Vietnamese please: Can Charlottesville produce a decent banh mi?

Moto Pho Co.’s banh mi features vegetables pickled in house, chicken liver, pork paté, and mayonnaise on a French baguette. Photo: Elli Williams Moto Pho Co.’s banh mi features vegetables pickled in house, chicken liver, pork paté, and mayonnaise on a French baguette. Photo: Elli Williams

The only thing that could make the banh mi sandwich better is if there were some obscure, obnoxious way to pronounce it. Then all the people who call pho “fuh” could lord their culinary superiority over everyone else in yet another way.

“It’s not a ‘bon-me,’” they’d say. “It’s a ‘boon-mh.’”

I take that back. There is one other way the banh mi could be better. There could be a couple decent options in Charlottesville. As it is, there’s really only one. Simple as the sandwich is, but one local purveyor puts all the requisite ingredients together at the same time in the same place: meat, paté, pickled veggies, jalapeños, cilantro, and mayo on a crusty French baguette. That purveyor is, not surprisingly, Moto Pho Co., the closest thing this town has to a proper Vietnamese restaurant.

“The banh mi wasn’t originally on the menu as I had only wanted to focus on the noodles, but after repeated requests from customers, we gave it a shot,” said Vu Nguyen, the restaurant’s owner and chef.

That’s not to say you can’t get a little banh mi flavor in places other than Moto. If you’re savvy with the Facebooks and Twitters, you can catch Beer Run’s “banh mi style” sandwich every now and then. Of course, not even Beer Run knows when or where the special’s ever going to strike, making it the 1.21 gigawatts of Charlottesville banh mi.

Then there’s the question of whether the Beer Run swipe is worth your trouble. I’d give it a reluctant yes. It’s a tasty sandwich, but calling it “banh mi style” is a bit of a stretch. For me, banh mi are all about the bread. If you don’t have the baguette, you have something other than a banh mi. Beer Run serves its house-smoked pork and pickled veggies on its (admittedly delicious) house focaccia. The Vietnamese didn’t suffer a half-century* of French rule only to have their signature sandwich served on an Italian-style bread. Plus, the dispersion of the ingredients on the Beer Run sandwich wasn’t quite right for me; some bites were good, but midway through the second half, I kind of wanted it to end.

Michael’s Bistro on the Corner offers a sandwich that skews the other way. It’s closer to authentic but not out-of-this-world flavorful. Lacking the depth and earthiness provided by paté and subbing a straight coleslaw for pickled carrots and daikon (an Asian radish), one of my dining mates called it “an accessible take” on a banh mi. The sandwich did feature flavorful roast pork and came on a proper French baguette. Unfortunately, the bread wasn’t the freshest loaf in the bag, and the sandwich could have used more mayo to bring it all together. For me, the worst part about the Michael’s banh mi came from my own expectations—the bistro does so many things well (their savory pies, the artichoke soup, the spinach salad, the beer list), it was a shock to get a mediocre sandwich out of the kitchen.

The Box off the Downtown Mall offers a nice short sandwich menu focused on a banh mi motif. On each slider-style sandwich, daikon, carrots, cucumber, jalapeños, cilantro, and mayo garnish your choice of meat. Unfortunately, the first time I went to the Box, I almost didn’t stick around to try the food. The wet, dirty menu hanging behind plexiglass on the patio, a glimpse of the chef’s soiled whites when he briefly stepped out of the kitchen, and sub-par service nearly sent me for the door before I could put my order in. It’s a good thing I powered through. The pork belly version of the sandwich is legit. The belly does a nice job on its own of replacing roast pork and paté, giving you the chew of the muscle in the belly and a “pork mayonnaise” effect from the threads of fat.

Still, Moto’s pork banh mi is by far the cream of the crop. At first glance, the bread looks softer than it should be, but it’s crunchy on the outside and pillowy on the inside. Tucked into the bread are refreshing pickled radish and carrots that contrast well with thinly sliced roast pork and earthy, rich paté. For me, the jalapeños give the sandwich just the right amount of spice, but I could see how some might find it too spicy. At any rate, the day I visited, there were a half dozen people in the restaurant, some of whom were speaking Asian languages, most of whom were crunching on banh mi rolls.

“I’d love to be able to tell you there was some magic behind the banh mi we serve and that we use locally sourced organic ingredients,” Nguyen said. “But the truth is it’s just regular commodity ingredients, which contribute to keeping the price at an affordable value.”

That means Duke’s mayo has stepped in for the house-made spread Nguyen was making when the sandwich first hit the menu, but the veggies are still pickled in house, and the chicken liver and pork paté is a homemade creation, as well. For two additional banh mi options, Nguyen marinates chicken and crafts a vegetarian paté.

“The appeal of the banh mi is the fact that it hits all the right notes in a familiar package,” Nguyen said. “You get sweet, savory, sour, spicy, and cool all in a portable vessel that isn’t so exotic as to be unapproachable.”

*An earlier version of this story said “a half-decade of French rule.” Vietnam was part of French Indochina, a colonial protectorate from 1887-1954.