especially when you take the $3 price tag into account.

Banh Mi 2

While 163 Vietnamese sandwich keeps it more traditional, Bon Me does their best attempt to familiarize the uninitiated Banh Mi consumer. Using buzz words such as “all natural”and “organic,” they’re trying to attract a demographic of eaters that’s probably more hesitant to venture to the not-so-glamorous confines of Chinatown. At $6, the sandwich (above) was the most expensive of the lot—and I expected to get a dumbed-down sandwich. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by Bon Me’s modern approach. Sticky and plump slices of pork were nestled in between fresher veggies than the 163 variation, and added slices of jalapeno gave enough heat to elevate the sandwich to delicious territory. The house-made pate played a lesser role here; it was barely detectable throughout. Somehow, though my last few bites were dominated by the livery spread.

Banh Mi 3
Pho Viet’s version was the best of the lot: the bread was airy and ultra-crispy, the toppings were incredibly fresh, and the salty-sweet lemongrass-marinated grilled pork was the most flavorful, reminiscent of traditional spare ribs. Plus, at half the price of the Bon Me version, you can save the extra $3 and spend it on a bubble tea.

All photos by Katie Barszcz.

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