Because the Houston Press office is in Midtown, I eat a lot of bánh mì.
Need a light lunch? Bánh mì. In a hurry? Bánh mì. Craving meat, veggies and carbs? Bánh mì. Want something spicy? Bánh mì. It's my go-to meal to satisfy just about any lunchtime criteria.
Unfortunately for someone in my position (food writer), I can be a creature of habit. That means I find one decent bánh mì spot without long lines, and I stick to it. Lately, that's been La Baguette on Milam. At least twice a week, I find myself there getting a fish sandwich, extra spicy.
But it seems any time I write about any bánh mì, as I did recently for 100 favorite dishes and previously in December for 2013's list of 100 favorite dishes people love to tell me I'm wrong. That particular bánh mì isn't the best; some other one is.
I'm settling this once and for all.
OK, maybe not once and for all, but I figured a taste test would be a good way to determine which spot actually does make the best bánh mì. I decided to try bánh mì thit nuong from five of the most popular places in Midtown: Cali Sandwich, La Baguette, Les Givral's Sandwich & Cafe, Simply Pho and the newly re-opened Thien An.
To make the taste test as fair as possible, I ordered the same sandwich at each place. Bánh mì thit nuong is a good litmus test for Vietnamese restaurants, and each place is sure to chargrill the pork or pickle the carrots in a slightly different manner.
A few things were the same throughout each sandwich, though. First, the bread was crusty but light. Second, each bánh mì sandwich contained one long, slightly pickled cucumber and one slice of raw jalapeño. Lastly, each also contained shredded carrots and fresh cilantro. It's the differences that set some sandwiches apart from others.
Here are the results.
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5. La Baguette - $3.50 Oh, La Baguette. Your fish sandwich is so good. You're the only place that offers to put some Sriracha on the bun along with the mayo. You never have a line. And now, I think I might know why. The pork is nearly too fatty to chew. It has a nice gingery flavor, and the added pâté is a bonus, but the overly fatty meat put this sandwich in last place for me.
4. Simply Pho - $3.25 There's nothing wrong with Simply Pho's bánh mì. The pork isn't too fatty, and it has a solid grilled flavor. There are carrots and cilantro and a slice each of jalapeño and cucumber. But this sandwich didn't really stick out in my mind like some of the others did. It's good, but boring.
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3. Cali Sandwich - 3.25 This chargrilled pork has the best smoky flavor of any of the sandwiches. It tastes almost like beef jerky with a hoisin sauce glaze. The pork is cut into thin strips in a seeming imitation of the shredded carrots also stuffed into the baguette. Aside from the great flavor of the pork, this sandwich is pretty standard as well.
2. Thien An - $4.06 Back from the dead, Thien An has bánh mì enthusiasts all over town excited to get back to the Vietnamese restaurant for pho, bánh xèo and, of course, sandwiches. The sandwich from Thien An is the most expensive I found, but it's also one of the best. There's no pâté on the baguette, but the pork is lean with a good grilled flavor, and the carrots are mixed with pickled daikon for an extra crunch.
1. Les Givral's - $2.98 Well, true to what many people claim, I found Les Givral's bánh mì to be the best in Midtown. It's the biggest and the least expensive, and it's also everything a Vietnamese sandwich should be. The pork is lean and flavorful with a big hit of fish sauce and umami from the grilling. There's a generous smear of pâté on the baguette, and the pickled veggies are more infused with vinegar than in the other sandwiches. This is also the spiciest. Even after taking the huge jalapeño slice out to munch on it separately, I found the sandwich maintained a spicy heat.
And now, if you want to know which sandwiches are pictured in the main photo, left to right they are: Les Givral's, Simply Pho, Cali Sandwiches, La Baguette and Thien An.