by Sara Mead
Earlier this week the NYT ran a story about cooks and deli owners in New York City who are updating the banh mi, a traditional Vietnamese sandwich that combines a French baguette with Vietnamese meats, condiments, and vegetables, by incorporating new meats and flavors. Some of the examples they describe sound delicious, others a bit silly, and a few seem awfully far afield of the traditional banh mi.
But the story left me with a more pressing question: Given that, as NYT notes, the D.C. area has a much larger Vietnamese population than New York City, why isn’t it possible to get a delicious banh mi in the central business district? Now, as someone who has criticized others for railing about how “D.C. doesn’t have XX food product” when perfectly good and even awesome “XX food product” is located in abundance in Arlington, Bethesda, Silver Spring or more exotic D.C. suburbs (which, while not in the District are as much in “D.C.” as, say, Jackson Heights or Flushing is in New York), I need to qualify this. You can, certainly get banh mi “in D.C.” If you live in D.C. and haven’t been to Eden Center in Falls Church, you should go this weekend. If you don’t have a car, reserve a damn Zip Car, or find a bus schedule. Or get a friend to take you. There are tons of delis there where you can buy tasty, tasty banh mi, as well as other tasty items and good, inexpensive spices.
But what I’d really, really love is to be able to buy banh mi for lunch during the week at work. And that’s something I can’t do, because even though there’s literally a Cosi, ABP, or Potbelly on every single corner around here, there’s not a single banh mi place. This is incomprehensible to me as anything other than a pure market failure. Yes, I know, downtown real estate is expensive. But the banh mi places in Falls Church only charge $2-3 per sandwhich, and even if they charged twice that downtown, they’d still be cheaper than much of the competition. Moreover, there are lots of Vietnamese- and Korean-run “New York Salad Bar” establishments (The ubiquitous “Siz Ex,” for example), but while many of them sell sandwiches, none sell anything like banh mi. And with the ginormous crowds forming lines out the door at both types of establishments around here during lunchtime, I’d be shocked if a good banh mi place couldn’t make a go of it. So what’s up here? What would it take to convince one of the deli owners out in Falls Church to set up a franchise downtown? Or to get one of the Siz Ex’s to hire someone to make banh mi at the back of their store? I would walk several blocks to patronize your establishment, and I would do so at least a couple of times a week (unless I was traveling on in work meetings). And I’m sure lots of other people would to. So, pretty pretty please? Banh Mi downtown?
photo courtesy of flickr user Graciepoo, used under a creative commons license.