In a city bursting with Asian fusion cuisine yet infamously lacking in street food, Vietnamese sandwiches fill a gap. Healthier than a hot dog and more interesting than buck-a-slice pizza, bánh mì are fresh, flavourful, and portable—all for little more than $3.
A product of Vietnam’s French colonial past, bánh mì (pronounced ban me) became a Vietnamese staple after the French brought in ingredients like baguettes, pí¢té, and mayonnaise. The Vietnamese adapted the European sandwich and called it bánh mì, which literally means bread.
While the bread and some of the other staple ingredients are European-inspired, “Bánh mì taste different than other subs,” says Hieu Tran at his family’s restaurant, Ba Le (21–701 Kingsway). “They use more authentic [Vietnamese] ingredients for a unique taste.”
Tran says that the Vietnamese twist on the baguette uses both wheat and rice flour and French baking techniques. The result is a crisp crust and a light, yielding interior. The bread is brushed with vegetable oil, fish sauce, and soy sauce.
The sandwich is then loaded with julienned carrot and crunchy daikon, both of which have been pickled overnight in rice vinegar and sugar. These tangy flavours are mellowed by a creamy homemade mayonnaise that is less tangy and more lemony than western-style mayo. Cucumber, cilantro, onions, and jalapeños punch up the mix.
Made fresh to order and easy to take away, the sandwiches are offered with a choice of filling. The usual selection includes grilled pork, chicken, or tofu, marinated in a mixture of lemongrass, garlic, ginger, soy and fish sauces, sugar, and black pepper. Or you can order the combination sandwich bánh mì thit nguoi—also called dac biet (the special)—which features pork liver pí¢té and a selection of cold cuts, including deli-style slices of Vietnamese pork sausage.
Also popular is bánh mì xiu mai, a sandwich that features ground-pork meatballs. Sometimes served in a light tomato sauce, the meatballs are braised in a mix of caramelized sugar, soy sauce, and garlic for a sweet, rich flavour.
The bread itself is key to the sandwich. “The crust has to be a bit crunchy, but not too crunchy,” says owner-operator Hanh Chau during a busy lunch rush at the family-owned Taste of Vietnam (1016 West Broadway).
While the bread is important, “It’s the combination that is more important,” Chau says. “Lots of vegetables, because Vietnamese people like vegetables—the pickled carrots make it taste good—jalapeño for spice, and a good sauce: Vietnamese food always has sauce.”
Judy Chou, a server at Pho Kim Penh Xe Lua (540 West Broadway) echoes this thought. “It’s the balance that makes a great Vietnamese sandwich,” she says. “When the meat is marinated well and there is the right balance of vegetables, the flavours are addictive.” Chou insists that “it is only the bread that’s French”¦the marinade on the meat, the style of grilling, the selection of vegetables are all Vietnamese.”
Ba Le’s Tran and his parents have been serving bánh mì for over 20 years. Tran, who now supervises the shop, says he’s seen the popularity of bánh mì explode in the last decade. He believes that the sandwich has gained a following through word of mouth, and says that they’re now popular with Vancouverites of all ethnic backgrounds. “It’s awesome to see so many different types of customers,” he says.
While Bánh mì are tasty, unique, and easy to eat, Tran thinks that their inexpensive price is an important factor in their success. “That’s part of the chemistry too,” he explains. “People are willing to give them a shot, and then they like it; now some customers come in every day.” His sandwiches sell for $3.25 for the basic cold-cut version and $4.75 for a barbecued pork or chicken special.
Across from the law courts on Hornby Street, nestled between a high-end take-away salad bar and a donair shop, One Saigon Deli (979 Hornby Street) does an impressive lunch business in Vietnamese subs. Owner-operator Nguyen Trieu says there’s a lineup out the door every weekday, and that they sell out of sandwiches by 4 or 5 o’clock. The restaurant only seats about a dozen people; most take the sandwiches, priced between $3.50 and $4.75, to go.
According to Trieu, that’s consistent with the way they’re eaten in Vietnam. “Usually they are sold on the street,” Trieu says at the shop. “There are carts set up everywhere.”¦They’re a popular late-night snack, as well as a good breakfast.”
Until street-food regulations in Vancouver loosen up and entrepreneurs take bánh mì to sidewalk stands, there are plenty of places to grab one of these great sandwiches and go.