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  • Tu David Phu

Bánh Mì, The Three-Dollar Vietnamese Sandwich

This edited article is from Chef Tu, an independent website and is republished on Chopsticks Alley as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Every time I pass through Oakland on my way to work in San Francisco, I am reminded of Bánh Mì; not so much because these Vietnamese deli sandwiches are ubiquitous in the San Francisco Bay area, but rather because when I moved to New York, I missed Bánh Mì so badly I would actually dream about it. I admit it, I had taken Bánh Mì for granted. ranked:

“Bánh Mì #7 out of a list of 50 classic sandwiches we Westerners eat.”“The meaty backbone of the banh mi -- often a trifecta of moist roast pork, velvety pate, and gelatinous head cheese -- is satiating on its own, but it's the delicate balance between spicy jalapeños and soothing cucumbers, cilantro, and shredded carrots that makes the Bánh Mì an edible work of art.

And maybe I am not the only one; after all it’s a three-dollar sandwich. This is what catches me off guard. “Edible works of art” do not cost three-dollars! Period. How much do other sandwiches cost?

Subway $4-$7

Quiznos $6-$9

Wise and Sons $10-$12

Saul’s Deli $12-$15

Banh Mi Bicycle $8

Other conventional Vietnamese Sandwich shops $3-$4

Obviously, this Vietnamese sandwich is under-valued.

We can all agree that they are delicious. But regardless, Bánh Mì are sandwiches. Bánh Mì should cost what sandwiches cost. They should be of equal price. Why are they not equal in price when they are conceptually the same thing? They both cost the same to make yet, people are not willing to pay the same price. Why?

“Despite complex ingredients and labor-intensive cooking methods that rival or even eclipse those associated with some of the most celebrated cuisines — think French, Spanish and Italian — we want our [ethnic] food fast, and we want it cheap….There is ample evidence that we treat these [ethnic] foods as inferior,” as Krishnendu Ray, the chair of nutrition and food studies at New York University, writes in his new book "The Ethnic Restaurateur."

Bánh Mì is just as complicated, if not more so, to make as most Western-style sandwiches, requiring more skills, ingredients and technique to prepare. When "we're talking about a traditional closed-face sandwich," says Mark Wheeler, who works in food safety at the USDA. "A sandwich is a meat or poultry filling between two slices of bread, a bun or a biscuit." According to the USDA’s definition, they are the same thing, a sandwich.

It’s A New Generation of Bánh Mì Shops.

Jessica Nguyen, Chef and founder of Bicycle Banh Mi

I decided to reach out to San Francisco Bánh Mì Mogul, Jessica Nguyen and ask her how she felt about Bánh Mì being undervalued.

Here are her thoughts: "My argument is that a Bánh Mì is, at its most basic definition, a sandwich. People should pay for what sandwiches cost.”- Jessica Nguyen.

Jessica “never sacrifices the quality of [her] product” and believes that Bánh Mì sandwiches deserve more credit. She currently charges $8 for her sandwiches and stands behind the quality and craft of her cult-craving sandwiches. Selling over 1,000 sandwiches in a day, Jessica Nguyen’s Bánh Mì is truly “an edible work of art.”

151 Union Street, San Francisco, CA


Sunday Closed

Monday 7:30AM–2PM

Tuesday 7:30AM–2PM

Wednesday 7:30AM–2PM

Thursday 7:30AM–2PM

Friday 7:30AM–2PM

Saturday Closed

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Chef Tu David Phu - Oakland, CA Chef Tu's resume reflects a reverence for American culinary greats, skilled in classical European traditions. His stints include the nation’s top Michelin-rated restaurants: Chez Panisse, Quince, Acquerello, Daniel Boulud, Breslin, Gotham Bar & Grill and Gramercy Tavern. Most recently, Chef Tu was Executive Chef of Gather in Berkeley. He would like the opportunity to introduce to diners regional Vietnamese flavor profiles. Vietnamese food is so much more than Banh-mi, Pho and Spring Rolls.

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