Blame it on the Nom Nom kids from Great Food Truck Race--all those recaps left me with a serious craving for banh mi, the sandwich I basically subsisted on in college. When I discovered that the friend who had been DVRing the show for me had never tried a banh mi, I knew what this week's food fight would be.
There's good reason I ate so many banh mi in college; they are cheap and delicious. The banh mi reflects one of the few cheery effects of colonialism, the delicious culinary blending of cuisines. It's basically a take on a French "salad sandwich," but with the addition of distinctly Vietnamese ingredients. Hence the use of a baguette and mayonnaise, plus the frequent inclusion of pate (French), but also the requisite fish sauce, jalapenos and cilantro.
Like all good dishes, banh mi have become their own food group. And folks like us who are lucky enough to live in a city with a distinct Vietnamese population can embark on the truly arduous task of comparing and contrasting various family restaurant versions of the sandwich.
Since I kind of ODed on banh mis in college, it had been a while since I'd had one. In the interim, I'd hear a lot of buzz bout Cali Sandwich Shop, so I decided to pit it again Les Givrals, which was my go-to back in the day. Given that it was an absurdly pleasant day outside (could it finally be fall, Houston?), my friend and I parked in Midtown and walked between the two restaurants.
Les Givrals Sandwich Shop (2704 Milam St)
I love the airy, window-fronted set-up of this Les Givrals location. Even at the somewhat odd time of four p.m. on a Wednesday, a fair crowd sat enjoying food and watching traffic. We ordered and paid for our banh mis, and I was reminded of why I ate so many of them in college --$3.25 with tax.
"Oh man, this is delicious," said my friend, his mouth full of his first-ever banh mi. And was it ever--perfect bread with just the right "bend," a generous heap of pork with that sumptuous chargrilled flavor, thinly grated carrot, tons of cilantro, and the lime mayonnaise I had asked for. My only wish would have been for another slice or two of cucumber, as there was only one vertical shaving garnishing my sandwich.
Overall, though, it's hard to complain about a three-buck-and-some-change sandwich that tastes this good. Why on earth would you ever go to Subway when you can have this?
Cali Sandwich Shop (3030 Travis St.)
Located in a rather nondescript strip center on Travis, Cali could be aptly described as a dive. It didn't smell so great as we walked in, unfortunately, a combination of fish smell and cleaning product, but the restaurant was clean and our banh mis were cheap ($3 with tax). I ordered the standard barbecue pork, and we waited while it was made, watching the baguettes warming in the small toaster oven on the counter. A small handful of other customers wandered in and out as we sat.
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Our sandwiches came out nice and warm, cut in half and wrapped in wax paper. Inside, big chunks of cucumber and half slices of jalapeno were nestled next to pieces of pork , with a thin layer of mayonnaise and fresh, grated carrot. The bread was nice and crusty, scattering crumbs all over the table with my first bite, but the ratio of bread to filling was off--too bready. My addition of Sriracha helped in softening the bread a bit and bringing the sandwich together. Flavor-wise, the pork was spot-on, but I really missed cilantro in this sandwich.
Overall, the Cali banh mi was elemental, spare and underwhelming. "Disappointing," said my friend, and I agreed, glad that Les Givrals had taken his banh mi virginity. I myself had been fully prepared to eat another full sandwich, but it honestly didn't seem worth it. I finished only half.
Les Givrals, hands down. Find them also downtown and on Washington.