Ben Kochman | Between the Slices
The genius of Banh Mi
Published: Monday, February 25, 2013
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2013 09:02
Boston’s best sandwich values are tucked into the side streets of Chinatown, where a couple bucks buys a multilayered, crunchy Vietnamese sandwich called a Banh Mi.
Shops slinging the Banh Mi have spread like wildfire all over New York City in the past few years, but Boston’s Vietnamese sandwich scene remains firmly rooted a few T stops away in Chinatown. So grab an adventurous friend or two and head out there, where Banh Mi shops litter the streets like Starbucks. Because every Banh Mi is unique, you’ll have to try every sandwich in town.
It’s worth the trek, though. These sandwiches are big, flavor-packed and astonishingly easy on the wallet.
One of the awesome things about the Banh Mi (which is the common Vietnamese term for bread but widely refers to the sandwich) is that, like the masters of the dougie, every Banh Mi chef seems to interpret the sandwich in their own unique way.
Every Banh Mi that I’ve had has shared these characteristics: a crispy baguette, a substantial smear of mayo, an element of meat (or tofu), a palate-cleansing salad element — usually daikon, cucumber and carrots — and then cilantro leaves topping the whole deal. Within these boundaries, chefs have the liberty to improvise.
This week I tried both the shredded pork ($3.25) and BBQ beef ($3.50) sandwiches at 163 Vietnamese Sandwich on Harrison Avenue, which I visited on the recommendation of a fellow Banh Mi fan who grew up in Boston. The layers in these sandwiches were what particularly impressed me. Rich mayo was topped with meat, which was then topped with a stick of cucumber, crunchy scallions and a mixture of pickled carrot and daikon, a kind of radish. The meat itself was tender and nice to chew, but the crunchy texture of the sandwich as a whole was what pushed me to inhale both of these in just a few minutes.
I was underwhelmed by how spicy these sandwiches were — I’ve tried other Banh Mis that included jalapeños — but this lack of heat can be remedied by adding a hot chili sauce like Sriracha, which seems like it was made to top such a sandwich.
It’s only a matter of time before the Banh Mi becomes commercialized on a national scale — it’s just too good not to be. In New Orleansb they apparently call the sandwich a “Vietnamese Po’ Boy,” in Philly it’s a “Vietnamese Hoagie, and it’s already been branded in New York, even at many of the best places in the city, as the super boring-sounding “Vietnamese Sandwich,” because apparently pronouncing the word Banh Mi can be confusing to Americans — “bon-me?” “bun-my?”
As a relative outsider, I can’t say I’m 100 percent on how to correctly pronounce Banh Mi. But as a guy who craves crunchy, unique sandwich concoctions, I really don’t mind, as long as I can keep eating them.
I wouldn’t mind seeing a Vietnamese sandwich shop pop up in Davis Square soon, though I’m sure such a place would have to sell its Banh Mis for a steeper price. A Banh Mi shop in Davis would be far more exciting than yet another frozen yogurt joint.
For now, though, I’m alright with making the trek out to Chinatown to grab one of these guys. There is definitely a charm to eating one of these at a no-frills storefront on a dingy side street. And at just over $3, the Banh Mi could be the best sandwich deal in the city.
Ben Kochman is a senior majoring in English. He can be reached at Benjamin.Kochman@tufts.edu or on Twitter @benkochman. For more Between the Slices, check out The Tufts Daily’s Blog, JumboSlice, at blogs.tuftsdaily.com.