"How did you find me?" asked Ha Lu, the owner of Nhu Lan. I pointed to the Washingtonian review on the wall. She smiled and proceeded to wrap up the two banh mi sandwiches I had ordered to go. This was not a question she asked the other customers. That's because the Vietnamese shoppers making their way through the Eden Center already knew the best eateries; they had their favorites. Not me. I was there, an interloper, searching for the best banh mi.
Banh mi, the popular Vietnamese sandwich, has several components: crusty bread (should be soft on the inside and crunchy on the outside), salty meat (grilled pork, head cheese, pate, chicken, and, sometimes available for vegetarians, tofu), tangy condiments (some mix of pickled carrots, daikon, jalepeños, and cilantro), and rich and creamy mayo or butter.
The sandwich appears to be the darling of the media, with articles cropping up faster than cupcake shops around DC (here, here, here, and here).
Which makes me think: is the banh mi the new cupcake? Yet another trend that is a little bit old, overused, and tired among the foodie crowd?
It seems that everyone wants to hail a pedi-cab and head to the Eden Center, the Vietnamese shopping center at Seven Corners, where the parking lot mirrors the streets of downtown Saigon: jammed with people trying to get somewhere, fast. You don't have to travel to the Eden Center to try this Saigon sub. DC chefs are reinventing the banh mi by adding upscale versions to their menus.
Unlike cupcakes, which are too sweet for my taste, I wanted in on this fad. So I set out to become a banh mi afficiando. I tasted a few authentic versions from different shops in the Eden Center, washed down a haute version with a glass of Muscadet at a wine bar on U Street, and nibbled on a food truck creation while sitting under a tree in Farragut Square.
Here's my banh mi diary.
Nhu Lan is one of the tiny storefronts located inside the mall at Eden Center. It was a little hard to find (it's best to use the middle door, as the other doors lead to hallways that do not all connect). There are a few tables, but, even so, take your sandwich with you, as the line gets long and the store easily becomes too crowded. I ordered the #3 pork meatballs and #6 red pork meat. My order was done quickly and the total came to $6.80 for both sandwiches. In terms of taste: The bread here was the best of all the banh mi I tried. The meat, however, left many things to be desired. The meatball sandwich had a horrible acrid odor, and the grilled pork lacked flavor. I wasn't impressed.
Banh Mi from Nhu Lan
Banh Mi from Song Que
Next up I tried Song Que, a spot located in the Eden Center, a few doors down from Nhu Lan. Here I tried the grilled pork ($3 bucks) and found flavorful meat, spicy and tangy condiments, stuffed inside mediocre bread. Based on the flavor of the meat, I would pick Song Que over Nhu Lan. This sandwich would have been my favorite had it not been for the disappointing bread that tasted as if it originated from aisle 5 at Giant.
Banh Mi DC Sandwich
About a mile down the road from the Eden Center you will find yet another strip mall, and, in it, a shop called Banh Mi DC Sandwich. One of the things that sets Banh Mi DC Sandwich apart from the other shops, besides its generic name, is the handful of vegetarian options. I ordered the tofu and grilled pork versions, both around $3 bucks. I liked the flavor of the meat and the tofu (they tasted very similar, which is a good thing?) and the bread was crunchy and fresh. The condiments were tangy and sweet. I also tried some shrimp flavored chips that were, much like Lucky Charms, magically delicious.
Banh Mi from Dickson
Dickson Wine Bar
At $12.00, the Creek Stone Farms Ribeye Banh Mi was the most expensive sandwich I tried. The bread was crusty on the outside and soft on the inside, and the meat was tender and flavorful. I couldn't detect any sauce and the condiments fell flat, overpowered by cilantro. The high point here was the wine selection and comfortable but elegant bar space. I didn't think this gourmet version tasted $9 better than the street food versions I found elsewhere, but there was an obvious improvement in the quality of the meat.
Banh Mi from El Floridano
All food truck crazes considered, I figured I would add a mobile banh mi to the mix. The day I found El Floridano the truck was parked near McPherson Square. Made with turkey meatloaf, this is not your typical banh mi. And I was skeptical. Turns out the sandwich was full of flavor: from the moist turkey loaf to the condiments. However, the texture of the turkey loaf that puts this sandwich low on my list. It was pasty and mushy, and, unfortunately, swallowed up by the perfectly crusty bread. That's not to say that it was a bad lunch. Just odd. I will be looking for El Floridano on Twitter, when I start my "A cubano that would please Fidel" post. This food porn makes me wish I had one right now.
My favorite? The banh mi from Banh Mi DC Sandwich was the tastiest street-cheap version. The gourmet sandwich at Dickson was good, but I'm not sure I would seek it out. To be honest, none of these sandwiches made my skirt twirl. Perhaps I'm not cut out to be a banh mi devotee, or I just haven't tried the right one at the right place (The Source banh mi is still on my list. Is it worth it?) Or maybe we foodie types tend to overhype things. Whatever the case, I'm ready for the _____ is the next new _____.