Saturday, February 04, 2006

Bánh Mì Battle

"Whose cuisine will reign supreme?"
-Iron Chef

The Bánh Mì is my favorite sandwich. It is a Vietnamese sandwich on French bread, typically filled with a marinated meat, small slices of carrots and sometimes onion, cilantro, and raw jalapeno. The Bánh Mì is a study in contrasts. It has contrasting flavors: the slightly salty flavor of the bread, the tangy and sweet marinade, the funkiness of the fish sauce in the marinade, the meaty flavor of the pork, and the spicy garden flavors of cilantro and jalapenos. It has contrasting textures: crunchy french bread combined the meaty texture of barbecued meat and the crispy textures of the vegetables. And it reflects contrasting cultures: French bread combined with Vietnamese flavored ingredients. The Bánh Mì is wonderfully flavorful and complex.

Oh, I almost forgot. They cost about $2.

So where can you get the best Bánh Mì in Houston? The short answer is Midtown. The long answer is a lot harder. Three shops in midtown make fantastic Bánh Mì. First, Cali Sandwich and Fast Food, 3030 Travis, is a wait service cafe that has an ethnically mixed crowd, a sunny but not too appealing interior, and often a long wait. Second, Les Givral's Sandwich and Cafe, 2704 Milam, is a counter service cafe that has a hip, minimalist space, hip music, and a small crowd that is young, hip, and not very Vietnamese. Third, Hoang Bánh Mì - The Original Givral's Sandwich Shop is inside the Hoa Bin mall at 2800 Travis. It a grungy shop that has counter service, no natural light, and a mostly Vietnamese crowd.

To decide the best, I sat down with a barbecue pork sandwich from each shop. Here are the results by category.

Bread. Cali and Les Givral's were neck and neck, serving wonderfully crunchy french bread with a soft interior. Perhaps they buy their bread from the same bakery. The bread at Hoang Bánh Mì was slightly better, but only because it seemed to be straight out of the oven. Edge: Hoang.

Meat. The barbecued pork at Cali and Les Givral's was very similar -- irregular chunks of spicy, marinated pork. To my surpirse, the barbecued pork at Les Givral's had the more marinade flavor and more spice. The pork at Hoang was sliced thinly and did not have the same strong marinaded flavor. Edge: Les Givral's.

Vegetable condiments. Les Givral's had more cilantro - a big plus. Cali served slightly firmer julienned slices of carrots, which had a better texture than the other two shops. Cali also adds onions. But the condiments at Hoang were more flavorful. Hoang concentrates the marinade flavors of sweetness and fish sauce in the vegetables more than in the pork. Edge: Hoang.

Price. Les Givral's sandwich, with tax, is $2.75. At Cali and Hoang, it is only $2.00. But Cali is the only one of the three shops with wait service, which raises the price of the bill. Only at Hoang can you walk in the door with only $2 and walk out completely full. Also, if you buy 5 sandwiches at Hoang, you get the sixth sandwich free. Edge: Hoang.

Final verdict. Although the barbecue pork in the sandwich at Les Givral's is superior to the pork at Hoang, but I do not usually eat the pork alone. The deciding factor must be the overall taste of the sandwich. Therefore, the winner is . . . Hoang Bánh Mì - The Original Givral's Sandwich Shop.


Anonymous said...

I am a frequent customer of Les Givral's and highly recommend it. For your friends who don't know what a Vietnamese sandwich is and don't want to, their vermicelli dishes are good as well. Also, for those who, obviously unlike the author, are not a fan of dives, Les Givral's is nice enough inside to avoid that label.

I tried Cali early on in my Vietnamese sandwich advenuture and was disappointed. I am glad to hear there is a third option to try.

- Three Floors Down

Anonymous said...

I ordered a soy milk at Cali's a couple of weeks ago and was surprised at how good it was (fresh-pressed), so on my next visit (lunch, yesterday) I ordered it again but this time asked for it without any ice and the lady (the serious and I think scary-looking one who never smiles; this day she was wearing a beret on her head) nods in assent and takes the order without verbal comment. Then she brings the soy milk and says "Three dollars" and I'm not very happy about this and say " I thought it was two dollars" and she says "No ice" and does what I assumed was some kind of cursing in Vietnamese (whether it was specifically directed at me, or expressed something more general, I don't know).

Later she brings my meal (tofu-noodles) and after eating a few bites, I felt nauseated, so I had to stop eating and had my friend pack it in a takeout box while I went outside for some fresh air. I figured it might have been the soy milk or the onset of a slight flu (though I'm hardly ever sick) and felt better after some hours (and ate some enchiladas from a Mexican place for dinner).

So earlier today (the day after) I'm feeling healthy as a horse and take the Cali's leftovers out of the fridge for lunch and eat a few bites and again feel immediately nauseated. I almost suspect that the food might have been tampered with, incredible as it sounds -- or else it was just spoiled food. In any case, I've developed a dislike for Cali's and won't return.

Visceral said...

I've gotten food poisoning at Cali...I should have known better, since the sprouts looked extremely old. The food was terrible. I will not go back.

Anonymous said...

I'm particularly fond of Cali Sandwich Shop close to Elgin and Travis, which in a roundabout sort of way is owned by the owner of the original Givral sandwich shop (back when Givral was a hole).

Anonymous said...

Best sandwich? Try Don's Sandwich down in bellaire. most asian restaurants down in midtown cater to caucasians (nothing wrong with that). but most asians know the best restaurants are down in bellaire with the exception of Huynh's near the GRB.