The Washington Post

Plate Lab: Banh mi is a Vietnamese sandwich with a French twist

(Greg Powers/For The Washington Post)

B anh mi sandwiches can be found all over these days, behind shop counters, from food trucks such as BONMi , fast-casual restaurants such as the newly opened Four Sisters Grill in Clarendon and even more-upscale establishments, such as Dickson Wine Bar on U Street NW. Originally a quick meal for the Vietnamese working class, the sandwich resembles an Asian-style hoagie.

During their country’s lengthy French colonial era, the Vietnamese used native spices and ingredients to incorporate items such as coffee, pât é and baked goods into their culinary specialties. Banh mi is a prime example. The literal English translation of banh mi (pronounced “bun-mee” in Vietnamese) is “bread,” the focal point of the sandwich.

“What makes banh mi a ‘real’ banh mi is the French-style baguette,” says Tony Trinh, co-owner of the new Mr. Banh Mi cafe in Rockville. “It’s nice and golden, soft on the inside, with a bit of a crunch on the outside.” Trinh and his brother Phil also own the Pho 95 noodle shop one door over, where they hatched a plan to bring their family-approved banh mi recipe to the area.

Their $4.50-$6.50 version has three components: the baguette, meat and pickled vegetables. A traditional banh mi (“dac biet” style) is made with a Vietnamese pâte of salty duck liver, which can be pricey and difficult to find, according to Tony Trinh. Local sandwich makers often use different pât é varieties, combined with cold cuts such as bologna or Vietnamese sausage. Alternatives, such as grilled pork, chicken and barbecue beef, cater toward a more Western palate.

“There’s a diverse group of people who like banh mi,” Tony Trinh said. “It’s great and convenient for when you don’t have much time to really sit down and eat a huge meal. I personally eat about one a day right now, and I’m not tired of it yet.”

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