I couldn’t help myself. I licked the meaty, fiery juices from my hand, not wanting to waste them on a napkin. I made eye contact with the woman behind the counter and eagerly raised my index finger, motioning for her to make me one more. I had tasted Vietnam’s most delicious bánh mì sandwich, and I didn’t want this moment to end.
Before moving to Vietnam, I had tasted a handful of bánh mì sandwiches prepared at Vietnamese-owned restaurants. Honestly, none thrilled me enough to prompt a return visit when hit with a craving for a satisfying sandwich. This disappointment continued even upon my relocation to Hanoi. The sandwiches were fine, but by and large they lacked personality and barely filled my hunger. Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, has served me a couple of satisfying bánh mì, one from Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa, stuffed with assorted Vietnamese charcuterie, pickled carrots and daikon, chilies and fresh herbs, and the other a remarkable vegan version that could stand up to any meat-filled baguette. Yet none, until that finger-licking moment, had reached the point where I would get on a plane with eager anticipation to hold this 7-inch flavor bomb in my hands.
The south-central coastal town of Hoi An is most commonly known as a beloved tourist destination where vacationers soak up the history and architecture of this once-prosperous trading port, but I know it as the Vietnamese town with the best bánh mì vendors.
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A recent trip back to Hoi An reinforced this belief, and I have the sandwich-juice-stained shirts from my bánh mì tasting tour to prove it. Happily gorging and investigating these sandwiches, I discovered that the best vendors, Bánh Mì Lành, Madam Khánh and Bánh Mì Phương Hoi An, make most of their ingredients in-house, as opposed to the majority of vendors, who rely on ready-made condiments.
For the best of the best: Bánh Mì Phương, the sister of the above-mentioned brother-run Bánh Mì Phương Hoi An, is the vendor who sets the bar in preparing Vietnam’s best bánh mì. Knowing that it may be a while before you get to wrap your lips around one of these layered gems, I thought it best to break down and share what sets this bánh mì apart from all the rest — with the knowledge that you may want to try and re-create it in your own kitchen.
Bánh mì bread
The French colonialists brought their love for bread and pastries with them to Vietnam. Vietnamese bakers played around with the recipes, ultimately creating a lighter, fluffier thin-crust baguette — making it a perfect vehicle for flavor delivery. A typical French baguette won’t suffice because the crumb is denser and the crust is thicker, forcing your jaws to work and chew your way through the sandwich. This may be one of the rare times you even consider buying one of those fluffy grocery-store-baked baguettes.
Phương gently warms her baguettes in a wooden box by the heat of slowly burning coal embers. You can replicate this in your home kitchen by warming the baguettes in a 200 F oven as you prepare the fillings.
Homemade super sauces
Phương forgoes bland ready-made mayo and takes the time to make a rich, creamy and eggy homemade mayonnaise. Mortar and pestle are used to pound tương ớt , a fresh, long red chile sauce. Instead of using basic light soy sauce or Maggi seasoning sauce, she has concocted her own nước siêu, or super sauce. This is one of those recipes Phương definitely will not share. However, from deduction I have concocted my own version. Heat ½ cup water, ¼ cup light soy sauce and ¼ cup sugar and mix until the sugar is dissolved. Then add a shallot and a quarter of a tomato, both roughly chopped, along with a finely chopped red chile and green onion and then sprinkle in 2 teaspoons of toasted sesame seeds. It may be worth playing around to find a ratio of ingredients pleasing to your taste and keep it stored in a small jar in the fridge so it is easily at hand.
Meats and pâté
Her most popular sandwich, bánh mì deluxe, consists of three types of pork: thin slices of roast pork loin, ham and cha lua, a pork sausage loaf. She also prepares a pork liver pâté that is wrapped in caul fat and sautés some ground pork, which is stored in its fatty juices for added flavor.
Vegetables and herb salad
All the bánh mì stalls use a fresh, vibrant-tasting herb mixture consisting of sprout-sized coriander, mint, rau răm (Vietnamese coriander) and green onions. Lightly pickled julienned carrots and daikon and thinly sliced cucumber lengths are also ubiquitous refreshing additions.
Layering of flavors
Phương and her staff don’t just haphazardly stuff the fillings into the sliced baguette; rather, they methodically assemble each bánh mì in identical fashion. First, 1 tablespoon of homemade mayonnaise is spread along the inside of the bread, followed by 1 tablespoon of pâté along the bottom. Two teaspoons of Phương’s super sauce are drizzled along the crumb of the bread. Then, ⅓ of a cup of herb mixture, sliced cucumber and a few pieces of pickled daikon and carrot make a nest to support the three sliced meats. A tablespoon of the warm ground pork mixture is spooned over the top, then finished off with a touch of fresh chili sauce, if desired, and another couple teaspoons of Phương’s super sauce. I believe it is this specific layering that produces the addictive harmony of flavors that brings her such a loyal following.
Note: For those planning a visit, Bánh Mì Mi Phương has moved because of construction at the main market, and she intends to remain permanently at this new location: at 2B Pham Châu Tring St. in Hoi An.
Main photo: Bánh mì from Bánh Mì Phương. Credit: Cameron Stauch