If you enjoy Vietnamese food, you understand that there are basically four categories or types that it comes in: pho (soup), com (rice), bun (noodles) and last but not least, banh mi (sandwiches). A melding of Asian and French, banh mi are delicious and flavorful sandwiches with meat, pickled veggies, cilantro, jalapeno and a bit of mayo spread for depth. When it’s done right you get hit with all these textures and flavors. Crunchy warm bread with a soft fluffy inside. Savory meat, rich mayo, spicy, sweet and acidic from the condiments. And a bit of veggie crunch to balance out the richness of the other ingredients. My favorite spot in SF was a place called Saigon Sandwich on Larkin Street which specialized in banh mi. These two Vietnamese ladies would stuff these delicious sandwiches all day long and it was a total bargain at under $4. So of course here in the Triangle, I decide to try and find out who had the best banh mi in the area. Or at least the best of the places I tried! Are you curious now? Read on and see how Battle Banh Mi for the Triangle unfolds…
(Updated 10/12/15) My first contender in the Battle of banh mi off is the old-school Dalat over at Mission Valley Plaza. Dalat has been in the hood for ages and I haven’t been back here in years. But I’m happy to say the space has been spruced up and looks WAY better than I remember. I grab a seat at the bar and order up a grilled pork and meatball banh mi. Unfortunately since it’s early, they don’t have any shredded chicken! It takes a bit of time but eventually I get two paper-wrapped sammiches and haul them back home.
I unwrap these banh mi bad boy’s and what we have is an 8″ sub in warm crusty french bread for $5.50. It’s a short stubby sandwich that’s well stuffed. For condiments, mostly carrot with some daikon, plenty of cilantro, jalapeno and a cucumber slice. The meat filling is decent, the grilled pork is a bit over-marinated and sweet (fish sauce?). And the pork meatball banh mi? Sort of crumbly and decent but not my favorite banh mi filling but I didn’t have much choice. There’s some decent spread (mayo) on Dalat’s banh mi and value-wise, they are good for price. A pretty filling sandwich but a bit sloppy in terms of how they were put together. But overall the balance of the sandwich was decent with strong flavors. My one major complaint was the cilantro. Too much stem and not enough leaf. Still I’d have to give Dalat’s banh mi a 7 out of 10 for a thumbs-up!
Next on my banh mi hit list was Pho Vietnam on Buck Jones Road near the Raleigh-Cary border. I had reviewed Pho Vietnam a while back as a solid choice for Vietnamese. For my visit, I ordered up two sandwiches: a roast pork and grilled pork. Unfortunately they didn’t have chicken banh mi on the menu, boo! The place is busy so it takes about 15 minutes for my sandwiches and Vietnamese drip coffee (cafe sua da).
My banh mi show up at the table in two paper pouches and they are about the same size as Dalat’s, about 8″ to 9″ long and stubby. The sandwiches look like they’ve been assembled better and the bread used has a bit of crust but is lightweight fluffy. There’s a good mix of carrot and daikon, two pieces of cucumber to fill up the entire length of the sandwich along with better quality cilantro and a good layer of mayo. The filling is solid with a slice of flavorful grilled pork or pink-tinged roast pork. The grilled pork is the big winner and I have no problem wolfing it down. The roast pork is decent but a colder sandwich with a slightly different spread. Not my favorite but the banh mi at Pho Vietnam are solid at $3.95 per sammich, a much better deal than Dalat. I’d give Pho Vietnam banh mi an 8 out of 10 but I’m still hoping for better!
Next up on the Banh Mi Battle is Mo-Te, a small Vietnamese eatery tucked away off of New Hope Church Road in Raleigh. This place reminds me of the mom and pop Vietnamese places I’d find in SF. Bland store-front, laminated menu of bubble teas, refrigerated case with Vietnamese sweets and of course, a little Vietnamese guy behind the counter. He looks really serious while I order up two banh mi and my cafe suda (VN coffee) but finally cracks a smile and wants to know if I’m Vietnamese (nope). It’s early so the order goes in back and I see him toasting up the buns in an oven which is a good sign.
I head out with one styrofoam cup and two banh mi in wax paper bags! And the banh mi from Mo-Te look solid, especially at $3.95. They’re jammed with meat and maybe 10″ long. I start off the roast pork with is not the usual slices but small minced pieces bathed in red marinade. Overall the sandwich is good, layered with a cucumber slice, cilantro and a bit of daikon-carrot. What seems to be missing is they mayo spread and jalapenos. I’m also not picking up much pickled taste from the veggies so even though this banh mi is satisfying, it doesn’t really bring all the flavors together. Oddly enough I’d call it a bit plain. The chicken banh mi is also good with plenty of roasted white meat but again, lacks that flavor punch of a really good sandwich. So solid effort but still behind Pho Vietnam’s version, 7 out of 10.
Banh mi battle continues on with Taste Vietnamese in Morrisville! I had to call in my order and picked the sandwiches up a bit later and the place was so busy, it took a while. So Taste’s banh mi probably had been sitting around for 45 minutes or so before I was able to get them home for lunch, disadvantage. And I definitely thought their banh mi looked smaller, so I wasn’t sure what to expect! Thankfully, I was finally able to order up a chicken banh mi which was a first for me in this contest!
Unwrapping the Taste banh mi, they were about 7″ or 8″ long and only about 3″ across which is the smallest of all the sandwiches I’ve tried. Starting with the chicken, the banh mi was well-stuffed with dark meat. A bit of daikon, cilantro, daikon and spread, my first bite is decent and I taste some marinade. It’s a good sandwich with decent balance but I was thrown off by the flavored chicken and it was light on the pickled tang from the veggies. The pork banh mi was similar, roast pork shreds marinated and well-stuffed. Similar deal, a good sandwich but not as well balanced and flavorful as some of the others I tried recently. Meat in both banh mi was a touch dry which could have been helped with more spread but not the case here. For $4 per sandwich, they’re not a bad deal but definitely not at the top of the banh mi heap. 6 out of 10 due to size and marinade, boo!
My fifth banh mi came after initially writing this post, my favorite Vietnamese restaurant Pho Far East has these sammiches but it’s not on the menu! So a tip on my Facebook reminds me to check them out and of course I can’t resist. A week later I’m at Pho Far East, they’ve got ham (?) and grilled pork but it’s an easy choice to go with the latter given the dishes I’ve tried here. 15 minutes later I get a bag o banh mi ($4/each) and I’m headed home!
Back on the ranch, I unwrap the package and Pho Far East has packaged the condiments (pickled carrot, daikon, cilantro, jalapeno) separately, nice touch! The sandwich has lots of grilled pork, some spread and two spears of cucumber. Coolio, because now I get to customize and bling out my banh mi but I jam as much as I can in there.
The bread is warm and a bit crusty and the soft insides has soaked up juice from the pork. My first bite and yum, the Pho Far East is well-stuffed and has the tang of the veggies along with the sharp pop from the jalapeno, nice!
And it’s a bigger sandwich at about 9″ with plenty of filling, similar to Mo-Te but more tasty. I finish both of them off which is probably not a good idea but who wants a cold banh mi? Given the price, I’d have to give the banh mi at Pho Far East a 9 out of 10 because it delivers size, taste and a decent value, a cut above Pho Vietnam, woohoo! If only they had roast chicken here…
Next up for Battle Banh Mi is Banh Mi Ha Long food truck! A newer option that’s only available on Sunday’s for lunch, they do a grilled pork, grilled chicken and combo banh mi for $5 a sammich.
At 9″ long and good width, it’s a substantial looking banh mi but runs a bit short on meaty filling. But thankfully what’s in there is tasty with some char and caramelized meat! Add in a good balance of pickled carrot, cilantro and jalapeno and you get a spicy mouthful. Only improvements would be to add more spread, daikon and a bit more meat. But a very good banh mi! I’m giving it an 8 out of 10 right now…
Next up on the banh mi list is the venerable, Pho 9n9. While it’s better known for its pho, Pho 9n9 does a pretty solid banh mi. About 9″ long and filled with slightly marinated grilled pork, cucumber, daikon, carrots, jalapeno and spread, I was surprised at how good Pho 9n9’s banh mi is. While a bit unconventional and pricey at $6, it’s a worthwhile sammich. For lunch they serve it with summer or egg rolls as a special for $8.99
So while there are a few more contenders to try in Battle Bahn Mi (Pho 919, Pho Super 9), I’d have to go with Pho Far East as having the best banh mi in the Triangle, Pho Vietnam in second and Mo-Te in third tied with Dalat and Taste Vietnamese rounding up the list. And I have to confess none of them came close to the banh mi I would get while living in the Bay area but what can you do? Although I have heard the Vietnamese food in Greensboro is really good, anyone up for a road trip?!
Dalat- Raleigh (7 out of 10 stars, bahn mi)
Pho Vietnam- Raleigh (8 out of 10 stars, banh mi)
Mo-Te- Raleigh (7 out of 10 stars, banh mi)
Taste Vietnamese- Morrisville (6 out of 10 stars, banh mi)
Pho Far East- Raleigh (9 out of 10 stars, banh mi)
Banh Mi Ha Long Food Truck- Raleigh (8 out of 10 stars, banh mi)
Princess Nail Supply
1300 Buck Jones Road
Raleigh, NC 27606
Hours: 11am to 4pm on Sundays
Pho 9n9 (7 out of 10 stars, banh mi)
2945 S Miami Blvd #102,
Durham, NC 27703