Bánh Mì Thịt Nướng – Phat Tri, Thien Huong & Aroma Coffee and Snacks – San Jose, CA

I wanted to say goodbye to San Jose. I’m moving to Los Angeles next week. I’m excited for that – regular access to Phillipe’s, to Original Tommy’s, to Canter’s. In my head I’m already there, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I owe San Jose something, and I hope I have done it justice. I could have gone around and revisited favorite sandwiches, but that didn’t feel like a fitting tribute. What did feel like a fitting tribute was to sit down to new sandwiches, because that’s what San Jose has always offered.

Phat Tri charges $4 for the above bánh mì, which would be steep for the east side if the above picture weren’t merely half of the sandwich. The thing is a monster, bigger than your forearm. There’s no quantity-for-quality switch going on either, this is a fine sandwich. Quality bread, fresh veggies, the meat is tender and has a strong garlic/lemongrass/soy savory quality to it. There are a dozen of these sorts of shops in San Jose, places that are always mentioned in the never-ending best bánh mì discussion.

I noticed Thien Huong while eating at Phat Tri. The had a “Grand Opening” sign out front, and I figured anyone with the guts to open across the street from a place with Phat Tri’s reputation had to have a lot of faith that their sandwich was something special. I don’t know if that’s what Thien Huong thinks about their sandwiches, but it should be. The meat here was piping hot, freshly seared and bursting with the sweet & salty notes of the classic thịt nướng marinade. For every place like Phat Tri, with a reputation and a leigion of devotees, there are a dozen places like Thein Huong. They’re upstarts, latecomers to a crowded market, people with something to prove. Some of them back it up, some of them don’t. They come and go, becoming almost haunting. Maybe the next one is better than this one. You won’t know until you’ve tried it.

Aroma Coffe & Snacks is three and a half miles from the other two establishments. That wouldn’t be so far, if the distance weren’t stuffed with more sandwich shops. Aroma is tucked in to the back half of a shopping center that sits perpendicular to the street, it’s a little tough to see even when you’re looking for it. Seeking it out is worth the effort. Their thịt nướng is deeply caramelized, chewy and full of flavor. For every Thien Huong, there are another handful of Aroma Coffee & Snacks. Great sandwiches that leave you unsettled over how good the sandwiches might be at all the places you haven’t made the time to try.

I’ll be able to get a bánh mì in Los Angeles, but it won’t be like this. I could go try a new sandwich every weekend for a year and I wouldn’t have to double back. Most of them would be pretty good. The bánh mì is going places, and some day it will be widely popular and too big to really get a head around. When that happens, I’ll remember a city that did its damnedest to give a wonderful sandwich everything it deserved. Thanks for all the sandwiches, San Jose.


BBQ Pork – On A Roll, San Pedro Market, San Jose, CA

There are two bits of context that are essential to understanding this sandwich. The first is that it cost $5, well above the average price for bánh mí in the south bay. Obviously prices are going to vary between neighborhoods, but $5 is steep even for downtown. The second thing you need to know is that my sandwich was the only order On A Roll was processing while I was there, and it still took them more time than is reasonable to make the sandwich. Having established those things, I would like to note what the sandwich did well. The BBQ pork was Xa Xíu, the kind of thing you find in pork fried rice, and it was sweet and moist. The Vietnamese mayo was also choice, a fine buttery example of the type. Both of those things were quite good. But sadly I cannot praise the sandwich as a whole, and here is why:

I draw your attention to the scant strings of carrot on the sandwich. What you see there is the full extent of it, there’s none buried under anything and of course I made no adjustments to the sandwich before photographing it. The daikon and jalapeño weren’t exactly plentiful, but I cannot get over that shortage of carrot. The bánh mí, as an archetype, is excuisitely balanced and included in that balance is a good deal of carrot. So why on earth would you leave it out? Carrots aren’t expensive, and even if they were, On a Roll is charging  almost double what many establishments charge. I know the profit margins in the food game are slim, but there’s got to be room in those margins for a bit more carrot. The only excuse I can think of is sloppy execution, as I’ve found at places doing booming business. But that hardly describes On a Roll, which means that as this sandwich was assembled, someone had the time to look down at it and decide whether or not this was a proper sandwich. It’s too bad, really, because On a Roll gets the hard part of the sandwich wrong. Lackluster execution is lackluster execution, though, and in this case there’s no excuse I can see for what went wrong.

The Month of Bánh Mì – Reflections & Recommendations

And so On Sandwiches’ Month of Bánh Mì concludes, having featured 23 sandwiches across four cities. The highlights, largely focusing on philosophy:

Putting philosophy aside to focus on quality, I’d say the best bánh mì in San Jose is at Thien Huong. The best bánh mì in San Francisco is at Saigon Sandwich, unless you’re already familiar with the sandwich. In that case head to Bun Mee. In New York City, until someone proves otherwise, I’m saying Bánh Mì Saigon is the best. I put less stock in that recommendation than I used to, but I’m not willing to jettison it quite yet.

I hope that as readers you were entertained, but perhaps more importantly I hope that I have done justice to the sandwich. I believe that the bánh mì is a genuinely special sandwich amongst the innumerable sandwiches that exist or that any of us may dream up. It seems more delicate somehow, the balance more precarious. It’s never piled high, so rarely ostentatious, a simple but flexible archetype that allows considerable variation in kind, quality, and construction. So much of culinary history in America involves foreign foods, flavors and ideas slowly moving into the country at larger, shifting as they do, gradually ascending to whatever perch they deserve. The bánh mì isn’t there yet, but anyone who takes a good long look can see that’s where it’s headed. It’s too good not to, and all of us are lucky to be here, today, enjoying these sandwiches even before their nascent glory. They aren’t a secret, not even close, but they’re miles away from popular. It’s less than rational and a little elitist to say so, but I think that gives them a little something special. Next time you sit down to enjoy a bánh mì, count your blessings that you live where they’re available. Smile at your fortune, and savor everything that sandwich can possibly offer. I know that’s what I’ll be doing.

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

Yesterday’s sandwich, the #1 at Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich Deli, left me unsettled. My understanding of the sandwich world had not been overturned, but it had certainly been jostled. Immediately after finishing at Saigon Vietnamese, I walked the 500 feet to Bánh Mì Saigon. All that had been jostled, I thought, would soon be set still. All questions would be answered, all doubts banished. Bánh Mì Saigon was packed. It was getting late in the afternoon, and I took such a crowd as a bit of confirmation, an unspoken collusion between me and all of these other people who knew good sandwiches from great sandwiches from very good, and greatest from great. There was a healthy line, and a small crowd who had already ordered stood waiting for their sandwiches. I spent a few minutes in line, then stepped to the counter and made my order. As I reached for my wallet I was shocked to see my order ready to be taken away. I glanced behind me at the assembled crowd, and questioned whether this was really my sandwich. I was assured it was, money was exchanged, and I went on my way. The picture you see above is the glamour shot, from previous visits. As I held the sandwich that day:

The photo may not reveal what I need to mention, so I will cut to the quick: I have never had such a delicious, yet heartbreaking sandwich. I don’t know how long my sandwich had been sitting there before it was handed off to me, but it was too long. I have little doubt there are portions of the day where Bánh Mì Saigon does enough business to hand off #1s as soon as they’re bagged, but getting towards four in the afternoon on a Friday is apparently not one of those times. The pork, the thing about which I frequently daydream, the thing I had most looked forward to, could only be described as tough. It was dry. The caramelization I so treasure went too far. The rest of the sandwich had no hope of picking up the slack; having sat for an indeterminate amount of time, the baguette lacked any warmth and had lost some crunch. These are errors of execution, that they can be so easily avoided is what makes them so tragic. Indeed, from past experiences I am certain that Bánh Mì Saigon is capable of avoiding them. That they failed to do so is an almost unspeakable disappointment. It was still very good, but it was nowhere close to what it could be. In fact, it was not as good as the sandwich I’d just had at Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich Deli.

Is this the final hailstone that caves in the roof I spent yesterday propping up? I don’t think so, in a large part because were I to say that this is no longer the best sandwich it will not be because some other sandwich surpassed it but because it regressed. Rather than being bested, it can only fail to meet its own challenge. On this particular day, it did fail to do that. I don’t know what the future holds. It’s possible Bánh Mì Saigon had a bad day. It’s possible they’ve grown lazy, content to coast on their reputation. It’s possible they lost something in their transition to a new space, or something as simple as a change in cooks has lead them astray. But the question I attempt to answer is not “What is usually the best sandwich,” or “what could be the best sandwich?” It’s “What is the best sandwich?” That’s not a question I have an answer to right now. Here at the end of On Sandwiches’ Month of Bánh Mìs, I regretfully offer you  no conclusion. This is a serious issue, and I do not want to make mistakes in haste. I will be hesitant to change what I consider to be the best sandwich, but I will not be unwilling. I am not sure when I will be able to revisit this issue, but when I do I will share what I find with you. That I have not settled this question does not mean it cannot be settled. Certainty awaits, and I look forward to obtaining it.

#1 House Special – Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich, Broome St, New York, NY

Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich Deli is a little more than 500 feet from my beloved Bánh Mì Saigon, literally around the corner. As I mentioned in the review of Paris Sandwich, I wanted to see what the neighborhood had to offer. My first sample of Chinatown’s other offerings left me underwhelmed, but Saigon Vietnamese was another story. To start with, this was a big sandwich. Most bánh mìs are six to eight inches, this one had to be at least ten and a good bit taller than most. Relatively speaking, it was a monster. That said, it wasn’t the size that got me thinking.

The #1 House Special at Saigon Vietnamese contains, in addition to the standard vegetables, nem nướng, thịt nguội, and chả lụa. This left me a bit confused, because there’s something a bit off in either the translation here or my understanding of bánh mì fillings. The thịt nguội and chả lụa were what I expected, cold-cut or cold-cut-esque meats previously discussed here and here, respectively. But I understood nem nướng to be pork patties, like I had at Bánh Mì Zớn. Here, though, they were minced. Not just in practice, but described as such on the menu. (The menu, to return briefly to a point made in the Bánh Mì Zớn review, is a series of 8.5×11″ pieces of paper taped above the counter.) Minced and grilled, the pork in this sandwich was much more reminiscent of thịt nướng, as found in my treasured #1 at Bánh Mì Saigon. It had a similarly chewy texture, and very similar sweet, salty, savory flavor. The primary contrast between the two sandwiches is that the pork at Bánh Mì Saigon has a heavier caramelization, and the pork at Saigon Vietnamese is more loose, more moist. Beyond description lies judgement, and I have to tell you that this was a very, very good sandwich. Crisp, tender bread, fresh, bright vegetables, and flavorful, tender meat. Making my way through the sandwich, I was struck with a thought: What if someone likes this better than Bánh Mì Saigon?

A number of associates, after hearing me sing its virtues, have gone to try Bánh Mì Saigon. To my knowledge, none of them have come away disappointed. I always fear that they will, though, because of the particular song I sing, so to speak. From the Finest Sandwich post:

This is a bánh mì from Bánh Mì Saigon, and it is the best sandwich in America. Now, 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.

There isn’t much room to walk that praise back. I’m OK with that, I wrote the above because I believed it, because I meant it, because that sandwich showed me something no other sandwich had before or has since. This “what if someone else…” isn’t some act of cognitive dissonance attempting to distance myself from a realization that I might be wrong. My thinking was that Bánh Mì Saigon was better, but if someone valued different things (a moist softness over the celebration of the Maillard reaction that is the #1 at Bánh Mì Saigon, for example) they might feel differently. And that conclusion, that it was possible that the #1 at Bánh Mì Saigon isn’t the best sandwich in the world, was deeply unsettling.

It isn’t just that I would have to come before you and offer a mea culpa, or that my entire sense of what a sandwich can be would be thrown off. Both of those things would be true, but it’s more than that. Why that conclusion was unsettling isn’t about me, or even about the sandwiches. It’s about fault lines in the ground upon which we lay the bricks of certainty. How do I know the #1 at Bánh Mì Saigon is the best? I can’t explain it, it’s just something I knew when I ate the sandwich. I was made privy to a clarity, and what the sandwich at Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich Deli suggested was not that that picture had shifted, but that perhaps my eyes did not work as well as I thought they did.
Given that I can rely only on myself, my impressions and my understandings, to share the things I love with you, that notion is uncomfortable. Consider the tapestry that is the idea of “Best.” How difficult it is to see which thread is quality, which thread is context, which is luck? Is there novelty in the weave? Bias? This problem exists across criticism, and it prompts some to scurry in retreat, designating only a “favorite,” informing anyone who asks that they must make their own decisions. I would consider that an option of last resort, and it’s not one I will avail myself of today. No. Today I will tell you that this is the second best bánh mì I’ve ever had, that it is slightly too moist, and too tender. It is an exceedingly good sandwich, really, genuinely, very very good. But it was not as good as what I’ve had from Bánh Mì Saigon.

Bun Mee Combo & Juicy Steak – Bun Mee, Fillmore St, San Francisco, CA

Bun Mee is fancy. The pork they serve isn’t just pork, it’s Kurobuta pork, a particular breed. You can get Pellegrino, the menu and the building both feature sharp design, and the menu is full of treats, salads and fries. The sandwiches are expensive as well, from $6-8 compared to $3-4 at the other San Francisco establishments I’ve sampled. It’s closer to Cô Ba than any of the other places from the past month. The first sandwich I tried, the Bun Mee Combo, didn’t make me think much of the elaborate trappings. Aside from the standard carrot/daikon/cucumber/jalapeño/cilantro, the sandwich boasts grilled lemongrass Kurobuta pork, paté de campagne, mortadella, garlic aioli, and shaved onion. That last bit is over the top, I think. I’ve never tried to shave an onion, but I can’t imagine it going very well. Thinly slicing, sure, but never shaving. As if everything else weren’t enough, shaved onion strikes me as the final snap in the unfurling of a fancy flag. Fancy or not, though, this sandwich just wasn’t great. There was a lot going on, and none of it was really bad, but there was so much at play that nothing stood out. The garlic was lost behind the jalapeño and the richness of the paté, the lone slice of mortadella playing farther in the background than it should have. There was fair balance here, in that nothing blasted anything else away, but there was very little harmony, in that nothing seemed to be working together. Had this been the only sandwich that I tried, I would have had a fairly negative impression of Bun Mee.

Luckily for both myself and Bun Mee, I also tried the Juicy Steak. It was a revelation. With the same standards as above, the Juicy Steak held grilled flank steak with lime pepper aioli, lotus root relish, shaved onion, and crispy shallots. The steak lived up to its billing, moist, meaty and flavorful. The lotus root relish brought a delightfully earthy sweetness, echoed in the crispy shallots. This was far, far from a traditional bánh mì, but it was also very good. Bun Mee is the first place I’ve seen attempt and succeed at presenting an upscale bánh mì, and I have to say I’m very heartened by that success. The Combo might not have been special, but the Juicy Steak was and it left me very curious to try the other things Bun Mee has on offer. Given the vision of the future of the bánh mì on offer at Lee’s, Bun Mee was extremely heartening. Someone here knows what they’re doing, and the world of bánh mìs is richer for their contributions.

Roast Pork – Saigon Sandwich, Larkin St, San Francisco, CA

Saigon Sandwich Shop is spoken of as a hole-in-the-wall, but it’s really more of a place that just stuck their counter right at the top. There are a pair of seats facing out of the front window, but you’re really meant to take your sandwich and be on your way. That’s precisely what I did, picking the roast pork from the simple menu board and heading to a local park to enjoy. Before that, though, I watched the sandwich being assembled and wasn’t particularly thrilled with what I saw. Most bánh mì sandwiches have a bit of a rakish angle to their construction, built from the inside out on bread that isn’t sliced all the way through, this can have a negative impact. Sometimes it’s enough to just poke things around a bit and get a perfectly acceptable construction, but other times things stray too far from ideal and there’s no getting them back. Sing Sing was too far gone, and though Saigon Sandwich Shop was not, it wasn’t through the effort of the person putting it together. The construction was quite haphazard, with the sandwich being stuffed at lightning speed, a bunch of each ingredient grabbed with a pair of tongs and stuffed into the sandwich, only secured by the next bunch coming in after it. Luck was on my side, though, and the sandwich came together fine.

Perhaps the luck carried through from the construction, because this was a pretty good sandwich. The bread was some of the best I’ve had in a bánh mì, with a very strong crust but a moist, full bodied interior. Many bánh mì baguettes become efficient husks, minimalist wrappings to celebrated interiors. The baguette at Saigon Sandwich Shop stands up on its own. The meat was moist and there was plenty of it, and the mayonnaise had a nice flavor to it. The veggies & cilantro could have been more flavorful, but taken as a whole the sandwich had good balance and was mighty tasty. Eating so many bánh mìs the quality spectrum begins to blur, and it takes a particularly good sandwich to stand out. Saigon Sandwich Shop has just that kind of sandwich.

Grilled Pork – Paris Sandwich, Mott St, New York, NY

Paris Sandwich is around the corner from my beloved Bánh Mì Saigon, and was my first stop in the neighborhood. I hold the sandwiches at Bánh Mì Saigon in high regard, of course, and I was very curious to see what kind of sandwich shops made it their business to stand in direct competition to what I see as the finest possible sandwich. I wondered how they might attempt to set themselves apart, in what ways they might try to gain a leg up. One thing Paris Sandwich does is serve a lot more food. Where Bánh Mì Saigon serves sandwiches, spring rolls and a few dishes with noodles, Paris Sandwich has all that and more, with rice dishes, Vietnamese waffles, curries, all manner of things. One thing in particular that jumped out at me was, beside the listing of Vietnamese sandwiches (labeled as such), there was list of “Euro-Asian Sandwiches,” which contrasted the standard Vietnamese mayo, pickled carrot and daikon with American mayo, lettuce/tomato/onion and cheese. Lee’s offers American style sandwiches as well, but they seem to understand them as separate sandwiches, constructed in their own right sometimes on a baguette, but other times on a croissant. Paris Sandwich seemed to posit bánh mìs and these Euro-Asian Sandwiches as direct cousins. I tried to conceive of any of the fillings I’ve had on a bánh mì pairing with lettuce/tomato/onion and a slice of cheese, and the resulting mental picture was not a pretty one. Perhaps someday in the future I’ll give one a go, just to find out if it’s as off-putting as it seems to be, but it can certainly wait.

As for the sandwich I did have, Paris Sandwich proved no match for my favorite. The baguette was nice and crispy, but the pork had a strong teriyaki taste to it, a flavor I’d never before encountered in a bánh mì. The veggie mix was a bit out of proportion, leaving carrots overpowering everything else. This was a much better sandwich than I found at Sing Sing, but the conclusions remains the same; with better options just down the block, there’s no real reason to stop here.

Chả Lụa – Sing Sing Sandwich Shop, Hyde St, San Francisco, CA

Sing Sing was a bit of an odd experience. Stepping into the store, I saw a few tabl
es covered in plastic checkered table clothes a few scattered cigarette holes burned in each one. A refrigerated display case stood opposite the tables, stacked with foil logs marked chả lụa. The back wall of the room stopped three quarters of the way across, and behind it sat another room. It was unclear whether that was somewhere a customer might venture. Absent any staff and any further instruction, I just stood there a moment. Soon enough, someone came from behind the wall. “Yes?” they asked. I told them I’d like a sandwich. “Pork?” they asked. I told them pork was fine. “Stay or go?” they asked. I told them I’d take it to stay, and I sat down. They moved behind the refrigerator case, slid a baguette into a toaster oven and began to make my sandwich. That was it. No menu posted, no menu handed out. As far as I know, Sing Sing only serves one sandwich. Chả Lụa is pork roll, meat ground to a paste, flavored a bit, then wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed or boiled. It has the texture somewhat akin to roast beef, rather than the unsettling unified texture of a ham. The flavor is closer to a roast as well.

Sing Sing Sandwich Shop is located in “Little Saigon,” and that’s ultimately what damns the sandwich. It’s not very good, and given that there are much butter, significantly less disorienting options just down the street there’s no real reason to make this your destination. The typical bánh mì is usually loaded a bit skewed, but a bit of shifting a poke here and there set things right. Not so at Sing Sing, where one half of the sandwich had mayo and pate, and the other had cilantro and vegetables. Short of cracking the sandwich all the way open and reassembling it, I couldn’t figure out any way to keep from dealing with a bite of all mayo and pate, then a bite of all everything else. I have no doubt that chả lụa has its devotees, but I’m not one of them. A cold cut by any other name, in my estimation. Many a bánh mì has a crisp crust, but this was the first one that I’ve felt was genuinely sharp, sharp enough that a corner of the bread cut a small hole in the roof of my mouth. Should you ever find yourself on Hyde street, in the mood for a bánh mì, walk past Sing Sing. Or turn around. Or cross the street. Really, anything other than stepping inside should set you right.

Classic Vietnamese Sandwich – Vicky’s Vietnamese Sandwiches, E 2nd St, New York, NY

Vicky’s conception of classic is roast ground pork, Vietnamese ham, and pâté. That’s not what what I know as classic; perhaps it’s a regional thing. Regardless of whether it is or it isn’t, this sandwich won’t be ranking as a classic with me. As has become a refrain this month, it wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great. The roast pork was a texture I hadn’t come across in a bánh mì before, and I didn’t care for it. In contrast to Lee’s mushy meatball, it was a mealy rough texture. Both sandwiches miss the mark of contrasting crust and tender inside that one finds in a meatball or meatloaf, and these two strikes are enough to get me to steer clear of this sort of thing in the future. Meat in most bánh mìs is shredded, chopped or sliced, and it seems to me that ground isn’t an option that needs including. On the upside the ham had a nice bright flavor, the mayo was buttery, and the sandwich had a nice peppery flavor overall. It was also served piping hot, the hottest I’d ever had. A good bánh mì is warm, and this one didn’t lose anything by being warmer than the average. The more sandwiches one eats the more divergent one’s experiences will be, and as my list of shops gets longer, some places will have to find a place at the bottom. As it so happens, Vicky’s is one of those places.