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A Chinatown survey of Vietnamese sandwiches

Everyone knows at least one sandwich lover. Sometimes this lover is a former sandwich artist or comes from a place where hoagies and cheese steaks rule. Sometimes it’s someone who hails from a city where pork chop sandwiches are king. Or maybe it’s someone who just can’t explain her or his love for creative combos between two slices of bread. In particular, the mention of Vietnamese sandwiches, otherwise known at bánh mì, can either trigger a drooling Pavlovian response or repel those who hate cilantro.

The tasty colonial creation is a lovechild resulting from France’s attempted rule of Indochina. The sandwich is created from a baguette (usually containing both wheat and rice flours), a spread consisting of mayonnaise, egg yolk and vegetable oil, butter and/or pate, do chua (a pickled vegetable mixture normally made up of julienned carrots and daikon), cilantro, perhaps slices of cucumber, jalapeño or tomato and a staple filling (often head cheese, more pate, steamed pork or other pork products). In America, many call the bánh mì simply the Vietnamese sandwich. In Vietnam, the same creation is just called a sandwich.

The tasty and affordable sandwiches, usually around five bucks a pop, have caused a “battle of the bánh mì” in New York City, where accusations of recipe stealing and the like have recently caused a stir in the food community. On Oahu, a land rife with Asian fusion cooking, it comes as a surprise that another Vietnamese sandwich competitor hasn’t emerged to rival the institution of Ba Le. What has become synonymous with Vietnamese sandwich is like the Kleenex of tissue or the Xerox of copier machines. While the variety that Ba Le offers is impressive, there are plenty of non-Ba Le sandwiches out there. Just look for them.

In Chinatown, where Vietnamese eateries rival the number of Chinese eateries, it’s not hard to find bánh mì in this nook or that. Even eateries that offer only a few sandwich options–or even only one among the other offerings of pho and bún–can yield some delicious surprises. Here are five places in the ’hood that Honolulu Weekly explored.

Café 888

1123 Maunakea St., 372-4241, 454-3008

Amongst the wholesale cases of iced coffee and coconut juice, a shave ice counter, a Vietnamese coffee counter and a case of homemade manapua, the new Café 888 also harbors a small sandwich counter in the back. On this day, the eatery is out of the pork meatball filling, but the employee working that day suggests the char siu and and steamed pork combo, usually $7, but offers it at $5.50. Made to order, the pale-colored baguette stored in a plastic bag doesn’t look appetizing at 3:30 in the afternoon, but actually is a little crunchier than expected. The do chua consists of daikon, carrots, julienned cucumbers and has a surprise addition of red onion. Char siu is pale, thin and a bit dry, but also balances out the processed steamed pork cutlets. The spread tastes like straight butter, adding richness to the warm sandwich. The sandwich maker also throws in a packet of shoyu, which isn’t necessary, but a nice thought. The café does advertise itself as a Vietnamese sandwich place, but its strength may lie elsewhere.

Pho Twin & Bento

N. Hotel St. & Union Mall; 900 Fort St. Mall, #105, 531-5981

The eatery, created to cater toward the downtown working crowd, offers six choices of bánh mì ($4.75) in addition to its plate lunch and bento combos. The spicy lemongrass tofu and tuna sandwiches are different from the usual meat-based fillings. Spicy lemongrass chicken, barbecue chicken, barbecue pork and pot roast pork are the other offerings. With a fast assembly, the warm sandwich comes tightly wrapped in plastic. The bread is perfectly crunchy, with a light top that shatters when you bite down, and a soft center that follows the crunch. The spicy lemongrass sandwich seems to be made for taste buds that like mild flavors. Under the mayonnaise lies very thinly julienned daikon, with little carrot and cucumber. The cilantro is too stalky and the chicken is not spicy. However, the use of thigh meat still yields a moist and somewhat satisfying sandwich–just not one that pops with contrasting flavors.

Miss Saigon

42 N. Hotel St., 534-0222

The Hotel Street restaurant that could easily pass for a drug front (the interior is nice, but always seems to be empty) just began offering lunch. So for the rest of the month, enjoy 20 percent off your midday meal. That being said, even though the sole bánh mì offering, the “French Sandwich,” is $6.95, the discount brings the price down to a normal range. The wait is a bit long, but the sandwich wins style points for best presentation and fresh fillings. Real char siu, roast pork, cilantro, fresh jalapeños, robust slices of cucumber and juicy tomato all peek out of the baguette for a picture-perfect sandwich. The absence of the daikon and carrot can be forgiven in exchange for the quality ingredients. The spread is yellow, indicating the egg yolk and oil mix. The crusty, crunchy baguette is good, though not as shatteringly delicate as Pho Twin & Bento’s. When the server says, “I love this sandwich,” she’s probably telling the truth rather than throwing you a sales pitch.

Pho 97

1120 Maunakea St., 538-0708

Chinatown pho lovers often dispute over whether Pho 97 or Pho My Lan rules Maunakea Street. But one thing Pho 97 does have that its Vietnamese restaurant neighbor doesn’t is three choices of bánh mì ($5.50): shredded pork and meat loaf (the processed pork cold cut), barbecue chicken and pot-roasted pork. The shredded pork and meat loaf’s main filling is like the crushed pork meatball in addition to gelatinous strips of pork product and the cutlet slices. Pho 97 wins points for using both the common do chua and cilantro, plus the tomato, cucumber and jalapeño slices. There is some shattering crunch element to the bread, but there seems to be no spread, and the sandwich isn’t very warm upon arrival.

Mai-Thi Vietnamese Food

Maunakea Marketplace, 521-5971

The Maunakea Marketplace food stall offers a choice of either pork or steamed pork at $6 each. The baguette is larger in size compared to most of its peers, with an airier interior and the shattering crunch that lasts even after a couple of hours. But the size of the roll belittles the filling, making it seem sparse–one thin layer of char siu and one thin layer of the pale meat loaf. The mayonnaise, do chua, thin cucumber slices and cilantro are equally sparse, but at least the fillings are in proportion to each other, so the taste balance isn’t off. You might want to just buy the rolls and make your own creation.

Can’t get enough of bánh mì mania? Visit [] for restaurant listings and advice on making your own.