A former darling during the rise of the street food craze, banh mi’s following has waned in recent years. Trends come and go with the ever swinging pendulum of food hype. The Vietnamese sandwich that started as a French baguette, smeared with liver paté, was for a brief time, heavily sought after by food enthusiasts.
It is no wonder, the contemporary banh mi is a light baguette, split and filled with mayonnaise or butter, chile, cilantro (leaves and/or stems), cucumber, pickled daikon and carrot (do chua), soy or maggi, and various meats. Meats can include Vietnamese cold cuts, grilled chicken or pork, roasted chicken, and Chinese barbecue pork (char siu), even meatballs.
The sandwich that was once an inexpensive lunch staple for children who attended Saturday language school is now available at grocery stores.
Many oriental supermarkets even install banh mi counters to quickly dispense the sandwiches, piles of split baguette under glass.
It is the Vietnamese baguette that usually marks good banh mi. Made with a combination of rice and wheat flour, banh mi tay is soft and chewy. Its crust, light and crisp. Many purveyors of banh mi mimic authentic Vietnamese baguette textures by using sections of traditional French baguette from the traditional supermarket and toasting them. According to Andrea Nguyen of Viet World Kitchen, fresh Mexican bolillo rolls make better substitutes.
Me, I’m not ready to relegate banh mi to street food on the cheap. Yes, banh mi can be purchased relatively inexpensively, but, with some care and attention, the sandwich can easily be more. Just as a good burger, made with prime ingredients and executed with care, differs markedly from what passes for one under the “golden arches”, consider house-made mayonnaise with a little garlic (not quite aioli), house-made chicken liver pate, a scant dollop of sambal, young cilantro leaves, maggi, and grilled lemon grass pork on a freshly baked crusty roll. Surely such a banh mi could command more than $3 per sandwich and not be sold en mass, “buy 5 get the 6th free”?
In Ottawa, to answer fellow food blogger Katy Watt‘s (@klwatts) longstanding question, there is banh mi to be had. It is far from the artisan version described above. Six inch hoagie-style rolls are the norm. There are no grilled-to-order meat options. Still, ours is decent fare, crisp bright root veg, meaty cold cuts, savoury liver pate, and fresh cilantro with its characteristic earthy citrus, an alternative to Subway and Quizno’s.
My Hang (788A Somerset Street W.)
Formerly May Lan, this space has been serving banh mi for at least a decade now. I remember visiting as a high school student, purchasing 5 sandwiches to share with friends, a cheap lunch. Recently renamed My Hang, its yellow signage replacing what used to be blue, this banh mi purveyor serves one baguette option. My Hang’s most popular seems to be the submarine special (dac biet), which is essentially the “works” with optional crushed hot chiles. It also serves shredded pork, meatball, “assorted” (thap cam), and chicken banh mi. Everything, $3. Toasting your banh mi, made with either the regular roll or baguette costs extra.
CoCham (780 Somerset Street W.)
Situated next door to My Hang, CoCham is an eat-in restaurant/café with a banh mi counter.
It serves a limited selection of lack luster pho ($6.95/any combination bowl), compared to the dedicated pho noodle houses around it. Still, it executes bun ($6.95/bowl of dry vermicelli noodles with meat and vegetables) and summer rolls ($2/2 rice paper salad rolls) very well. And, the menu is value-oriented, generous portions at impossibly low prices.
Sandwich-wise, CoCham serves “assorted” (thap cam), shredded pork, marinated pork, chicken “roti”, sardine, and pork ball (not on the menu, but listed on the wall behind the counter) banh mi, made with either a crusty roll or baguette ($1 more). The base price is $2.25. Toasting is complimentary.
While I found the crumbled pork meat balls dry, the sandwich was still enjoyable.
Binh Video and Submarine (121 Preston Street, corner of Somerset)
Binh Video and Submarine is an example of the multifaceted businesses that used to make up Ottawa’s Chinatown. Does anyone remember the Chinese bakery and video rental that is now the New Pho Bo Ga La noodle house?
Binh Video is an independent Asian video rental, equipped with a large sandwich counter.
Sandwich-wise Binh Video serves what is likely fusion-style “bacon”, “assorted”, house-made Vietnamese sausage, vegetarian, chicken and ham banh mi. Everything, $3.99 with a canned drink. Toasting is complimentary.
So, if you’re hankering something different for lunch and happen to be in Chinatown, try a banh mi. The sweet pickled carrot and daikon, which are usually house-made, are reason enough to step away from the counter at Subway or Quizno’s.
788A Somerset Street W.
Binh Video and Submarine
121 Preston Street