A good bánh mì should be a transcendental experience. It should be, like so much of Vietnamese food, an explosion of flavor in the mouth. The sandwich is not hard to make, but it is hard to perfect. So what makes a perfect bánh mì? Read on.
1. The bread
It can't be a plain baguette. It has to be the light, airy Vietnamese baguette that gets its crackly snap from a portion of the wheat flour being replaced with rice flour. It can't be too thin, or there won't be any bread, just crust; it can't be too thick, or it'll be like chewing that vulcanized, chemical-smelling crap Subway calls bread.
The bread, incidentally, is part of why bánh mì taste better at lunch than at dinner. Some places don't bake bread in the evenings (which is why you'll often see the baguettes for sale at 50 cents each after 4 p.m.), which means the early bird gets the best sandwich.
2. The pâté
The base of a great bánh mì is pâté, specifically pork-liver pâté. Many places just open a can of pâté and slap it on there, but an exceptional bánh mì needs house-made pâté. Too dry, and it will crumble and fall out of the sandwich. Too wet, and it will blend unappealingly with the mayonnaise and soak the bread. The flavor also has to be good: Too liverish, and it will compete with the filling, but too bland, and the point of adding it in the first place is lost.
3. The meats
Most non-Vietnamese, upon ordering their first bánh mì, play it safe. Grilled pork (thịt nướng) and beef (thịt bò nướng) are common; xíu mại are juicy pork meatballs, usually without sauce; xá xíu is the Vietnamese for cha shu, the sticky-sweet roasted pork of southern China. Chicken is not normally sold, though there are excellent bánh mì made from roasted chicken; more common is bánh mì trứng, a fried-egg sandwich that makes a killer breakfast.
Hot fillings are a famiiar, non-threatening gateway to the bánh mì, but the Vietnamese are renowned charcutiers, artists whose canvas is pork. It's tempting to give all the credit to France, but it's likely the French merely refined what was a long-standing tradition of meat preservation. Pâté; white, pink and red hams; head cheese; and--for the very lucky--chả quế, which is a lean pork pâté that has been spiked with Vietnamese cinnamon, some of the finest on the planet.
Judge a bánh mì shop by its đặc biệt (a phrase that any lover of Vietnamese food should learn to embrace; it means "house special" and is often the Vietnamese equivalent of "the works"). A đặc biệt should have pâté and at least two kinds of cold cut. There are places that substitute Spam for pâté, and that's not a good sign.
4. The condiments
A bánh mì is not a bánh mì without a few condiments as dressing. Mayonnaise is required; whether it's aïoli (garlic mayo) depends on the place. Đô chua (literally, "sour stuff") are also required--this is a mixture of thinly shredded carrots and daikon radish that have been pickled in sugar and vinegar. Cilantro and chile peppers (usually serrano chiles) are required, as well, though many people ask for them to be held. Bánh mì may also come with Maggi seasoning or thinly sliced cucumber.
The đô chua should be a counterpoint, not the focus of the sandwich; there are places in Orange County that stuff the sandwich full of vegetables, which amounts to paying $2.50 or $3 for a pickle sandwich. If cucumber is included, it should be crisp and fresh.
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5. The price
Let's not kid ourselves. Bánh mì are beloved first and foremost because they're the cheapest good lunch there is. You can get a 10-inch sandwich for $2.25 or $2.50 in Little Saigon; outside the Vietnamese enclave, the price goes up, but even in posh (comparatively) Tustin, it's still less than $4. We've reported on $8 bánh mì, and we are sad to say that there are reports of $12 and $15 sandwiches filtering in. If the quality were commensurate with the price, it would be a different story, but it never seems to be.