This month our undercover reporter makes a departure from top-end restaurants and instead heads to a purveyor, albeit a top-end purveyor, of the humble banh mi. Photos by Bao Zoan
Vietnam boasts a top-10 global street food scene, according to the BBC, the Guardian, Lonely Planet, the Wall Street Journal and many, many others. So naturally my date and I head to one of the swankier banh mi joints in the city: My Banh Mi.
Managed by Frank Chinn on behalf of his son, celebrity chef Bobby Chinn, well-known German chef Andreas Ertle, plus four other partners, My Banh Mi gets the love online. People rave about the sandwiches, the bread, the meat, the mix of traditional and new. Look on, say, TripAdvisor, and in addition to an impressive 4.5-star rating, you’ll find review after review titled with some variant of “Best Banh Mi”.
Not Your Average Banh Mi Stall
The menu was a surprise. For a simple banh mi joint, it boasts imported New Zealand striploin steaks, charcoal-grilled chicken, soup, salad, pasta, and even a small wine list. When I learnt that the menu was created and originally cooked up by both Bobby Chinn and Andreas Ertle, it made more sense. This is not, in fact, a simple banh mi joint; it is a sit-down restaurant based on a dish whose origins go back to the 19th century and the French colonialists.
To start, we ordered a bratwurst with sauerkraut (VND145,000) and spring rolls (VND50,000). The grilled sausage, with a lovely crisped skin, tasted surprisingly authentic when dipped in mustard. The spring rolls were standard deep-fried affairs, garnished with lettuce and sweet-and-spicy dipping sauce.
Not Your Average Banh Mi
For our mains, my date got the traditional banh mi (VND55,000), with slow-roasted pork. I ordered France’s banh mi “Amour” (VND95,000), with slow-roasted imported sirloin and a wonderful, zingy creamy smoked black pepper sauce. Both of the sandwiches had generous portions of meat and pork paté, as well as the expected sliced cucumber, cilantro, spring onion and chilli. Everything was high quality, and the resulting sandwiches were tasty and surprisingly filling. I truly appreciated the quality of the bread, crispy-crusted and more substantial than the usual airy loaves one finds in the street stalls.
I also had a fun little attempt to order a double cappuccino, ignoring one of my cardinal rules when going out; if there’s any chance of misunderstanding, let my date do the talking. I received a smooth, foamy cappuccino with enough caffeine to orbit a small satellite. When I checked the bill at home, I found I’d been charged for a cappuccino (VND50,000) and a double espresso (VND75,000), neatly explaining my shaking hands. More sensibly, my date ordered lemon tea (VND35,000).
Misplaced in Translation
That little scene summed up the service at My Banh Mi. Willing and enthusiastic, a few problems in translation nevertheless cropped up. I initially ordered Italy’s banh mi “Amore” before changing to the similar sounding “Amour”. That took some explaining, but they got me the right dish on the first try.
The décor is fine, mostly consisting of prints showing off old Saigon, and a nice yellow fabric billowing down from the ceiling. The washroom was clean and well-stocked, and that’s not something I take for granted. My only issue was how few lights were on. True, we arrived near to closing time, but still, the lighting was so dim I nearly had to use my phone’s light to read the menu. A small issue, in the grand scheme of things, but one that might deter others.
What Is the Best Banh Mi in the City?
So, is it the best banh mi? Cost-wise you’re never going to beat a street banh mi, so why try and compete? That seems to have been the idea here — create a superior product made with quality ingredients. The meat is better and there’s more of it, the bread tastier and denser. And yet banh mi is one of those foods you love in part for its imperfections.
I understand the idea of taking banh mi upmarket. It’s been done in restaurants outside of Vietnam and it works. In the case of My Banh Mi, they’ve produced a great product, one that can comfortably compete with the magic that made banh mi so popular in the first place: served from a tiny stall, wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper.
My Banh Mi is located at 57 Nguyen Du, Q1, HCMC. You can visit them online at mybanhmisaigon.com
Food, Decor and Service are each rated on a scale of 0 to 15.
13 — 15 extraordinary to perfection
10 — 12.5 very good to excellent
8 — 9.5 good to very good
5 — 7.5 fair to good
0 — 4.5 poor to fair
The Word reviews anonymously and pays for all meals