There are no less than six places in Uptown where you can get a made-to-order banh mi, the ridiculously cheap and filling Vietnamese fireworks show of a submarine sandwich built on a crusty French-style roll and filled with pork, chicken, beef, sausages, cold cuts, or innards. The meat is almost incidental when the bread is fresh and the garnishes are crisp. It's a congress of sharp, competing tastes: sweet pickled strips of carrots and daikon tangle with cool planks of cucumber and leafy cilantro sprigs; slivers of raw jalapeno blaze through rich smears of mayo.
The bread is made from a mixture of wheat and rice flour, which makes it rise lighter than a typical French baguette. Fresh, it secures the whole package in a tight, flaky cloud. But it has a short shelf life, and in just a few hours the crust starts to get stretchy, over an increasingly arid crumb. I can't prove it, but I suspect that most of the time a warm banh mi is one that's been microwaved as punishment for sitting around too long. This sort of rubbery texture is what you run into when you find your banh mi on the south side at Hing Kee Restaurant, in the Chinatown Square Mall, which advertises "French sandwiches" for $2.50.
Stay close to Argyle. Wrapped and rubber-banded in white paper, stacks of banh mi can be found in groceries up and down the street, but most of them owe their presence to two very different bakeries situated at either end of the pan-Asian strip. Many people meet their first banh mi at Ba Le Sandwich Shop, 5018 N. Broadway (773-561-4424). They make it easy. Above the sweet and savory pastries, dried-squid snacks, stinky durian cakes, and cold Jell-O and custard treats hang 13 large color pictures of Ba Le's sandwiches and descriptions of them in English. Each costs just a few bucks.
The bakery sells its own brand of Vietnamese charcuterie--the ham, headcheese, pate, and steamed pork loaf that for my money make the best banh mi--which, along with the bread, may be one of the nicest things about French colonization. Ba Le supplies the bread for many of the restaurants along Argyle too, and you stand the best chance of getting fresh banh mi here--but it may take some haggling. The bakery frequently premakes popular varieties like the dac biet--a miraculous "special" featuring all four cold cuts--and they sometimes end up sitting behind the counter too long. You can tinker with your order to get a fresh one--say, by asking for extra jalapenos or no mayo. (Don't try this in the old country, though: according to Lonely Planet's World Food guide, this is a faux pas in Vietnam.) Ba Le's juicy, textured roast pork sandwich is a good one too, but I can't recommend some appealing-sounding varieties like the shrimp cake with lemon sauce or the "lemongrass sausage," which turns out to be something like a cold chopped hot dog.
At the other end of the neighborhood, at 4942 N. Sheridan, is La Banh Mi Hung Phat (773-878-6688), not to be confused with the adjoining but unrelated Vinh Phat, known for its fantastic barbecued ducks. The bakery is run by a strict but helpful woman named Michelle, whom, thanks to my total ignorance of Vietnamese, I was forced to view as an enigmatic warden of carefully dispensed arcana. I learned of her sandwich operation only through the work of an intrepid investigator called Erik M., who'd puzzled out the secret sandwich menu (it isn't printed anywhere in the store) and posted it on the Internet (www.lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic.php?t=359).
On my first visit late one afternoon, Michelle would not sell me the three sandwiches arranged on the counter because they'd been sitting there too long. Come back early in the morning, she told me. I appreciated this, but when I returned she'd make me nothing more than a single pork-skin banh mi--long chewy strands of skin dressed in nuoc cham, the sweet, spicy fish sauce. She advised me to return on subsequent mornings to sample other varieties.
These trials weren't, it turned out, some test of my worthiness. Michelle later told me that the hundreds of sandwiches she makes each morning go out to groceries and other shops in the neighborhood. When they're gone, orders are filled with whatever ingredients she has left.
On my fourth visit I scored, in spite of Michelle's warning that all 12 sandwiches on Erik M.'s menu would be too much for me to eat. I lied and said I was taking lunch to coworkers. When she wanted to know if any were Vietnamese, I began to stammer. After ten tense minutes she produced seven sandwiches, with a firm "That's all for you," then kindly offered me a Magic Marker and let me label the wax paper on each.
Working for your banh mi at Hung Phat is worth it. The tender roast pork is flecked with delectable bits of caramelized skin--what they call the "burnt ends" in barbecue school--and the shredded chicken is redolent of the spices applied to the ducks next door. These two are probably the most accessible banh mi Michelle makes and are far better than versions found elsewhere on Argyle, which can be dry and bland. Others distinguished themselves as well. The Chinese barbecued pork had large chunks of meat, and the grilled marinated pork was cooked halfway to jerky (not a criticism) and steeped in a visibly herby spice mixture. What Michelle described as "stomach" was rubbery entrails in a dark, sweet, spicy sauce. My favorite, the "steamed pork ball," is an eviscerated meatball, sort of like the coarsely ground, extrafunky Issan-style Thai sausage.
There are sandwiches worth seeking out elsewhere on Argyle. Tank Noodle (1007 W. Argyle, 773-878-2253), known for its glorious pho, offers 12 banh mi made on Ba Le bread. A terrific one, banh mi doi, is stuffed with fat coins of a dark, dry medium-ground sausage studded with peppercorn and bits of greenery. Nowhere is the banh mi's breakfast potential better realized than in Tank's banh mi hot ga op la--with a freshly fried egg folded under the standard meat and vegetables. Moving west, Pho Xe Lua (1021 W. Argyle, 773-275-7512) does a great twist on roast beef au jus, not a sandwich but a plain baguette served alongside a bowl of pot-roasty meat and tripe in a dark, rich stew. Pho 888 (1137 W. Argyle, 773-907-8838) has a six-sandwiches-for-$10 special and a more limited selection that includes a tofu banh mi sauced with lemony mayo--a diplomatic nod to plant eaters who'd otherwise have a difficult time appreciating the normally meat-centric sandwich. Finally, the tiny Hong Xuong Bakery (1139 W. Argyle, 773-878-2888) makes a simple, fresh sub of ham and pork loaf with thick-cut vegetables.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.