- Elizabeth Lenhard
When the Vietnamese adopted the bread of their colonizers, they made it their own by tossing rice flour with the wheat. The result is a loaf that’s cloudlike on the inside and more crackly when it comes to the crust. It is one of the most weightless breads around, yet it has the fortitude to sandwich a whole lot of delicious stuff.
In the case of the banh mi, that stuff almost always consists of sunny shreds of pickled carrot and daikon radish. There absolutely must be a generous handful of cilantro and enough fresh jalapeno to make your lips burn. Cucumber wedges and mayo often are on board as well. A proper banh mi is paper-wrapped and can be munched on a curb.
When it comes to the protein, anything goes. The commonly found bánh mì đặc biệt is stocked with porky cold cuts, sausage, meatloaf and/or head cheese and pâté. But, you also can stuff a banh mi with shredded chicken, scrambled eggs, barbecued pork, even vegetables. Atlanta’s banh mi chefs joyfully have gone every which way with the formula.
If you’re a purist who’ll sniff at any banh mi that wouldn’t pass muster at a Saigon street cart, there are sandwiches for you in the list below.
There also are some kicky variations. I ate a splayed sandwich that spilled sticky cauliflower florets into my lap; a saucy steak banh mi as comforting as Mom’s meatloaf; a barely banh mi on a tiny, round ciabatta.
Bánh mì đặc biệt at Quôc Húóng
Quôc Húóng is a quintessential Buford Highway hole-in-the-wall. It is boxy and brisk and brightly lit.
At a classic, you order a classic, and that is the No. 6, the bánh mì đặc biệt.
Resist the urge to dissect this banh mi, fishing out bits of cold-steamed pork and compacted meatloaf for individual nibbles. On their own, none of these elements is remarkable. But, together, with ample help from musky pâté, they meld and sing.
There’s no indication on the menu that you can add a $1 fried egg to your $3.50 banh mi. But, psst, you can, and you should. It’s not the oozy griddled egg that you might expect, but a messy mound of bouncy shreds. They’re oily and salty and they turn this banh mi from a perfectly rendered staple into a revelation.
Quôc Húóng, 5150 Buford Highway N.E., Atlanta. 770-936-0605, On Facebook: Quôc Húóng.
Grilled sofu tofu banh mi at We Suki Suki
Q. Trinh is known as the wizard behind the Global Grub Collective, the indie food hall that’s the best thing to ever happen to East Atlanta Village.
But, she got her start with banh mi, selling her $5 and $6 sandwiches out of a nook so tiny, half a dozen lunchers made for a cramped crowd.
Now that Trinh’s operation has expanded into the space next door, her banh mi are still huge sellers. She offers a traditional dac biet, a fragrant lemongrass chicken banh mi and another laced with silky, garlicky eggplant.
But, vegetarians tired of soulless soy should flock to Trinh’s grilled “sofu tofu” banh mi. Suffused with a slight smokiness and the deeply saturated flavor that comes from a whole lot of marinating, this tofu is as feisty as its creator, and a worthy match for all the pickles, herbs and peppers heaped upon it.
We Suki Suki, 479 Flat Shoals Ave. S.E., Atlanta. 404-430-7614, wesukisuki.com.
Banh mi thit bo nuong at Le Fat
Chef Guy Wong’s Angus rib-eye banh mi is the epitome of cozy-meets-edgy. It arrives in a paper-lined basket on a dented sheet pan with a plain white cup of herb-scented pho broth on the side.
It costs $11, but it’s blissfully simple, with thick-cut carrots and daikon pickled lightly and sweetly. There are a scattering of the other requisite veg — all fresh and perky — and a barely detectable schmear of butter mayo.
It is barely detectable because the thin-sliced steak is so saucily, saltily, tenderly tasty that it’s hard to focus on much else. Except for the fact that the bread is a “proper” baguette — as light and frothy as the foam on a cocktail.
Speaking of which, you should try one of Le Fat’s sophisticated cocktails on the side. It’s a novel pairing for this normally downscale sandwich, but when there’s an opportunity for a boozy banh mi, you always should seize it.
Le Fat, 935 Marietta St., Atlanta. 404-439-9850, lefatatl.com.
Bánh mì thịt nướng at Lee’s Bakery
Atlantans who know their banh mi are likely to take newbies to Lee’s Bakery for their introduction to the delicacy. Even more likely: They’ll recommend this grilled pork variety, served with its thick wedge of jalapeno on the side.
With its succulent, orangy-red curls of fatty pork — a little smoky, a little sweet — this banh mi is delicious and accessible.
So is Lee’s space, which has the dimly lit bustle of a Midwestern diner. Among the cafe’s lovely quirks are the wooden bin of dirt-cheap baguettes by the front door and the precision of the prices: the thịt nướng is $3.55 if you dine in, $3.25 if you get it to go. And, if you buy five banh mi to go, you get a sixth one free.
It’s details like these that make Lee’s feel nostalgic — even if it’s your first visit.
Lee’s Bakery, 4005 Buford Highway N.E., Atlanta. 404-728-1008, facebook.com/LeesBakery.
Cauliflower and eggplant “banh mi” at Fred’s Meat & Bread
This bulging banh mi is “almost vegetarian” says the menu, apologizing for its fish sauce.
Those quotation marks around “banh mi” on the menu are also an admission that this sub, served on super-chewy General Muir-baked bread, is not your classically porky version of the sandwich.
Oh, Fred! Do not apologize! Instead, say “You’re welcome” for this sandwich’s tender toasty-brown cauliflower and sweet slabs of eggplant; for the tangy mayo that oozes out of the baguette, requiring a stockpile of napkins; for the nicely acidic pickles and tongue-singeing jalapeno; and for the hugeness that justifies paying $8.50 for a vegetable sandwich.
Fred’s Meat & Bread, 99 Krog St., Atlanta. 404-688-3733, fredsmeatandbread.com.
Banh Appetit for Destruction at Victory Sandwich Bar
Even for a joint whose cheap and cheeky $4 sammies come with names like Porky’s Revenge and Mile High Club, this is one clever title for a super little sandwich.
Yes, the cold char sui pork and other accouterments are tucked into a tiny round ciabatta, which is very not banh mi-like.
But, the sandwich is still a fun morsel, with a sweet slathering of sesame seed-dotted mayo, cucumber and a heap of acidic, finely grated carrots. Since it’s a heftier handful than Victory’s other offerings, the price is $5. Worth it.
Victory Sandwich Bar, 348 Church St., Decatur. 404-377-9300. 913 Bernina Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 404-963-1742. vicsandwich.com.
Cauliflower banh mi at Star Provisions
The cauliflower banh mi at this swanky westside favorite might be the most unabashed adaptation of them all. Its crispy florets are drizzled with a sweet, hoisin-ish glaze that out-tangs the sandwich’s pickled veggies and luxuriously mixes it up with the mayo.
The sandwich also is dressed with unorthodox slivers of raw red onion.
And, all these innards are piled in an unwieldy fashion on an expansive and very toothsome baguette. You have to do some fancy folding to even lift the thing to your mouth, and then good luck getting your bite in without dribbling tasties into your lap.
Our advice: Double-layer your napkins and enjoy this deliciously messy and very nontraditional ride.
Star Provisions, 1198 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta. 404-365-0410, Ext. 130; starprovisions.com.