“We’re not authentic,” Ali Fong says. Perched on a stainless steel stool at Bon Me, the Boston restaurant she and her husband started, Fong gestures to the Instagram photo collage mounted on the wall. Green snippets of cilantro loom large, sprinkled over heaps of brown rice and soba noodles. “You could go to Chinatown and get a traditional banh mi. Customers come here because we put a spin on it.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of Vietnamese settled in the US and Canada, and they brought banh mi with them. Because the new immigrants came mostly from the Ho Chi Minh City area, the banh mi they sold were nearly always Southern-style: crusty rolls laden with cold cuts, pate, herbs and colourful pickled vegetables. You can still find those sandwiches around North American Chinatowns, from Boston to San Francisco. But in the last few years, the sandwich became fodder for interpretation for chefs like Fong, whose upscale interpretations of banh mi replace the traditional components with creative ingredients.
Getting the Ball Rolling
Before the early 2000s, banh mi could only be found in Vietnamese enclaves. But when Vietnamese-American chef Michael Huynh opened Baoguette in 2008, he introduced the sandwich to New York City foodies. Alongside classic fillings like pork, terrine and pate, there was the Sloppy Bao, a roll slathered in spicy curried beef and sliced green mango that drew on both Huynh’s childhood in Vietnam and the American culture he encountered after moving to the US in 1982. “Growing up in America, I ate Sloppy Joes in high school,” the chef explains.
Following Huynh’s lead, inventive sandwich shops cropped up throughout the city. Silent H offered banh mi made with kielbasa from local Polish butcher shops. Nha Toi pioneered the pho banh mi, stacked with braised beef, Thai basil and crunchy bean sprouts. “When people found out I was Vietnamese, they would tell me how much they loved banh mi and how much they loved pho. It was only a matter of time before I crossbred the two,” says creator Fred Hua, who grew up in San Jose, California — the largest Vietnamese community in the US — and worked as a line cook at one of Huynh’s restaurants before opening his own joint.
The banh mi craze shows no signs of slowing down. At Bunker, a new Vietnamese restaurant in an industrial Brooklyn neighbourhood, chef Jimmy Tu recreates street food dishes like pho and banh xeo as well as banh mi. The Saigon Special follows traditional lines, with cha lua and pate made in-house. Not so the Vegetarian, which layers roasted portobello mushroom with havarti, smoked gouda and basil peanut pesto.
Spread of the Sandwich
That portobello sandwich might win the prize for least traditional banh mi — although there are an increasing number of contenders across the US. The founders of San Francisco’s Spice Kit cooked at Per Se, French Laundry and the Ritz Carlton Dining Room before opening their banh mi shop, where ingredients include heritage Korobuta pork and organic tofu: “We wanted to do something simple, so we retired our toques, put on some T-shirts and are whipping up Asian street food in a casual, relaxed way.”
At Orange County’s East Borough, you can get your banh mi filled with sustainably caught wild sardines in marinara sauce or creamy Swiss cheese — “pate upon request.” Across the country in Washington D.C., even the crusty bread has become optional: BONMi lets carb-conscious diners fill lettuce wraps with slow-cooked brisket or butternut squash marinated in coconut milk. And in a sign that the banh mi has become truly mainstream, non-Asian restaurants are serving up their own takes on the sandwich. Philadelphia gastropub Royal Tavern offers, in addition to burgers and fries, a grilled sweet potato banh mi with Bibb lettuce and jalapenos.
“I feel ambivalent about this trend,” says Stacy Nguyen, the Vietnamese-American food blogger who pens heoyeahyum.com. “It’s great that Vietnamese food is becoming more and more popular with non-Vietnamese, but this sometimes results in a loss of authenticity. The ingredients in traditional banh mi can be off-putting to some non-Vietnamese — the liver in the pate, the ‘mystery meat’ quality of the headcheese and cha — so these items get discarded in banh mi remakes. As a result, important Vietnamese tastes are lost in translation.”
David Chau, who runs Banh Mi Boys in Toronto with his two brothers, concedes that “some places are becoming extreme, with even more weird toppings.” But for him, making gourmet banh mi is a logical undertaking. His father owned a sandwich cart in Ho Chi Minh City; after the family moved to Canada in the 1980s, they opened Nguyen Huong Food Co., one of Toronto’s first banh mi shops. “We grew up working there,” Chau says. “By age nine, I was stacking the sliced meats. By 12 I was cooking.”
When he saw banh mi mentioned on Food Network (“I’d never heard that word coming out of the TV before!”) he and his brothers decided Toronto was ready for a gourmet take on the sandwich. The first Banh Mi Boys opened in 2011. Buoyed by its success, the Chaus recently opened a second outpost. Their fillings aren’t what you’d encounter on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City: squid, Kalbi beef, duck confit. But the emphasis on freshness feels authentically Vietnamese.
“We bake our own bread, make all of our sauces, pickle all of our vegetables,” Chau explains. “All we need is the raw ingredients.”
To make the pulled pork banh mi, pork shoulder is rubbed with hoisin sauce and spices and smoked in the store for eight hours. Then it’s layered on fresh-baked bread and topped with pickled carrots and daikon, cilantro, cucumbers and Sriracha sauce, along with the same tangy mayonnaise that coats sandwiches at the family store in Chinatown. The result is a smoky take on Southern barbecue buoyed by crisp Asian flavours.
Not all banh mi chefs have direct ties to Vietnam. Fong and her husband, Patrick Lynch, are Boston natives (she is Chinese-American). Two years ago, they pitched Bon Me as an entry to the Boston Food Truck Challenge — and won. The resulting food truck was so popular that the couple opened two others as well as a sit-down restaurant.
“Vietnamese sandwiches — the traditional ones — were popular in Chinatown when I was growing up,” the CIA-trained chef says. “When I moved to New York after college, I was craving those sandwiches.”
In New York City, where the banh mi trend has “exploded to a whole new level”, Fong drew inspiration for her own take on the sandwich. At Bon Me, fillings include vegan walnut pate and raw red onions (“Banh mi are all about balance. I felt like it needed that slight flair”). Customers who don’t want to plate their meat or tofu into a roll can use it to top brown rice or soba noodles. All the dishes benefit from a healthy dose of the house-made hot sauce — a fiery concoction of Sriracha, gochujang and cilantro.
Expats living in Vietnam might wonder why it’s the banh mi that has caught on in America, as opposed to, say, bun cha, or banh xeo. Perhaps this is because the concept of banh mi is both familiar and exotic.
“Everyone’s had ham sandwiches,” Chau says. “But you don’t see many Asian-style sandwiches out there.”