It’s by no means an understatement to call le sandwiche an institution in France. If people aren’t sitting down to a long lunch at a resto or café, they’re almost invariably nibbling on (or wolfing down) some sort of sandwich, the sale of which constituted a 6.62 billion euro industry last year. Le Figaro recently called le jambon beurre (ham and butter sandwich) “le sandwiche de la crise.” (Read it in English here). This cheap, grab-and-go staple, as well as sandwiches in general are rising in price due to increased food costs. On verra ce que ça va donner. Grève nationale?
So, I thought I’d add another sandwiche bon marché contender into the mix — the banh mi. Now, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m an avid fan of these sandwiches. Banh mi just never seem to get old. They’ve been the object of many a bike/subway trek in just about every city I’ve lived in, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Growing up right next to Little Saigon will do that to you, I suppose. They’ve become all the rage in the US, a trend that has my full support. The result of the melding of French and Vietnamese tastes during the colonial period — a wonderful byproduct of a rather dark era — Paris and banh mi seemed a natural fit. (If you’re interested, this WSJ article gives a short history).
If you’re new to this sandwich, I think Julia Moskin in her NYT article on hunting down banh mi in NYC describes it perfectly:
“If you haven’t tried a classic banh mi, imagine all the cool, salty, crunchy, moist and hot contrasts of a really great bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. Then add a funky undertone of pork liver and fermented anchovy, a gust of fresh coriander and screaming top notes of spice, sweetness and tang.”
The article also boasts a long list of banh mi spots in NYC for you New Yorkers. And, check out this photo! Convinced yet? Parisien(ne)s, one can’t possibly live on French food alone!
I gave myself some sanity breaks during final exams to brave the cold, hop on a vélib‘ and do a little investigating (read: eating). And, I can assure you there’s good banh mi to be had in Paris, you just have to know where to look.
For this first adresse, that’s particularly relevant. Tucked away on rue Volta in Little Wenzhou, this tiny sandwich place referred to as simply “Banh Mi” has no sign and the door is often obscured by people waiting in line for a table at Le Lac de l’Ouest just next door. If you squeeze through the line to the unmarked black storefront, you’ll see the only thing indicating the fare on offer here from the outside, a small laminated menu taped to the door. Walk inside and you’ll be greeted by the smiling, incredibly charming owner behind the counter and a single chair to sit in while you wait.
She gave me a choice of meats and I went with the chicken, extra spicy. While she prepared my order, we chatted about the upcoming Chinese New Year and the new recipe she was trying out for the occasion (she’s Chinese but grew up in Vietnam). She scolded me, quite rightly, for my bad Mandarin and we exchanged stories about travel in east and southeast Asia and living in Paris. I had to be on my way so I took my sandwich to go, but I would have rather pulled up that chair and stayed to eat and chat with her some more. Maybe next time.
The most expensive of the bunch at € 5,50, the sandwich (pictured at the top of the post) was huge, with a generous helping of both chicken, veggies, and peppers as advertised. I could have easily split it with someone else and been perfectly satisfied. It was a lot messier than your average banh mi, but don’t let that deter you. The caramel sauce is what makes this sandwich so good — not syrupy sweet with a strong taste of lemongrass. Unconventional, but thoughtfully prepared. I’ll definitely be back.
Another address for a more traditional banh mi is Hoa Nam. It’s a bit of a schlep from the centre ville, all the way out in the 13e arrondissement near the périphérique. But with Tang Frères and Paris Store right across the street, I made little shopping trip out of it too. This place is really popular and jammed at lunchtime, so be prepared to shimmy in and grab a spot. There’s no real line to speak of and you just shout your order when pointed to, but the ladies behind the counter get around to everyone and it works reasonably well.
I got the sandwich spécial, and opted out of the “maxi” upgrade for more meat. But, judging from the orders of those around me, it’s a popular choice. To be honest, this sandwich turned out to be my least favorite of the bunch. The baguette was good and at € 3, it’s a steal. But, the fillings were sparse and lackluster, which made me doubt that the maxi would have helped things much. It was passable, but I think the business is fueled more by the location than the quality of the fare. Overall, the bike ride out there was fun, but I’m not sure I’ll be back.
I read about this next place on Clotilde’s charming blog, Chocolate & Zucchini. Saigon Sandwich (8, rue de la Présentation, 75011) is in yet another one of Paris’ asian neighborhoods, Belleville. It’s a tiny shop with a counter and room for a few people to faire la queue. There are two folding chairs, but facing the counter with no bar or table to set anything down on, they seem more suited to waiting for your sandwich than for eating sur place.
On Clotilde’s recommendation I got the poulet and I wasn’t disappointed. At € 3 it was more generous than the sandwiches at Hoa Nam without being huge, and the flavors were all there. The woman behind the counter asked me if I wanted peppers and of course I said yes. It could have used a little bit more, but I know it’s tough to make a living serving things that are actually spicy in this city. Also, I could have done with a little less mayo, but no major offense there. Verdict: Correct.
This last place is by far and away my favorite. It’s out in the 13e not far from Hoa Nam, but this time totally worth the bike ride (one that I know I will be making more often.). Khai Tri is a Vietnamese bookstore and sandwich shop — although when I went there was a line out the door and no one was looking at books.
The shop was decked-out with yellow blossoms, fruits, and other Tet decorations for the New Year. They also have not one but two fish tanks in this tiny shop with gorgeous, bright orange fish in them. The place seems to be bursting at the seams and a bit disorderly, but it adds to the overall charm.
I got the bánh mì đặc biệt which is advertised in the window — and so did everyone ahead of me — with pork, chicken and pâté. I asked for it “avec piment” (with peppers), which the wary owner who was obviously well-versed French piment-phobie verified twice with me. There’s no place to sit and eat here, so I took mine to go.
Feeling the warm sandwich in my hand, I couldn’t wait to take a bite before I got on my vélib‘ back to my study spot. It was so good that I forgot about this vague froide we’re having, and passed up 4 vélib‘ stops to walk and enjoy my sandwich. For those of you who know my tolerance (well, lack thereof) for cold, that’s saying something.
Generous without being overstuffed, the sandwich comes filled with slices of fatty pork, shredded chicken, and chả lụa (sliced Vietnamese pork roll) instead of the advertised pâté, but I’m not complaining. The baguette was light and not the least bit stale. There was enough mayo to add flavor but not so much that it made it goopy, pickled veggies, cilantro, sliced cucumber, and sliced birds eye chilis (If you’re not one for heat go for sans piment. These guys are hot!). But, what made this one stand out above the rest was the incredible flavor of the meat: the texture and slightly smoky taste that you crave from expertly marinated and grilled meats with a little fattiness from the pork, complemented by a crisp bite from the baguette and some tang and spice from the fixin’s.
For all you centre-ville folk, this place is absolutely worth the trip out to the 13e. Since it took me 31 minutes to get out there en vélib‘ at a pretty good clip (one minute over! In my defense, it’s uphill.), I’m seriously worried about what this place are is going to do to my account balance … #gottaridefaster.
Know of any other places in Paris to get good banh mi? Feel free to let me know if I missed any in the comments!
7 Rue Volta, Paris 75003
+33 1 42 77 30 82
50 Avenue d’Ivry, Paris 75013
01 45 82 66 66
93, avenue d’Ivry, Paris 75013
+33 1 45 82 12 40
(more) Banh Mi in Paris
Les Sandwiches du 13e (Le Canard du Mékong, en français)