What makes a great bánh mì? You need a baguette with a shattering crunch and soft, flossy interior. The mayonnaise should be tangy, homemade and cover the entire surface of the bread. You want creamy pâté with depth of flavor and fresh, crisp vegetables. I recently visited about 20 shops, restaurants and trailers in search of the best bánh mì in Austin. You can read the full results here, but below I give you a taste of the top three.
1. Saigon le Vendeur. 2404 E. Seventh St. 512-351-6916, saigon7th.com. Chef Tebi Nguyen grew up next to a bánh mì shop in Saigon before moving with his family to San Antonio, where he graduated high school and worked at a hibachi restaurant. While the charcoal-cooking will have to wait until Nguyen can move from a trailer to a brick-and-mortar restaurant, he applies the quick kiss of the torch to char pan-seared juicy grilled pork ($6.95) that’s marinated in fish sauce, garlic, red shallots and a touch of honey, to aid in the caramelization. The savory meat is contrasted by tangy housemade mayonnaise made daily and the crunch of hot jalapenos and cool cucumber and the snap of carrots and daikon.
Nguyen finishes the O.G. ($6.95) — layered with firm and fatty head cheese, thin-sliced pork belly, springy and mildly sweet steamed pork roll, and fragrant housemade pate — with a splash of Maggi sauce, the salty secret ingredient of many great bánh mì. The Daruma Ramen veteran may not make his own bread from scratch, but he does bake the imports twice daily, so whether you go at lunch or dinner, you will get a baguette with crunchy exterior and delicate pull inside.
2. Baguette et Chocolat. 12101 FM 2244, Building 6. 512-263-8388, baguetteetchocolat.com. Chef Chi Minh Pham Ding is the embodiment of the multiculturalism of the bánh mì ($7.99) he makes at his Bee Caves bakery, which recently celebrated its seventh birthday. He was raised in Versailles, and his sandwich pays tribute to the recipe of his Vietnamese grandfather, a journalist who fled Southeast Asia for the safety of France. I was shocked that there was no pâté on the sandwich, so rich was the razor-thin roasted pork that marinates for 24 hours in a bath of secret ingredients. Or maybe it was the housemade mayonnaise. There are some twists here — a grip of lettuce, sweet diced onions and no jalapenos — but the meat, a splash of Maggi, and the best baguette of this bunch combine for a stellar sandwich. Pro tip: Order an eclair (or anything) for dessert.
3. Pho Please. 1920 E. Riverside Drive. 512-354-9779, phopleaseaustin.com. This counter-service restaurant, opened in January 2016 by Tien Do and her husband, Anh Nguyen, is a slick, modern update on the many Austin Vietnamese cafes Nguyen has worked in over the years. Charcoal leaves its tasty marks on grilled beef ($7) served in a soy sauce dressing that turns this sandwich into something that reminds me of a Philly cheesesteak, sub minor swipes of pâté and mayonnaise for cheese. The grilled pork ($7) hums with a five spice buzz, and while they don’t make their own bread, the soft, flaky baguette overflowing with pickled vegetables and jalapeño slices has a satisfying crunch. This sandwich is a case of me having trouble pinpointing exactly what I love, but the whole is worth more than the sum of its parts.