The art of banh mi

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Banh Mi 3by Kelly Fahey

Bánh Mi Saigon is hidden inside of a banal shopping center on High Point Road. Its location makes it fairly easy to miss for the passerby, but this restaurant is really no secret. For years it’s been a destination for the savvier restaurantgoers in Greensboro who want to try something a little different.

When I first heard about Bánh Mi Saigon, I had no idea what bánh mi was. The idea of a Vietnamese sandwich sounded pretty odd to me. Essentially, it’s a product of imperialism. The French, in colonizing Vietnam, brought with them their renowned baguettes. Combine that with traditional Vietnamese fillings like pan-fried pork belly or Vietnamese sausage, and top it with cucumber sticks, cilantro, jalapeños and shredded carrots and you have bánh mi, which in Vietnamese is a term that refers to bread of any kind.

In the United States, however, it refers to this sandwich, which has become a trend among foodies. After first eating at Bánh Mi Saigon, I began to notice bánh mi restaurants all over the place. But I can honestly say that Bánh Mi Saigon is the best Vietnamese sandwich I have had.

The baguettes used for Vietnamese sandwiches tend to be a bit crispier and flakier than what Americans are used to. It makes for a nice crunch when biting into the sandwich. And on the inside, the strong flavors of the meat and sauces mixed with the aromatic cilantro and jalapenos provide a truly unique flavor profile.

Other than the sandwiches, Bánh Mi Saigon is known for its wide array of fresh appetizers, displayed on a table in front of the counter. Among the ones I recognized were fresh spring rolls stuffed with shrimp, pork, cilantro and rice noodles. A surprisingly spicy peanut dipping sauce came on the side.

The regular sandwich menu offers many choices of fillings, including fried or steamed pork roll, pâté, Vietnamese ham or sausage or a variety of barbecued meats, all of them for just a few dollars. Supplementary to this menu is a white board with specials, which includes curried chicken, sardines and tofu. There are certainly vegetarian options such as veggie meatballs, but the meat choices outnumber them.

I ordered the curried chicken, which is usually my go-to when ordering bánh mi. It was very good, but the barbeque chicken sandwich that my girlfriend picked was considerably more flavorful. Along with the normal blend of vegetables, it was served with scallion oil and lemon fish sauce. The flavor was truly unlike anything I’d eaten before, and I plan to order that next time I come in.

To add to the complex flavors of the food offered at Bánh Mi Saigon, they provide an extensive selection of authentic Vietnamese canned drinks, among which is coconut juice, sugar-cane soda and a grass-jelly drink. I had a chrysanthemum tea, which sounded so out of the ordinary that I couldn’t resist.

If you’re still hungry after eating, there are a variety of dessert options, almost all of which looked very unfamiliar to me. The variety of tapioca and coconut milk deserts didn’t exactly pique my appetite this time, but I’d be willing to gamble in the future. It further establishes this restaurant as a completely different dining experience from most restaurants.