The best banh mi I’ve ever had, strangely enough, was in Los Angeles. It was from the Nom Nom Truck, the location of which my friend and I had to track down on Twitter. Some years later, I find myself in Vietnam, and though I spend a lot of time in the markets, I don’t see a single sandwich stall. I suspect it was more my oversight than anything else.
We have terrific Vietnamese restaurants in Manila but banh mi is conspicuously absent from their menus, and when it’s present, it’s a feeble representation of what it should be.
Banh mi is the only sandwich in Vietnamese cuisine and it started as paté jdaubed on a baguette, and that was it. It was only in the second half of the last century that it morphed into what we know it to be today: an Asian-style submarine sandwich.
Bon Banhmi opened just last September in a hidey-hole in Makati serving nothing else but banh mi. Word has spread wide and far and I chuckle at the exceeding enthusiasm that some of my friends have for it.
“Must. Go. Mustgo!”
“Excuse me but I’ve got to curse: This is the best mother **** sandwich I’ve ever had! I just ate two in one go.”
And on it goes.
I’ll call it a take-away place because there are only two chairs and it’s an excessively simple operation. A basic assembly line of sorts is manned by only two people, one of the Vietnamese owners and an assistant. Though it’s take-away, this is not fast food. The female owner, while kind and accommodating, moves very slowly, almost meditatively, so don’t expect to just grab and go. People come in here and order 15 banh mis so buckle down if you have the misfortune of being the next person in line.
The display isn’t abundant but replenishments come continually from the kitchen in back. Baguettes, burnished brown and crispy, are sliced open – crackle!crackle! – goes the crumb. A yellow substance is smeared on. “Butter?” I ask. Mayonnaise, is the reply, and homemade too, as evidenced by its stark yellow hue which is quickly overshadowed by taupe: the paté.
Then a variety of add-ons are layered on: thinly-sliced pork, pork sausage, and other boiled and cured meats that I can’t distinguish. Sauces are then swirled on, a viscous soy sauce and – “You like spicy?” the Vietnamese woman asks with a smile – “Yes, lots please,” I thank her as I watch scant squirts of red splotch the surface. Then vegetables and herbs, all green – cucumbers, cilantro, etc. – are introduced to the sandwich one by one, though they’re all contained in a single bowl. This is truly what I call made to order.
There are five different kinds of banh mi offered here, everything from traditional to beef, chicken, and even a vegetarian option. (See website below for more details). Two sizes too, medium and large – get the latter because there’s hardly a difference. There’s nothing to drink here except for Vietnamese coffee and a curious artichoke tea with a “special drink for health” appended to it on the overhead menu.
Because of my friends’ fervor for Bon Banhmi and the absolute dearth of this food in Manila, I really, really want to like this sandwich too but I’ll be straight up. It’s the baguette that makes this banh mi. Airy and light as a banh mi baguette should be, and not doughy and dense like most are, it’s a star. It’s a mess to eat too, with every bite igniting a cascade of crumbs that litter the floor and fronts of shirts. Taken as a whole however, the sandwich itself is under seasoned and sorely lacks acidity, a component that’s conspicuously missing. What’s ironic is that there’s a huge glass jar of pickled vegetables on top of the glass display but the actual vegetables and herbs in the sandwich are fresh and not pickled, and pickled veg are absolutely integral to a banh mi.
Still, who can quibble over a P99 sandwich that’s six inches long and sufficiently filling? Though this banh mi could be better, it’s still the best one in Manila. And oh, that baguette, I like it so! So I buy a few (P30 each) and take them home to make my own banh mi.
8390 Mayapis Street, San Antonio Village, Makati.