Banh Mi is booming, and a lot of people have bought into the burgeoning cultural cachet of these mysterious little sandwiches. New York City, for example, has seen the widespread gentrification of Banh Mi, and—like oversize novelty eyewear—the phenomenon may have reached saturation:
I certainly wouldn't visit an upscale resto offering a Banh Mi which is actually duck confit on a flaxseed torpedo roll, but to my knowledge these "innovations" have not yet made it to Toronto, nor do they represent the Banh Mi that so many Chowhound types seem to be fond of. We are talking whole-in-the-wall, real-deal Banh Mi.
But I'm going to suggest that, as much as upscale Banh Mi is laughable, these so-called "real" Banh Mi are generally pretty terrible sandwiches and it is little more than their cultural cachet and low price that keeps them at or near the top of forum topics on more than one Chowhound board. Low quality food is counter to the spirit of Chowhound, I think, so have you ever—be honest—eaten a Banh Mi and felt like you've been lying to yourself about how great these things are? Have you ever felt like, despite getting two sandwiches for 3.50, you would rather get one really good one for $5? Why is nobody ever critical of Banh Mi (that I can see), when every other type of food is routinely the object of every imaginable scrutiny?
Let's start with the bread: the lowest grade white roll imaginable is the order of business at 90% of Banh Mi shops. It's tasteless, dry, and often outright stale. Give me an example of another style of sandwich you would willingly purchase that uses such a low quality bread. I'm sure these sad little loaves have a stake in the low prices at which we're able to enjoy our lunch, but like I say, wouldn't you rather have something nice?
Next, how about that revolting pink pâté? It doesn't seem to have any flavour and, although appearance is highly subjective, I can't think of anything appetizing about it. There is a Banh Mi shop (the only truly legendary one) called Saigon Givral in Edmonton that uses a different pâté: it's darker, peppery, a little salty, and quite rich. Other than the pâté, the meats are pretty much the only thing that most Banh Mi places get right. I like some of the more imaginative ones: meatball with faint taste of curry, grilled shredded meat of some kind, and even the soybean substitutions can be pretty nice. A regular "combo" is fine for me, though, and I wouldn't begrudge a Banh Mi shop for not offering much else.
But what makes a Banh Mi a Banh Mi to me isn't just the meat, otherwise I'd go sit down for grilled pork on vermicelli. It's the salad toppings. Probably my biggest overall gripe about these sandwiches is how unwilling many Banh Mi shops are to allow me to customize my order in any way. "I like a lot of cilantro," I say (sometimes I say "coriander" or "green stuff" just to ensure it isn't a terminology problem). No reply. The same three or four tired leaves of cilantro arranged on the sandwich. I happen to like the stalks. "Do you have any cucumber?" I ask. "No." I think it's a shame that cucumber is a rarity as a Banh Mi topping, despite being listed as one of its "traditional" ingredients. I suspect corner-cutting on the part of some shop owners here.
What's also frustrating is that, at Saigon Givral in Edmonton, I became accustomed to getting Sriracha on my sandwich. (I didn't suggest it, she offered it.) You wouldn't believe it until you've tried it how well a chili garlic sauce marries all the ingredients together and adds a more evenly distributed heat than those irrelevant little chili peppers you find dotted around your sandwich at most places. In the case of Saigon Givral's exceptional and slightly untraditional sandwiches, it's an enhancement. In the case of other Banh Mi, it would help mask the flavour of stale bread. Why have no shops thought of offering what is, after all, a Vietnamese condiment? Or, why do no customers seem to want it? The closest I came until today—in either Toronto or Montreal—was at the much-vaunted Rose Cafe. After asking for hot sauce, they initially said "no." But moments later a couple of squeeze packets of something resembling Taco Bell hot sauce were discovered and included with my order. Not the best solution.
Which brings me to today. There is a little Banh Mi place on Dupont, just west of Dundas mentioned on a couple of other topics. Nobody seems to know the name of it, and I don't either, but I thought I'd try it out. It's sparsely decorated, with a few tables for sit-in (she also does some hot food like noodles, grilled meats, that sort of thing). I ordered a couple of grilled pork Banh Mi and, spying a bottle of Sriracha that was intended for sit-in diners to add to their Pho, I asked the owner if she would put some in my sandwiches. She agreed, but I couldn't shake the impression that it was the first time anyone had asked for it. The guy next to me in line, perhaps inspired by my claim of "even distribution of spiciness," asked for it too.
The sandwiches were really pretty good, I must say. Very nice pork and a lot of cilantro, stalks and all, without having to beg. No cucumber was to be seen, and the bread was average, but like I say the pork was very nice. I was very encouraged by what I ate and by the idea that someone else out there in the world might now take Sriracha on a Banh Mi.
So I guess what I'm saying is that I think we should be more picky about our Banh Mi and encourage each other to push for better quality and more customization instead of a) misguidedly singing the praises of low-quality food, or b) totally ruining it by taking it "upscale." That's it.