I Want Banh Mi

banh-mi-2by 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.

6 responses to “I Want Banh Mi

  1. I first heard about this mythical sandwich from someone who’d purchased it in DC’s Chinatown. So it’s possible.

  2. There’s one place in Chinatown that sells it: it’s a few doors south of the entrance to Chinatown Express. The place is dingy, it’s inexplicably closed half the time, and the banh mi are not very good. Perhaps other places in Chinatown sell it, but this is the only one I’ve been to that advertises it on the shop’s sign.

    Excitingly, a new place seems to have opened in Columbia Heights, but it’s relatively expensive and looks to be crowded. And of course its location isn’t much of a help at lunchtime.

    So yeah: sign me up as puzzled. The real mystery, though, is why there aren’t a ton of quality food carts serving the downtown business district. There’s Pedro and Vinny’s (which is just okay, frankly), there’s that Korean cart way east on L, and that’s about it. Banh mi are typically made in extremely cramped quarters — I suspect the process would translate well to a food truck.

  3. conservationoccasional

    In NYC, you couldn’t find a bahn mi in Midtown until very recently. Even now, there are only two places that serve a more “upscale” and less authentic sandwich. You still have to hit up Chinatown or Sunset Park for deliciousness.

  4. Part of the problem is the clientel. The stores in Eden Center keep it real because their mostly Vietnamese customers demand it. Even if an authentic place opened up downtown it would face enormous pressure to either 1) cut corners because most people wouldn’t know the difference or 2) activly basterdize the sandwich because that sells better.

    On the total lack of decent street food, the fist place I’d look would be the District’s rediculously onerous business liscensing/zoning requirements. I don’t know what hoops street food venders have to jump through, but I’d bet it is almost impossible to legaly open a new food truck. And that is probably exactly the way the presumably well connected owner of those disgusting hot dog trailers by the mall wants it.

  5. Obviously east coast people are deprived. How long before Mr Lee touches your empty lives?

    http://leesandwiches.com/2008/

  6. As a Boston (and prior to that Silicon Valley) transplant, I am appalled by the lack of Vietnamese food (or any reasonably authentic Asian food) in the city center. I’m not expecting amazing things…but it’s a Chinatown in a major city.

    Falls Church (Annandale and Rockville, as well) makes up for some of these deficiencies as the Pho I’ve had there is some of the most authentic I’ve ever had. But come on guys, when I’m jonesin for won ton mein or a banh mi, I don’t want to have to rent a car…

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