Call them leftovers of French Imperialism. Vietnamese Banh mi sandwiches are tasty little imports of culinary mishmash. They’re one part French, three parts Vietnamese – and you can find them from Tacoma to Tampa. The French brought crusty baguettes, mayo and pté to the banh mi party. The Vietnamese contributed marinated meats and vegetables, cilantro, spicy peppers and fish sauce.
The sandwiches are tuned to the four flavor principles of Southeast Asian cuisine – hot, sour, salty, sweet. The flavor of banh mi – pronounced “bon me” – broadcasts big on salty-sour, lighter on sweet-spicy.
In Tacoma, there’s a nexus of banh mi in the Lincoln District. Turn a circle at the intersection of 38th and Yakima and within a one-block radius you’ll find at least five shops or restaurants that serve it. The sandwiches usually cost $2.50-$3.50, making them about as recession friendly as any portable lunch around town.
Here is a look at four Lincoln banh mi sandwiches, and an upscale version served at Tacoma’s Pacific Grill.
HUONG QUE DELI
Where: 3813 S. Yakima Ave., Tacoma
Hours: 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Sundays
Payment: Cash only
This little sandwich shop micro-specializes in banh mi, priced from $2.50-$3 each. The menu yields a few other Vietnamese favorites: beef stew, a Saigon crepe and goi cuon, the ubiquitous fresh spring rolls stuffed with herbs and rice noodles, shrimp and barbecued pork. For drinks: bubble tea, shakes and ca phe sua da, the popular and strong Vietnamese iced coffee.
The sandwiches here command high praise for composition and freshness and hit the hallmarks of what I consider a tasty Vietnamese sandwich: crusty bread, tender meat, crisp pickled veggies, fresh cilantro and slices of jalapeño.
Many banh mi shops serve that thinly sliced, leathery, gray pork – with a red ring around the surface – on barbecue pork banh mi sandwiches. Not here. The barbecue pork banh mi (banh mi thit nuong, $2.50), came with a toasted, crusty baguette slit lengthwise and stuffed with tender, thick chunks of sweet-savory marinated roasted pork that was crispy around the edges.
The marinade, along with a drizzle of pungent fish sauce, soaked into the bread, giving it savory depth and an unctuous texture. Thick-cut shards of marinated carrot and daikon radish added crunch and a puckery sour note from rice vinegar. Sprigs of cilantro infused a citrusy herbal note, while slices of jalapeño added peppery heat.
I liked that version of the sandwich over the house special (banh mi dac biet, $3), which came with three kinds of meat – barbecued pork, thinly sliced pressed ham and sliced, processed turkey with a slippery texture.
The restaurant is tiny – just a few tables and a counter for ordering that doubles as a dessert case. But beware of the desserts: On my visit, a live fly was spotted flitting about inside a plastic wrapped dessert.
SAIGON VIETNAMESE RESTAURANT
Where: 757 S. 38th St., Tacoma
Hours: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Sunday
Payment: credit cards accepted
Only one banh mi sandwich – the pork banh mi, $2.50 – appears on the menu of this sit-down Vietnamese restaurant. Like other restaurants in the Lincoln District, banh mi are classified on the “breakfast” menu, but don’t let that deter you from ordering them for lunch.
The baguette is a crispy, crusty jacket for the stuffing of sweetly marinated grilled pork cut into large, thin slices. I liked the tender chew of the meat, contrasted with the crispy crust of the baguette.
A single sprig of cilantro and shards of sliced jalapeños kicked up the flavor, but the salty note of the fish sauce noticeably was missing in action.
The puckery bite from the vinegared carrots and daikon was appreciated, but too thin and too few shards meant less flavor depth.
Do ask for fish sauce, and for extra veggies on your sandwich to fix that.
If you opt for something beyond banh mi, the hot rice cakes with pork stuffing (banh cuon nong $5.50) was a tasty diversion off the banh mi trail.
Gummy rice cakes were stuffed with a savory ground pork mixture and piled with slices of sliced meat and fried tofu; the dish was topped with savory fried garlic chips and a dose of freshly chopped mint.
Stay clear of the goi cuon ($2.80); they were flavorless.
DELI 38/VY CA PHE
Where: 750 S. 38th St., Tacoma
Payment: Cash only
If you’re not a regular at Deli 38 Restaurant (the to-go menu calls the restaurant Vy Ca Phe; a business card inside calls it Deli Restaurant), you may get an Americanized version of a banh mi sandwich.
Fish sauce and slices of jalapeño both were missing from mine, and when we mentioned it, our server was apologetic for dumbing down the flavors and indicated that nonregulars sometimes prefer the sandwiches more plain.
Not us. We asked for, and received, a dish of jalapeños to adjust the kick of the sandwich. Three kinds of banh mi are on the menu here.
The grilled pork (banh mi thit nuong, $3) came with tender slices of sweetly marinated grilled pork and piled with a heavy tangle of fresh cilantro inside a crusty, toasted baguette. The pickled veggies added the appreciated sour note.
The meat ball (banh mi xiu mai, $3), also suffered from a lack of kick from jalapeño and fish sauce, but was stuffed with a fragrant, seasoned ground meat, in addition to the usual ingredients.
This is a small sit-down café that is surprisingly stylish inside considering the plain exterior.Inside, you’ll find compelling photography decorating the walls and comfortable and stylish wicker chairs.
CAFE LA VIE
Where: 3724 S. Yakima Ave., Tacoma
Hours: 6 p.m.-6 p.m. daily
Payment: Cash only
This café tucked into a refurbished house micro-specializes in bahn mi, just like Huong Que Deli. However, every time I have eaten here, I see people in the bright, clean dining room eating things not on the menu. I need to get in on that.
The banh mi is limited to three choices. Ham or turkey ($3 each) both are pretty straightforward and what you’d expect, but the house special ($4.50) is quite interesting (and not necessarily in a good way).
A crisp, crusty baguette came stuffed with watery pté, processed turkey and a processed deli ham that was a kaleidoscope of vibrant pink and white swirls – like a very neon prosciutto (only nowhere as good).
Black peppercorns studded the fluorescent pink deli meat, too. It had an unpalatable gristly chew to the meat. I’d skip ordering this one and stick with the turkey.
Note: Another Café La Vie is right around the corner on 38th.
Where: 1502 Pacific Ave., Tacoma
Phone: 253-627-3535; www.pacificgrilltacoma.com
Hours: Lunch hours, when the banh mi is served, are 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays
Pacific Grill’s version of a banh mi is the luscious grown-up sister to the more simple sibling offered at Lincoln District restaurants.
Here, the pork banh mi sandwich ($11.50) gets a cosmopolitan makeover with complex ingredients layered into a flavor cacaphony.
A crispy, panini-pressed baguette came stuffed with pulled pork vroomed up with an Asian-style barbecue powered by hoison, oyster and plum sauces. Dangerous little Thai chilies added devilish heat over the typical jalapeños used in Lincoln District banh mi. A creamy dressing fragrant with fish sauce and kaffir lime leaf soaked into the crunchy baguette, creating a juicy mess of a sandwich. Crispy pickled cucumbers, daikon and carrots added a crunchy, sour bite. An Asian-style slaw accompanies the sandwich.