Look out, Subway—here comes the banh mi



The goods at Nhu Lan
It used to be that if you had a hankering for banh mi—baguette-based Franco-Vietnamese subs garnished with daikon, carrot, jalapeño, cilantro, and mayo—you had to head to Argyle Street, where you could find tasty and thrillingly cheap versions in various holes-in-the-wall as well as at the venerable Ba Le Sandwich Shop. When rival purveyor Nhu Lan Bakery opened in Lincoln Square back in 2007, Mike Sula feared a bit for its future, praising it as a worthy challenger, yet questioning its prospects in a location so far removed from the hub in Uptown.

I guess there was nothing to worry about. In recent months a number of banh mi shops have popped up in still more neighborhoods around town, and more are on the way.

Ba Le itself may have started the trend, moving across the street into expanded and brightened new quarters in 2010. Since then it's opened a Chinatown location and, most recently, a downtown spot catering to the Loop lunch crowd (and accordingly more pricey).

Last spring I stopped in for a bite at Lakeview's Banh Mi & Co., a Potbelly-ish little storefront also featuring a few items like freshly made pork spring rolls. There's a second location just a bit north on Belmont, kitty-corner from the Punkin' Donuts, and a third in Roscoe Village. Now, "we're heading downtown," says owner Lee Trinh—a shop at 214 W. Van Buren is slated to open in six to eight weeks.

Also on Belmont is Nhu Lan Saigon Subs #2, Nhu Lan's first satellite. As at the Lincoln Square HQ, there are soups here—pho, the beef soup bho ko—in addition to the banh mi.

The Lake Street sit-down restaurant Saigon Sisters got its start in 2010 as a banh mi stand in the Chicago French Market. Next up for the franchise is a Streeterville branch within Northwestern Hospital's Galter Pavilion, "hopefully by May of this year," says owner Mary Aregoni. Priced at $7 to $8 each, comparable to the downtown Ba Le (or for that matter, the Whole Foods deli counter), the banh mi at Saigon Sisters are a tad more expensive than their north-side brethren, but also come in fancier versions like the Frenchman, made with turkey confit.

If you're willling and able to go upscale, you might want to try the $11 banh mi po'boy at Andersonville's Big Jones. I love the bread geekery in chef Paul Fehribach's description of his hybrid, where he takes note of the similarities between the po'boy and the banh mi:

both Nola and Vietnamese French bread originate in hot, humid climates and predate widespread availability of air conditioning. I've debated this subject often with friends in New Orleans and what's obvious is that by the standards of most bakeries, this bread is overproofed, and the flour is very high gluten to be able to hold the structure of the crumb while you have a very lively yeast activity owing to temperature and humidity.

Local banh mi shops use bread made with a combination of rice and wheat flours (Banh Mi & Co.'s comes from La Gondola), but Fehribach goes with a baguette made from a poolish starter for a slightly denser bread, a la the Nola baguette. From there he piles on his house-made liver boudin and Delta-style headcheese, Red Boat fish sauce, heirloom radishes, red onion, cilantro sprigs, a splash of house-cultured sugarcane vinegar, and sriracha mayonnaise, adding some Delta-style pepper sauce to give it "a little heat."

Comments (3)

Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment

Add a comment