This post is dedicated to my friends in Switzerland, who must live in a country where they do not know how to make a decent sandwich -- my heart goes out to them. This may sound ridiculous, but having grown up outside of Philadelphia, I know my sandwiches. After all, this is the town that holds up the cheesesteak, hoagie, and roast pork sandwiches as some of its most celebrated foods. But these are topics for future A to Z posts, perhaps.
The name banh mi is Vietnamese for a baguette (something they picked up during French colonial rule) made with both wheat and rice flour, but it has become the name we use for the sandwiches made with this type of bread. It is, perhaps outside of the Italian hoagie and really rare roast beef sandwiches/hoagies, my favorite type of sandwich. On top of this Vietnamese baguette, you put various meats (usually of the fatty, porky persuasion), pickled sliced or shredded carrot and daikon, cilantro, cucumbers, green chili peppers (jalapenos seem to be the go-to here in Philly), pate, and some sort of mayonnaise or aioli. The array of salty, sour, sweet, spicy, meaty, and fatty flavors, combined with the light crispiness of the Vietnamese baguette (the rice flour is key, so accept no substitutions) and the crunch of the vegetables -- the flavors and textures are vibrant and varied, yet come together so well. Even the visual aesthetic of the sandwich -- greens, orange, white -- is fantastic. You can see the French influence -- pate, mayonnaise, a baguette, and the idea of a sandwich in general.
The biggest variation you see in a banh mi seems to be meat or meats you use in the sandwich. You'll see various toppings, like "Vietnamese ham" or "Vietnamese meat", at the sandwich shops, as well as more slighty more descriptive ones like chargrilled pork, B.B.Q. pork (basically Chinese char siu), chicken, beef, meatballs, sausage, tofu, and sardines. I myself like chargrilled pork, meatballs, and the Vietnamese mystery meat cold cuts, which basically comes from a loaf made of pork parts. The cubes of fat, and sometimes the gelatin from things like pigs' ears, again add texture and taste to the sandwich. If that sounds a bit much, the chargrilled and B.B.Q. pork are good places to start. Sometimes people use Sriracha sauce on a banh mi, though usually the source of heat is from chilis.
Sadly, I did not have my first banh mi until I moved to Houston (sadly because that was so late in my life), at a nice Vietnamese restaurant in Rice Village called the Miss Saigon Cafe. They toasted their baguette, the pork was awesome, and the garlic mayonnaise was really good, almost buttery in its flavor. I started to try other banh mi in the Houston area (there are a lot of Vietnamese there), but before I knew it I was in Switzerland, land of beautiful mountains, delicious cheeses, decadent chocolates...and not a decent sandwich to speak of. Then a Vietnamese restaurant opened on Rue de l'Ale for a few months, and I hit them up with terrifying regularity for their banh mi, which was pretty darn good -- especially the bread, which was clearly not a standard French baguette. Unfortunately they folded up, and I was left having banh mi when I could find them on trips to the US.
Now I am back in Philadelphia, and banh mi have become a local, if not national, phenomenon. I will give a shout out to Q.T. Vietnamese Sandwich on 10th and Arch, which makes a great banh mi, including a lemongrass tofu one for vegetarians that is sneaky good. Ba Le, at 6th and Washington, has more variety, though I do not think their bread is as good as Q.T. I have heard great things about Fu-Wah's vegetarian banh mi, and the sandwiches at Nhu Y. I have even gone so far as to try the fancier banh mi at Pod, Sampan, and the gourmet food truck Tyson Bees (which is only a banh mi in name). They are good, but not as good as the Vietnamese sandwich shops.
If you have never had one, you owe it to yourself to try one -- make sure you do a bit of research and find a good place near you, though, I would not want you passing judgment on a mediocre expression of this singular (and sensational) sandwich genre.