Passing over the well-known Vietnamese sandwich chain shops like Lee’s and Baguette Express, Melanie Wong went to check out the Tenderloin’s banh mi cafés—casual spots to hang out with a sandwich, super-strong Vietnamese coffee, and, yes, a cigarette. There’s rarely a line at these places and, even if the bread tends to be “the same overly sturdy French roll,” at least the mayo-like spread referred to as “Vietnamese butter” is more likely to be made in-house from fresh eggs and oil than at their chain counterparts. The red-tinted, fatty, and tender roast pork is also typically house-made. These goodies are usually around $2.50. That’s right, a filling sandwich for under three bucks.
Tu Kim Cafe makes an exceptional banh mi, especially the occasionally available meatball version, which features an uncommonly soft and delicate fine-grained meatball in a hot toasted roll. “Everything about this banh mi was in harmony, flowing in one stream and not separate flavors. No butter or mayonnaise used here, and the extra juices from the meatball moistened the hollowed out roll,” Melanie says.
The Vietnamese coffee may be the best in the city, but the dazzlingly simple noodle soup, based on a pure and greaseless pork stock, really puts this place over the top, Melanie says. You can get yellow egg noodles or white banh canh, the latter made of rice flour and tapioca starch for bouncy, chewy texture. The soup also holds “about a half-dozen thin slices of tender and juicy pork loin rimmed with a bit of succulent fat, some velvety cubes of pork blood cake, two perfectly cooked shrimp,” plus scallions, cilantro, and fried garlic.
Hoang Dat is usually filled with regulars, giving it a social feel. The combo banh mi is very good, with cha lua (pressed and steamed pork roll), head cheese, and barbecued pork belly on a toasty roll slathered with housemade “butter” and Maggi sauce. There’s the additional touch of scallion along with the usual cucumber, pickled carrots, and cilantro.
At breakfast, the house specialty xiu mai nuoc, or meatball soup, is popular. The coarsely ground pork balls, studded with onions and potato/turnip, take up most of the bowl. The simple dish is accented just right with black pepper and fragrant cilantro. It comes with a hot toasted French roll, which is great for sopping up the richly meaty broth. It costs $3.75; “I can’t think of a better breakfast for the price,” Melanie says.
Over at Sing Sing, there’s only one choice of sandwich, but it’s a great one. Here, the barbecued pork belly is heated with the bread, so that the fat almost melts into the roll and the hot pork contrasts with the generous portion of cold, crisp vegetables.
Tu Kim Cafe [Tenderloin]
609 Ellis Street, San Francisco
Hoang Dat [Tenderloin]
930 Geary Street, San Francisco
Sing Sing Sandwich Shop [Tenderloin]
309 Hyde Street, San Francisco