A cruise through Colonialtown in search of Orlando’s best banh mi
Published: November 4, 2010
After the French left Vietnam in the late 1950s, they left behind some reminders of their occupation: strong coffee and stellar bread. A crisp-crusted baguette is the basis of the classic French sandwich – simply prepared with just a layer of butter and a slice of ham or smudge of pâté – and also the banh mi, a submarine-style sandwich that, in the hands of Vietnamese street-food vendors, evolved into a cross-cultural phenomenon. The sandwich’s Gallic foundation remains (a crisp, short baguette, a slather of butter or mayonnaise and a smear of liver pâté), but Vietnam occupies the structure, filling it with pickled daikon, hot peppers, handfuls of cool, fresh cilantro and raw cucumber, a dousing of fish sauce and a variety of cured meats you wouldn’t likely see in a French charcuterie.
Although Orlando isn’t a notable stop on any foodie map, there’s one cuisine at which we excel, and that’s Vietnamese. The restaurants clustered around Mills Avenue and Colonial Drive (there are outliers in Pine Hills and Coytown as well), for instance, serve up pho and bún (rice vermicelli) that can stand up to the best in the country. And we’ve got more than our share of storefronts advertising delicious variations on the banh mi along with the classic “banh mi dac biet” (“house special” or “combination”).
Noting the fact that banh mi is in vogue in so many other cities right now, we decided a showcase of Orlando’s contenders was long overdue. Not only are these Vietnamese subs crazy popular in New York, Los Angeles and points between, they’re crazy cheap – ranging from $2.50 to $3.50. In these economic times, a satisfying meal that can be had for under a fiver is worthy of closer attention. And the banh mi is a true crowd-pleaser. Like all great sandwiches, it offers a symphony of textures; like all great Asian food, it strives to balance savory, salty, sour and sweet. (Or it should.)
In a highly unscientific “taste test” (read: a chance to eat to excess and excuse our gluttony as “work”), seven of us crunched our way through slices of 15 banh mi from eight Colonialtown restaurants. See our scores and comments on the following pages to find out which banh mi held up the sandwich standards, complementing crisp with chewy, unctuous with herbaceous, and which achieved the true Asian hot-sour-salty-sweet balance.
The taste testers included chef Tony Adams of Big Wheel Provisions (www.bigwheelprovisions.com); Holly Kapherr, writer for Orlando Weekly and blogger at I Could Eat (http://onfoodandeating.blogspot.com); the indefatigable Ricky Ly of Tasty Chomps (www.tastychomps.com); eater-about-town Evan Dobkin (www.nerditry.com), and a few other sandwich enthusiasts. We were mostly pleased with what we ate, but couldn’t help wishing a little banh mi madness would rub off on the more established restaurants about town. Who knows what the Ravenous Pig kitchen might come up if they tried their hands at banh mi? (They surely have the pork skills.) Or Lac-Viet, arguably the best Vietnamese restaurant in town and certainly the one with the most upscale ambience; they don’t serve banh mi, but they could probably turn out a tasty one if they tried.