Roast Pig — Ô Bánh Mì, Hyperion Ave, Los Feliz

obanhmiHow good is half of a great sandwich? Not half as in sliced down the middle, as so many sandwiches are, but half in incomplete, lacking. That’s the question that confronted me at Ô Bánh Mì. They have a Friday special consisting of recently roasted pig, and I have to say as far as that goes it’s stupendous. It comes with jus and it’s unbelievably rich, and the tender pork is perfectly met with crispy skin. Anyone starting with that is well on their way to an outstanding sandwich, I figured, but that’s the rub: on their way.

I have long extolled the virtues of the bánh mì, and I have done so at length. The reason I love the sandwich so much is that I believe it to be the perfect example of what a sandwich can be. A good sandwich is about balance and harmony; it can’t have too much of any one thing, and it all has to work together. A central filling, pickled daikon and carrot, cilantro, jalapeño, cucumber and the wonderfully buttery Vietnamese mayo. It balances savory and sharp, richness and spice, sweet and tang. Often found on really great bread, a well-made bánh mì is perfect.18

But what if it’s not well made? What if, like the above, it is completely devoid of pickled vegetables and cucumber? What if some establishment had decided that their pig roast was so great the rest of the sandwich was superfluous? Well, friends, I put it to you that you’d be left with a sandwich that wasn’t really all that great. A sandwich, after all, is to be considered as a whole. In that light, I hesitate to endorse the above. It’s genuinely great pork, but long time readers will know that there’s little that cuts at me worse than a sandwich driven to mediocrity by a halfhearted effort. It didn’t have to be this way, I want to cry. This could have been a great sandwich.

Fat Banh Mi-Ki — Fat Sal’s Deli, Gayley Ave, Westwood, Los Angeles

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I love the bánh mì. A bánh mì is the reason this blog exists. There are 28 separate bánh mì reviews on this site. If there’s someone who’s been to more bánh mì places than I have, they aren’t blogging about it. So when I look at the above…it’s wrong.

Marinated steak, pickled vegetables, a spicy coleslaw, fried onion rings, tomato, jalapeño, cilantro, a teriyaki glaze and sriracha mayo. That’s a far cry from what I know the bánh mì to be, what with the onion rings, the tomato, the coleslaw, the teriyaki. It’s just a mishmash of pseudo-Asian ingredients and the sort of fried indulgence for which Fat Sal’s is known, and they have the gall to call it a bánh mì. Teriyaki?!!?

The thing is, I’m not sure I care anymore. This was a good sandwich.. Sweet, spicy, tender and crunchy and really just balanced from top to bottom. I’ve held fast to dogma for a long time, claiming to be some arbiter of something I didn’t invent and can’t claim to fully understand, and maybe it’s time to be done with that. There’s room in this world for the pure experience, but there has to be room for the rest of it, no? This was a really tasty sandwich, and maybe that’s the last word.

Pork Bánh Mì — The Hero Shop, Downtown Los Angeles

banhmilosangelesWhat a fine example of the bánh mì! This being downtown Los Angeles it was also $9, a hard price for any bánh mì enthusiast to swallow, but some things can’t be helped. Unlike the last time I payed an outrageous sum for a bánh mì, though, this one was well worth the price.

Long-time readers have heard me sing the praises of the bánh mì before, (at length), but allow me once again to explain what makes them so special. Good sandwiches are about harmony and balance. The ingredients have to work well together, each one contributing to a unified whole, and they must be balanced, with none contributing more than is required. The very best bánh mì demonstrate this better than any sandwich I’ve ever come across. They build around a protein, usually but not always meat, and specifically one with a deep, savory profile. The marinades involved are often boast a dozen ingredients, replete with strong flavors like lemongrass and fish sauce, but often balanced by sweeter notes. The vegetables on the sandwich, thinly sliced carrot and daikon radish, provide a crunch and an acidic tang that helps dial back the central protein. The cilantro is a bright (too bright for some) herbal note, one that I find ramps up everything behind it, and the jalapeño brings heat without throwing off the acidic or peppery notes present from the vegetables or the marinate, respectively.

In short, a great bánh mì is perfect. I have sampled a great many sandwiches, and there isn’t another archetype that comes close. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the above sandwich perfect, but it was very, very good. Quality pork, house-made paté, and a baguette with a good bit of tooth to it all go a long way, and when they’re going into a bánh mì there’s very little that can compare.

Bánh Mì Saigon — Grand St, New york, NY

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“If my own voice falters, tell them hubris was my way of adoring you.” – Lucie Brock-Borido, “Freedom of Speech”

Earlier this week I told someone that Bánh Mì Saigon probably wasn’t worth a trip. I gave this very serious consideration before I said it, but in the end I knew it was the right thing to say. Bánh Mì Saigon used to have the best sandwich in America, but that probably isn’t true anymore.

Probably. I want to revisit what I first said about Bánh Mì Saigon, what occurred to me when I realized sandwiches were something worth writing about:

 I have not eaten every sandwich in America, and I do not aspire to. The conclusion that this sandwich is the best was not reached by poll, not by formula, not by proclamation. It simply is. The #1 from Bánh Mì Saigon is not an appeal to reason, it is an argument for sandwiches as a religion.

I first ate that sandwich more than seven years ago, and in the intervening years I’ve eaten at more than 400 different establishments. Of those, only a single one even made me so much as consider that Bánh Mì Saigon might not have the best sandwich in America. In the end, it wasn’t a challenger that unseated Bánh Mì Saigon, but the simple failure of a lazy monarch.

I knew things were in trouble when Bánh Mì Saigon started making the Number 1 ahead of time, leaving them to grow stale and dry on the counter. I tried to hold on, learning that if you got there early enough you could find a fresh Number 1, and if you could manage that it was still the sandwich I knew it to be. That might still be true, but ultimately that is more condemnation than rescue. If it’s good at 10 in the morning and lousy at two in the afternoon, that just means someone isn’t trying. And as I have stressed on this blog, repeatedly and at some length, there is no greater sin against sandwiches than lack of effort.

saigon-steakThat is the Number 7 from Bánh Mì Saigon, bánh mì bò xào, which is to say steak. It’s very good; a bright lemongrass flavor to the beef is a particular highlight. But it’s not as good as the Number 1 used to be.

The person who asked me if Bánh Mì Saigon was worth the trip happens to live in a city where they have regular access to a quality bánh mì, and that influenced what I told them. Bánh Mì Saigon’s rating on Yelp is still a respectable four stars, and the last time I was there the people I spoke to had nothing but praise to offer. Crucially, though, those people had also never been to Bánh Mì Saigon seven years ago, or even five.

“It simply is.” That certainty stood up to more than 400 sandwiches, and it was thrown away in the name of expediency. I could offer all manner of qualifiers; get their early, order something other than the Number 1, how good it is depends on your frame of reference, on and on I could go. But I dislike these sorts of calculations, and they have no place in the the question of best. Bánh Mì Saigon isn’t that good anymore. They no longer have the best sandwich in America. I don’t know who does.

This is Not a Bánh Mì

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This is not my first “This is not a sandwich” post. Hope though I might, it is not likely to be my last. But, I can say with some certainty, I will never write one so heartbreaking. I found the above item on the buffet line at the Cosmopolitan hotel on the Las Vegas strip, a swanky joint pitching itself as the fashionable alternative to garish tourist traps. It was a fine buffet up until I reached the above, which I found sitting behind a sign that read, simply, “bánh mì.”

I’ve eaten a lot of bánh mì. Given that it’s roughly Vietnamese for “sandwich,” it’s only natural that there’s a good deal of variation between establishments, between sandwiches. It’s a big world. There is little room in it, however, for the nonsense featured above.

Look at it. Spongy bread more at home in a steamed bun, a bit of meat, a bit of carrot and daikon. And they have the nerve to call this a bánh mì. Where’s the baguette, the sandwich’s nod to its colonial roots? Where’s the cilantro? Where’s the sandwich, for crying out loud? What I see is little more than an ill-formed fusion taco, a poorly thought out gimmick, a monstrosity barely fit for a cooking channel reality show, a…I haven’t the words.

I want to stress something important: This is not pedantry. This is not the exclusive concern of the blogging sort of enthusiast. This matters. The bánh mì is in its infancy as a trend, but word is spreading. More and more people are hearing the good word and their finding their curiosity peaked. And what if some of those people should happen to find themselves on vacation, at a hip casino, enjoying the wares of a buffet featuring some quite good food? Well, they would try the bánh mì. And, finding the above, I can only guarantee their disappointment. Part of that is my fault; I’ve long praised the bánh mì with language both flowery and strident, and I accept my fault in this. But the above sandwich is not my doing. Someone’s going to hear about the bánh mì, they’re going to eat the above, and they’re going to say “That’s it?” It’ll be over for them, and that’s why this matters.

The bánh mì has brought me no small amount of joy, and it breaks my heart that some charlatan behind the line in Las Vegas might be taking that joy from person after person, day in and day out. It’s just…gone. Not lost, though. Stolen.

Brisket Banh Mi – Gjelina Take Away, Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice

brisketbanhmiOn more than one occasion, both on this site and elsewhere, I have summarized a sandwich as “10/10 concept, 2/10 execution.” This is simply my preferred way of saying that something is a good idea but whoever executed it fell short. Although I hadn’t given it much thought, prior to eating at Gjelina Take Away, I would have been skeptical that the inverse was possible. 10/10 execution, 2/10 concept? If it’s such a poor concept, surely carrying it out can’t bring high marks. I’m still not sure if such a thing is possible, but if it is you’ll find it pictured above. Beef brisket on a bánh mì is not something I would have come up with, and I would argue that that’s for good reason.

Lots of things can and do go onbánh mìs, with a variety of flavor profiles resulting. That said, they tend to have commonalities between them, usually in the form of…well, Vietnamese flavors. I’m not sure an enjoyable bánh mì is possible without that, and the brisket bánh mì wasn’t encouraging. The beef was awfully rich and seemed bland in comparison to the kind of thing I’m accustomed to in a bánh mì, and overall the sandwich lacked a brightness that a good bánh mì has in spades. The brisket was just too much, and the cilantro wasn’t up to the task of reeling it in.

All of that said, this sandwich felt like exactly what it was intended to be. The brisket was tender and juicy, the vegetables fresh, present in sensible proportion, and the baguette had a tremendous crust. In short, 10/10 execution, 2/10 concept.

Pork Banh Mi – Fundamental LA, Westwood Blvd, Los Angeles

banh mi - fundalemtalLAAfter two recent disappointing upscale bánh mìs (one from Mendocino Farms and the other from Ink Sack, both respected Los Angeles sandwich joints) I was hesitant to try another. My love of the bánh mì is well established, and I have no strong desire to sully my love of the archetype with a string of medicore attempts to upscale something that doesn’t need upscaling. But people keep making attempts, so I figure I might as well. After all, maybe someone’s going to get it right.

As it turns out, someone did! Fundamental LA, who I’ve discussed twice before, has a pork belly number they combine with a duck liver pate, some pickled root vegetables, and ajalapeno aioli, all on brioche. That’s no baguette, but as I discussed in the Mendocino Farms there are larger concerns than choice of bread. The flavor profile is of utmost concern, and Fundamental LA pulls it off. (The same things I said about pork belly previously still apply, but objectively speaking this is a very good sandwich.) The extra helping of cilantro helps cut through the richness of the pork belly, as do some well executed pickled veggies. The elements that were absent in the Mendocino Farms sandwich are fully present here, and as a result the flavor profile of a good bánh mì comes through. That’s crucial, and it’s the difference between an upscale bánh mì that seems like a betrayal of the sandwich and one that doesn’t. Fundamental LA continues to impress, even in matters so close to my heart.

Banh Mi – Ink Sak, Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA

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Here is a notable fact about this sandwich: I couldn’t taste the cilantro. This is a banh mi, ostensibly, and I couldn’t taste the cilantro. Forget the categorical distinction: This was something with cilantro on it, and I couldn’t taste the cilantro. It’s a mystery to me how one would even eliminate the assertive, floral taste of cilantro, but the sandwich world is nothing if not full of surprises.

This is another cute take on the banh mi, and instead of the traditional delight of a sandwich I got something that was cold, bland, and had chicharrónes on it for some reason. I’m not categorically against taking a sandwich archetype and re-imagining it, but for goodness’ sake if you’re going to do such a thing, do it well. Mendocino Farms also pulled this stunt and missed the mark, but at least they ended up with a decent sandwich. Ink Sak has quite a reputation, but nothing I sampled suggested to me that they deserve it.

Kurobuta Pork Belly Banh Mi – Mendocino Farms, Los Angeles, CA

This is either a pretty good sandwich or it’s a poor imitation of a bánh mì. I don’t think that’s what Mendocino Farms was going for, but as near as I can tell, that’s what they got.

You could disqualify this as a bánh mì strictly based on the fact that it doesn’t come on a baguette. Some might see that as needlessly pedantic, but you can’t expect to run around swapping in ciabatta bread and not have someone call you to account. Even ignoring the bread, though, this comes up short.

The flavor profile is off. Bánh mì come lots of different ways, but they all have a particular savory/vegetable/cilantro/heat balance to them. This sandwich doesn’t have that. The pork is incredibly rich and very, very juicy, which ends up dominating the rest of the sandwich. The sandwich is billed as having a “chili aioli,” and while I’d like to weigh that against buttery Vietnamese mayo, I couldn’t really make it out to be considered. The vegetables suffer the same fate.

But all of that that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad sandwich. The bánh mì depends heavily on balance, but not all sandwiches are so. It is the difference between an ensemble performance and a solo act, a simple difference of vision. If you take this as a pork belly sandwich, it’s delicious. The pork is front and center, and everything else plays quietly in the background, rounding out some bites but being pleasantly absent in others. It’s really high quality pork, rich and savory, and well worth its own sandwich. This is a sandwich well worth eating, but don’t mistake it for a bánh mì.

#1 – Bánh Mì Saigon, Grand St, New York, NY

The last time I was at Bánh Mì Saigon I was handed a sandwich that had been sitting on the counter for an undetermined amount of time. This is crime enough in and of itself, but it’s especially bad for the bánh mì, and it’s especially especially bad for the bánh mì from Bánh Mì Saigon. This is the sandwich linked at the top, the one that I claim to be the best sandwich in America. And on that day where I was handed one prepared well in advance, it was dry. The bread wasn’t crispy. The vegetables were limp. In short, it wasn’t the sandwich I’ve spent years praising to anyone who would listen. This was deeply, deeply unsettling.

It took me more than a year to get back to Bánh Mì Saigon. I entered the store that day extremely wary, and trying to prepare myself to come before you and offer an apology and a retraction. I would be completely lost in a world in which the No. 1 at Bánh Mì Saigon is not the best sandwich, but if that’s the world I live in then so be it.

It is not the world in which I live. The sandwich I was handed a few weeks ago was warm, the meat tender, the vegetables bright and fresh, the whole thing balanced and flawless. It was everything I could ever hope the sandwich to be, everything I remember. It was perfect.

There is, tragically, a catch. I was there at 10 in the morning, just two hours after they opened. I waited a minute after ordering as my sandwich was prepared fresh, but along the back counter I could see stacks and stacks of baguettes halfway through an assembly-line process. That would be one thing if the place were packed, but at that hour it was limited to myself and two other people. These were sandwiches that were going to sit for a while. How long, no one can say. If you snuck in just before closing you might get a sandwich that was more than eight hours old. That sandwich may or may not be tasty, but it is not the sandwich that I urge associates far and wide to seek out.

The last time I was preaching the virtues of this sandwich to an associate, I tacked on a bit of advice. “Get there early,” I said, without bothering to include an explanation of why. That may have been a mistake on my part, but it breaks my heart to have to offer a conditional endorsement at all. I’ve sent a good number of people to try this sandwich, and every time I’m afraid they will try it and think I have oversold it. “That’s it?” is my biggest concern. It has not yet happened. Yet.

I wish I had a more conclusive answer for you. I can’t rightly say that the sandwich linked at the top of this and every page is no longer the best sandwich. That isn’t true. It’s just a little harder to find. I hate that this is where I leave you, with me left mealy-mouthed and bereft of certainty, assuring you that it really is the best but you should probably show up on Tuesday, bring an umbrella, try to approach the counter at an angle of 40 to 45 degrees, and say a Hail Mary (but not an Our Father) as you walk in the door. But hating where I stand does not move me.

Get there early.