Banh Mi Showdown

While Ho Chi Minh City is not the capital of Vietnam, it’s often thought of as the capital of banh mi (personally, I think the latter is a  better claim to fame!). Everywhere you look there’s banh mi and, when they range between 15,000-55,000 VND (0.66-2.41 USD!), the temptation to get one is constantly in-play.

Igniting the temptation here in Ho Chi Minh City has been the fact that I waited until day 3 to check this must-do off my research list. As I shared in my last post, I was able to sneak in a quick banh mi at the Ben Thanh Street Food Market, but I’ve been saving up my focus and stomach for the epic head-to-head battle between two super famous spots in town: Banh Mi Hong Hoa and Banh Mi Huynh Hoa.

In Chicago, this is like comparing beefs from Portillo’s vs. Al’s and, for the Detroit faithful, think Lafayette vs. American for coneys. Needless to say, we are talking about juggernauts here and the showdown did not disappoint. But, before I dive into details and share my winner, let’s make sure everyone is up to speed on banh mi!


GET TO KNOW YOUR BANH MI

  • Translation: Let’s start with the basics. Banh mi essentially translates to wheat bread, but the term is also used to reference the sandwich itself and the baguettes.
  • Overview: Like pho and spring rolls, banh mi sandwiches are a big time staple of Vietnamese cuisine and our menu. They are enjoyed throughout the day, including fourth meal (Viet Nom Nom late night anyone?). And, as I shared earlier, banh mi are very affordable by both Vietnamese and U.S. standards, so it’s widely accessible and often enjoyed.
  • History: Banh mi is a perpetual homage to French colonization & the Indochina days. The French (baguettes, pate, mayo) and Vietnamese (proteins, pickled vegetables, cucumber, herbs) contributions are distinct, but when combined, offer multilayered flavors worth experiencing at breakfast, lunch, AND dinner. While colonization often comes with many struggles, Vietnamese carry on the legacy of banh mi with pride and rightfully so when it comes to the benchmark they set in the sandwich world.
  • Composition: These sandwiches are simple in nature, but are far from simple when it comes to flavors. They are jam packed with both fresh & savory flavors. While meat selections and the styles / cuts of meat have a wide variance, you can just about always count on mix of mayo, cilantro, cucumber, and pickled carrots & daikon. On our menu, for instance, we use all of those ingredients, with only a few exceptions: we mix it up with our own sriracha mayo, add a dash of Maggi seasoning, and do not serve processed meats.

THE SHOWDOWN

Now that the banh mi crash course is complete, onto the showdown!

  • The Journey: The two locations are barely over 400 feet away from each other. Google Maps calls for a 2 min walk . . . but, from my experience, I’d estimate it’s a 10 second sprint when hangry. Like a genius, I decided to catch an Uber timed perfectly with a thunderstorm  that broke out literally as I pulled up to first stop at Hong Hoa. In the end, no monsoon was going to get in the way of my banh mi (cue Chris Farley’s “Lay off me, I’m starving!”).
  • The Scene: Both spots are wildly impressive setups, as they are true hole in the walls with probably less than 200 sq feet of real estate yet serve hundreds of folks per day. It was unclear, but I’m fairly confident neither has additional production space at either shop; it would be a crazy understatement to say that they maximize their real estate . . . you don’t actually enter either store when ordering / picking up! The one silver lining about the crazy rain is that it helped us avoid long  lines, especially at the uber popular Huynh Hoa, which can have people lining up in the streets.
  • The Orders:
    • Hong Hoa: Pork belly (ba roi) — 20,000 VND
      • Additional Ingredients: mayo, pickled carrot & daikon, cilantro, scallions, red jalapeno, dark soy-based sauce
    • Huynh Hoa: Chinese BBQ pork / char siu & pate (xa xiu) — 35,000 VD
      • Additional Ingredients: mayo, pickled carrot & daikon, cilantro, light green peppers, and pemmican (dried meat that’s crushed down to a powdery form, then combined with grease / fat to create a fluffy consistency)
  • The Scoreboard:
    • Hong Hoa:
      • +1 house made bread
      • +1 extra spicy jalapenos (red = fully ripened, touch hotter than pulling when green — FYI Huy Fong’s super popular sriracha features red jalapenos)
    • Huynh Hoa:
      • +1 pate’s extra savory / saltiness
      • +1 pemmican’s extra flavor
      • +1 toasty bread
      • +1 loaded ingredients

THE VERDICT

I want to be clear here: there was no loser. However, Huynh Hoa just featured deeper flavors with its inclusions of pate & pemmican and the big kicker was the toasty goodness of its bread. If I have to choose, it’s Huynh by  a nose.

Unlike Hong, they don’t make their own bread, but they do keep theirs in an open faced oven. What they miss in novelty from not making their own bread, they overcome by doing a great job keeping the bread perfectly toasted & warm on demand — it’s a well oiled assembly line in there, they clearly know what they are doing.

It was a bit apples to oranges with the pemmican & pate in Huynh’s and not Hong’s, but I also enjoyed Hong’s roasted pork belly much more than Huynh’s BBQ pork (too much excess fat). In the end, there’s no doubt about the huge impact pemmican & pate have on flavor.

In perfect world, I’d say we can create a super banh mi by leveraging Hong’s pork belly, red jalapenos, and housemade bread angle and Huynh’s pate, pemmican, and bread toaster. A guy can only hope, dreams can come true after all.

 

 

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