Banh mi, also known in New Orleans as Vietnamese po-boys, are among my absolute favorite foods. Luckily, they also are just about the cheapest thing you can find in the parish. They’re cheaper than a subway sandwich, but what is really spectacular about this sandwich is the flavor. The price is just an added bonus. This unique sandwich combines the spice, tang and sweetness from traditional Vietnamese cuisine with the baking skills of the French. But this po-boy bread is no classic Leidenheimer French bread, it usually is made with traditional Vietnamese rice flour, giving it the light, flaky texture we all look for in good French bread.
The meats that stuff this large sandwich are traditional, both in flavor and preparation, but the Vietnamese flavor really shines in the garnish of this atypical sub. Banh mi is usually dressed with cilantro, jalapenos, pickled carrots and daikon, cucumbers, aioli, and pate. Many banh mi distributors carry some form of house-made cured pork cold cuts and many offer my favorite, BBQ pork, often called grilled or charbroiled pork. If you go to an authentic Vietnamese sandwich shop, you will likely also find meatballs, hogshead cheese, and Vietnamese sausage. As New Orleans is home to over 25,000 Vietnamese-Americans, this city is a great place to find banh mi. There are 48 Vietnamese restaurants in the city (according to Urbanspoon.com); here are some of best places to find authentic banh mi for only a few bucks.
The first one is probably the most well known, Dong Phuong Oriental Restaurant & Bakery. Dong Phuong is located in New Orleans East on Chef Menteur Highway. But don’t be intimidated by the drive; this is one place you really don’t want to miss! As their name denotes, Dong Phuong is both a restaurant and a bakery, giving its sandwiches a leg up on its competitors as each comes on spectacular, house-made French bread. But the banh mi is solely served out of their tiny bakery, which has absolutely no seats, let alone a place to stand. If you are not dining in the restaurant, you are not allowed to sit at any of the tables next door to the bakery. That leaves you with three options: Option A: wait until you get home to consume your tempting sandwich (you need a great deal of willpower for this option); Option B: eat in your car, but this leaves an absurd amount of crumbs from the flaky bread. Option C: you can have a picnic in the grassy field near the parking lot or in the Bayou Suavage nature preserve, which is my favorite option.
Dong Phuong offers 17 different kinds of Vietnamese po boys. The No. 1 “French Cold Cuts” is a $2.85 deli-stuffed sandwich with four or five different types of house-cured pork (depending on availability). It’s definitely better than your average ham sandwich, but nothing compared to the No. 4 Chinese Roasted Pork and No. 5 Vietnamese Grilled Pork. Both come along with sweet sauces that complement the sweet and spicy marinades that coat the crispy pork. Unlike the No. 1, these sandwiches are served warm, which goes nicely with the refreshingly cold garnishes. The No. 14 Vietnamese Sausage also came with the mouth watering sweet sauce, but the texture and color of the sausage freaked me out a bit. I am a pretty adventurous eater, but this bright red sausage, which looked as though it was still raw was too much for me.
One of my favorite spots on the Westbank to get banh mi is at Hong Kong Food Market on Behrman Highway. This unique grocery store offers products from China, Japan, India, Vietnam, Thailand, and probably a dozen other far away countries, but their groceries are just one part of this huge superstore. Hong Kong Market also sells pre-made meals and banh mi. Unlike the banh mi at Dong Phuong, Hong Kong Market makes a combo sandwich with pork cold cuts, warm meatballs, pate, hogshead cheese and all the usual garnishes. The quality of the meat and French bread are not as fantastic as Dong Phuong’s fresh, house-made ingredients, but it’s pretty damn good for a three dollar, enormous sandwich.
If the Westbank is inconvenient for you, there is a superb convenience store called Eat Well Food Mart on the corner of Broad and Canal. Though it’s a convenience store, the fare is phenomenal. For only $4.99, you get a large banh mi and a can of soda. Although it is a few dollars more expensive than the previously mentioned banh mi joints, it is worth it. Like Hong Kong Market, its banh mi features a combo of different po-boy fillings. Eat Well’s banh mi is stuffed full of cold cuts and juicy BBQ pork. The BBQ pork is coated in a thick, spicy sauce that will leave you daydreaming about it for weeks.
However, Eat Well’s combo banh mi and BBQ pork is nothing compared to Pho Nola in Metairie on Transcontinental. This bright and colorful sit-down restaurant serves a sandwich called the “NOLA Combination,” which combines their roast pork, Vietnamese ham, and BBQ minced pork, and for less than $5. Pho Nola’s hot pink BBQ pork is much sweeter than any other I’ve tried, and together with the aioli it might be one of the best flavors I’ve ever had the privilege of tasting. If you can handle the heat, definitely get it with jalapeños. The combination of creamy aioli, sweet pork, and spicy peppers creates a dynamic and wonderful balance.
All of these restaurants serve incredible banh mi for almost less than you pay for a happy meal, and with one not far from any neighborhood there’s no excuse not to check out them out.