When it comes to a dish that has so many ingredients angling to be the standout, it can be hard to focus on what makes the ideal banh mi. The sandwich is a good example of one of the key philosophies of Vietnamese cuisine: the balancing of myriad flavors and textures to create one harmonious serving of food.
The French baguette — the dish’s origin is a relic of French colonial rule of Vietnam — needs to crackle, with the right amount of crunch in its exterior, but not be too pillowy in the interior. The bread also shouldn’t be saturated by the typical condiment spread of pâté and mayonnaise.
The standard cold-cut spread was my basis of comparison for this test — usually labeled in banh mi shops as dac biet (special) or thit nguoi (ham and other meats). This involves head cheese (a gelatinous terrine of seasoned pig parts) and other cuts of pork, including ham, all which should be flavorful but not assault the palate with peppercorns, fattiness or chewiness. And the toppings of pickled daikon and carrots, cucumbers, cilantro and jalapeños should cut the savory notes of the other components with crunch, sweetness and heat. Extra kudos go to any shop that adds a deft touch of the umami-packed Maggi or fish sauce.
The D.C. area has an abundance of banh mi options — including many clustered in and around the Eden Center in Falls Church — because of the large Vietnamese American immigrant community located here. The seven spots listed below are devoted to banh mi and are the finest found in the area; but keep in mind that I think of these sandwiches like pizza — even an okay banh mi is still good food.
7. Lee's Sandwiches
If there is a preeminent name in banh mi, it’s Lee’s. The chain, which was founded in San Jose, is a common sight in populous Vietnamese American communities in Northern and Southern California and is known for its crisp baguettes and its bottled Vietnamese iced coffee. The first East Coast outpost opened near the Eden Center as a 24-hour storefront in 2016 but has since scaled back its hours (7 a.m. to midnight).
The sandwich instantly earns points with its visually appealing bread, which is nicely hollowed out. It’s a shame then that what goes into that bread leaves something to be desired. The under-seasoned meat is overstuffed proportionally with the bread, and the carrots and daikon lack any noticeable brightness — but it does win some affection for the few dashes of Maggi. 3037 Annandale Rd., Falls Church. leesandwiches.com. $4.99-$5.49 per sandwich.
6. Banh Mi So 1
Businesses have rotated in and out of the island of shops that greets you upon entering Eden Center, but a long-standing fixture there has been Banh Mi So 1. The eatery is known for its freshly baked baguettes that, like Lee’s Sandwiches, are long and slender. This made it all the more perplexing that, on recent visits, the bread was the weakest part of an otherwise well-crafted sandwich.
The ratio of meat-to-vegetables makes for a satisfying bite and is highlighted by noticeably fresh and well-pickled carrots and daikon. But that bread: At times it crumbled before I could really sink my teeth into it, and in other instances it proved dense and threw off the balance of the banh mi. 6799 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church. $4 per sandwich.
5. Simply Banh Mi
Finding the classic combination of cold cuts on the menu becomes overcomplicated when placed in the modernized fast casual build-your-own model. You have your available starches (such as rice and vermicelli noodles) and proteins (lemongrass-seasoned meats are plentiful) but down at the bottom of the list sit the cold cuts — the only one with a specific serving suggestion: banh mi. I almost left this Georgetown shop off the list because of how much the sandwich vexed me upon arrival.
The shop eschews the traditional configuration of the sandwich by packing the baguette with cuts of pork that are cooked through and fattier than other shops — with a noticeably flavorful addition of cha bong, which looks like a meat wool but gives a welcome punch of umami (it’s tasty, I promise). The firmness of the bread would earn points if the bottom portion wasn’t weighed down by the heavy pour of soy sauce that accompanies the sandwich. A tasty concoction that stays on the list for its uniquely Vietnamese tweaks to the formula, but not quite the traditional banh mi I’m after. 1
624 Wisconsin Ave. NW. simplybanhmi.vpweb.com. $6.50-$8.50 per sandwich.
4. Huong Binh Bakery
This unassuming and tightly packed deli is one of the true staples of Eden Center — my family has been patronizing it for more than two decades. The shop has a variety of prepared foods but its signature menu item remains the banh mi.
At other banh mi places, cha lua, a pale Vietnamese bologna of finely ground pork, is used as a filler meat, but here it plays an important role in balancing the sandwich. It plays well with a rich, fatty pork belly and vegetable mix (Huong Binh’s circular-cut cucumbers, opposed to the standard spear, changes things up for the better). The bread is the most pedestrian part of the sandwich — some added crunch would be nice — but Huong Binh scores points with heat-seekers by nestling a bird’s-eye chile in the wrapper. 6781 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church. www.huongbinh.com. $3.75-$4 per sandwich.
3. Pho & Banh Mi Saigonese
As someone who grew up in Northern Virginia with easy access to the Eden Center, I didn’t imagine that a Wheaton strip mall restaurant would serve one of my favorite banh mi in the area. What lured me out to the Maryland suburbs was the menu’s promise of fresh bread baked hourly.
Not only did the restaurant check off every criteria for what makes a great baguette for banh mi, but everything contained within was not far behind in quality. I was a little skeptical when I spotted some drab-looking ham as part of the party, but it packed a flavorful enough punch for me not to mind its presence. The balance of filling to bread was right on, and every bite contained the appropriate combination of every component. 11232 Grandview Ave., Wheaton. saigoneserestaurant.com. $4.50 per sandwich.
2. Banh Mi DC Sandwich
This Falls Church spot has long earned ink in publications as the hallmark banh mi of the area but questioning gazes from my family and friends. When Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema heaped praise on Banh Mi DC Sandwich earlier this summer, I had to give the shop another shot.
What I learned: Sietsema is rarely off the mark. Banh Mi DC Sandwich delivered with its nearly perfect ratio of ingredients working in unison. The baguette had a beautiful golden color and shape that neatly sandwiched the cold cuts — the head cheese, in particular, announced itself nicely with just the right amount of rich fattiness. And because heat is an underrated aspect in the composition of banh mi, this offering earned points for a noticeable zing from its jalapeños. Credit where credit is due, this shop has earned its consistent and effusive adoration. 3103 Graham Rd., Falls Church. $4.65-$5.50 per sandwich.
1. Nhu Lan Sandwich
For a long time, if you asked me what my favorite banh mi was, without hesitation, the answer would be this little shop tucked down one of Eden Center’s labyrinthine hallways. The sandwich brings it with a combination of well-seasoned housemade meats and a generous swipe of what it labels as “special butter” (which is similar to a mayonnaise) inside a crackling loaf of bread.
The vegetables lately have felt like rote additions to the mix, however, with the cucumbers in particular being limp and occasionally slimy. The amount of meat you get can also vary from visit to visit, but despite these factors, when the shop is at its top, it gets my vote for the best banh mi around.
6763 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church. $5.50 per sandwich (cash only).