If you’re from Louisiana, you know the dead seriousness involved in finding the ultimate po-boy sandwich. People, including me, will travel far and wide to get what they like. (See our Delicious Detours post here.) You get the same feeling from those who love the French-influenced Vietnamese sandwich known popularly as the banh mi. Like the New Orleans poboy, the banh mi is a sandwich born in humble circumstances, designed for working people who needed something good, quick and inexpensive to eat.
The po-boy, as the story goes, was created so that striking streetcar motormen could get a free, filling meal. The French colonial period in Indochina brought to Vietnam such French favorites as baguettes spread with butter, mayonnaise or pate, and sometimes topped with ham (see more info on French sandwich classics here). These, along with Vietnamese meats, fish sauce and pickled vegetables, were later put together in different combinations and sold by street corner vendors as an easy and tasty meal on-the-g0.
For those who have yet to sample one, it would not be far off the mark to characterize the banh mi as a nearly perfect sandwich. Extremely portable in size and construction, the whole sandwich seems purposely designed to fit snugly and without inordinate messiness into one of those small white or brown paper bags your mom used for packing your lunch when you were a kid. (Your bahn mi is often presented to you in one of these bags–whether you order it “to go” or to “eat in” seems to make no difference in some of the places I frequent.) The banh mi somehow manages to be compact, fresh, interesting, flavorful and satisfying, all within the space of two simple slices of bread.
If you eat Vietnamese noodle soup, or pho, you’ll notice that the topper to your banh mi sandwich is a loose tumble of some of the very same herbs and vegetables that are brought to the table with your soup–long stalks of cilantro, slivered carrots, daikon, cucumber and jalapeños, all piled over an inner core of whatever meats you have selected: barbecued pork or chicken, Vietnamese style ham, meatballs, pate and other options. If you’re going meatless, there is still a banh mi for you–tofu, fried egg or sardine banh mi choices are available on many menus. (If you’re a ravenous omnivore like me, you’re going to order a sandwich with several meat and non-meat options combined.) Banh mi bread is light and airy, with a crisp crust, similar to the chewier, slightly denser French baguette after which it is patterned, but, among the ones I have eaten here in Houston, more closely resembling the fluffy Mexican bolillo rolls that are commonly found in Texas grocery stores.
Houston’s large, thriving Vietnamese-American communities offer many alternatives for finding good banh mi sandwiches. A short drive down Veterans Memorial Drive in northwest Houston, between FM 1960 and Beltway 8, yields noodle soup houses, sandwich shops and full menu restaurants, all with possibilities for finding great bahn mi. For many years this area has been the heart of the northside Vietnamese community.
Make a trip to the Hong Kong Food Market 3 shopping center. This Asian-focused grocery store is the centerpiece for a host of Vietnamese businesses: an insurance company, sit-down restaurants, a beauty shop, a doctor’s office, a jewelry store, and, an example of that Gulf Coast hybrid that has begun to draw national attention, the Vietnamese-style Cajun boiled crawfish eatery.
On a recent Saturday morning at the capacious Pho Danh No. 3, located in this same shopping center, you might have sworn you were in Saigon or Hanoi–the place was packed, and not a syllable of English was to be heard (except from my table, as we eagerly ordered far too many items to finish in one sitting). Just down the road is the smaller mom and pop-style Pho Truc, which offers noodle soup, sandwiches and some of the crispiest, freshest-tasting Vietnamese egg rolls I’ve ever eaten.
With so many choices, what are the go-to spots for finding good banh mi? Some stand-outs in this part of town are:
Nguyen Ngo 2
This is a relative newcomer to the north side array of banh mi shops. If you can grab a space in the small. oddly-angled parking lot, located right behind a gas station and “touch-free” car wash, you’re in for a surprise when you walk through the door. The interior is all chrome and vibrant purple walls and contemporary fixtures– not the look of your traditional Vietnamese sandwich shop out this way. You are also in for a very reliable, impeccably constructed sandwich.
The owners of Nguyen Ngo 2 are all about freshness, quality and customer satisfaction. Theirs is the most attentive banh mi shop I have visited. Of special note are the shop’s Vietnamese and French Combination sandwiches. An uncle runs the original Nguyen Ngo on Bellaire Boulevard, which was voted “Best Banh Mi” by the Houston Press in 2011.
When you enter the doors at Vina Bakery, you are immediately greeted by the aroma of fresh bread. You see the trays full of fresh loaves cooling on the racks behind the counter, and you know you are in the right place. Vina is the source of bread for many of the other sandwich shops in the area.
The bread is the star of the sandwiches at Vina, though the other ingredients are top-notch, including a well-prepared Vietnamese barbecued pork.
Take Veterans Memorial Drive further north, where its name changes to Stuebner Airline and where the suburban northwest begins to morph into the “exurbs.” You know that banh mi is on the verge of total mainstreaming when you can find a good sandwich right across from Klein High School. Vina Deli, a recently spawned family offshoot of Vina Bakery, is located just north of Louetta Road, in the H-E-B shopping center.
Along with well-made sandwiches, you’ll discover some of the most delicious spins on Vietnamese fruit and coffee smoothies around. Vietnamese coffee drinks are sweet, creamy, delicious and strong, often made with coffee from New Orleans brand Cafe Du Monde. After you’ve tried a Vina Frappe, Vina Deli’s coffee smoothie, you might be tempted pull out your cell phone and delete your Starbucks app for good.
Look out, Mocha Frappuccino!
Over the last few years, the deliciousness of banh mi has gained wider, more pervasive appeal. The form is now being raised to something of an art, and more and more often, you are going to find this sandwich, not just in the wonderful little cafes and pho houses of your local Vietnamese-American neighborhoods, but on the menu at trendier restaurants. You’ll know banh mi has “jumped the shark” when it makes its way to a certain national fast food chain of sandwich shops whose name is taken from a form of urban mass transit…
Until that time, let’s enjoy the uniqueness and deliciousness of the banh mi in its present state of unadulterated goodness. Still at its authentic best, but now much easier to find at one of the growing number of new Vietnamese sandwich shops near you.
Nguyen Ngo 2
14015 Bammel North Houston
Houston, Texas 77014
13480 Veterans Memorial Drive
Houston, Texas 77014
7306 Louetta Road, Suite A-114
Spring, Texas 77379