Bon Banh Mi operates out of a bandbox-sized space with nine stools for eat-in dining. You can choose your view: to look out at the traffic on Spring Street as it funnels into the Crosstown or belly up to the counter where the sandwich assembly takes place.
Take-out business is brisk and most regulars have called in their order for easy pick-up. Bon Banh Mi offers a menu of sandwiches, salads and tacos inspired by the flavors and ingredients of Vietnam.
The banh mi (bun-meeh) is the love child of France and Vietnam during the period of French occupation when Vietnam was French Indochina. The French brought their love of baguettes, jambon (ham), pate and sweet butter. They layered it on crusty bread and topped it with crunchy, tart cornichons, a French gherkin.
As this classic sandwich was assimilated into Vietnamese culinary culture, the cornichons were displaced by a crisp slaw of pickled carrot and daikon (do chua); the butter replaced by mayonnaise; and the more expensive goose and duck livers in the pate traded for the readily available and cheaper pork and chicken livers.
Even the baguette had an ingredient adjustment as local rice flour was used to stretch the more costly wheat-based dough.
Jason Sakran and Jeremy Spencer were introduced to the banh mi in New York and California. Intrigued by its bright flavors and lush fillings, they tested their business model at portable food events and farmers markets. You may have tasted their handiwork at Street Hero at the Charleston Farmers Market in Marion Square.
They opened the brick-and-mortar luncheonette in the food-centric Cannonborough and Elliotborough neighborhoods.
The menu is simplified into three base options: sandwich, salad or taco. Six fillings form the protein core.
Cucumber slices, pickled carrots and daikon radish along with cilantro, crispy-dry fried shallots and holy basil are the repeated refrain that snaps each composition to attention. Select the sandwich and chili mayonnaise coats the crumb of the baguette. In the salad, mint, scallions and peanut bits tumble the greens and vegetables with bite and refreshment. The tacos, soft corn, not flour, are laced with sriracha lime cream sauce lending tart heat to each bite.
Balance is found in beef, chicken, egg, pate, pork or tofu options. Red curry beef is braised and contributes a proper texture as a sandwich filling.
Ginger and lemongrass nibs in the chicken filling spark the flesh of white meat chicken with interest and the notes of cinnamon, star anise, ginger and cloves load the five-spice pork with flavor and dimension. Tofu is seasoned in a similar manner.
The more traditional ham and pate sandwich features a substantial slab of rustic pate made in the terrine style.
You can have a breakfast banh mi with egg and Canadian bacon. The latter is not so common but the egg is definitely so.
Daily specials have included tamarind shrimp, shrimp summer rolls and bun cha, the refreshing noodle salad topped with the traditional cha lua or Vietnamese sausage that tastes like pork roll’s Asian cousin.
You can adjust the flavor profile of your sandwich, salad or taco with fish sauce, soy sauce, nuoc mam and spicy chili sauce.
Multiple visits found the garnishes, greens and herbs to be fresh, crisp and vibrant. The bread is locally made to BBM’s specifications and maintains a gentle arc of crust with a soft and absorbing crumb.
If there is a quibble, it is the leanness of the proteins rendering the five-spice pork a tad dry and the white meat lemongrass chicken sharing a similar fate.
That aside, crisp vegetables and the perfume of licorice and anise in the holy basil and citrus in the cilantro brought a lively chorus of flavors to each sandwich bite.
Black jasmine tea is brewed in-house and a variety of boutique beverages provide a wide swath of liquid refreshment. Give them a “holla” at firstname.lastname@example.org for current selections of craft beer.
Kudos to Sakran and Spencer for their choice of fold-pak paper products for carryout. The green-friendly coating will keep your meal in good condition for transporting to home or office.
The kitchen at Bon Banh Mi is not bound in cast-iron covenants of conformity. Inspired by a culinary merger of French-Vietnamese-Chinese influences, the humble sandwich, cross-cultural taco and ubiquitous salad celebrate the street food culture of Southeast Asia with a decidedly local spin on a street whose culinary accent celebrates our appetite for the pan-Asian canon.