I was born and raised in an enclave of Vietnamese immigrants, just a beat away from the heart of Little Saigon. We were spoiled with a wealth of authentic, rare gastronomic resources: balut suppliers, tofu delis, meat floss purveyors, rice cake artisans. Unsurprisingly, though, of all these East Asian specialties, my favorite was also the most Westernized.
Bánh mì is the delicious result of a dark time. When the French colonized Vietnam, they brought with them many things — among the more positive, the sandwich. Ever scrappy, the Vietnamese created their own riff on the dish, loading French baguettes with Asian herbs and meats and replacing difficult-to-find ingredients with native foods: cornichons with pickled vegetables, butter with mayonnaise. The resulting bánh mì is an extraordinary, happy marriage of flavors — and a steal at a usual $4 a pop!
The bánh mì made yet another international venture when the Vietnamese immigrated en masse and landed in the United States. There was where you’d find me, gnawing away at a sandwich on my way to school. My mom, frantically hurrying three children out of the house, would pull the car up to our favorite Vietnamese bakery and run in, emerging moments later with an armful of sandwiches (and sometimes a shrink-wrapped plate of sticky rice or two). I’d unwrap the bánh mì in the backseat, inhale — is there anything better than the aroma of a warm, crusty baguette? — and take a test bite: tart pickled vegetables accentuating unctuous cold cuts, rich pate counterpointed by bright herbs, tangy fish sauce cutting creamy mayonnaise. I knew nothing about its perfect flavor balance or deep historical roots; I knew only the simple satisfaction of a delicious sandwich.
Sadly, San Francisco is not my hometown’s Little Saigon — and a good bánh mì is harder to come by. I have a few go-to spots around town, like the popular Saigon Sandwich, dependable Irving Cafe and Deli, and my mom-and-pop favorite, Little Vietnam Cafe. These delis are rough around the edges; they focus on churning out good food and nothing else (exactly how a sandwich shop should be, if you ask me).
One evening, though, after all the old stand-bys had closed, we visited an establishment of a different color. The polished Cafe Bunn Mi elevates the bánh mì (though, thankfully, not too much) by adding creative, gourmet flourishes and Americanized menu items. How did it fare?
The menu prices are a bit higher than its grungier competition, reflecting the cost of catering to American tastes. Fortunately, however, the food doesn’t suffer (as is often the case with Westernized cuisine). In fact, it’s among the better bánh mì in the city. The baguette, both crusty and fluffy, was an excellent vessel for the fillings, though perhaps on the thicker, denser side. Jay ordered a classic lemongrass beef sandwich, stuffed with pickled carrots and daikon, jalapenos, cilantro, and cucumber; I opted for the crispy duck, topped with a sweet chili glaze, jalapeno, cilantro and Vietnamese slaw (red and green cabbage and carrots). Both plates were clean within minutes. Jay also couldn’t resist ordering a side of French fries,* which were surprisingly well-executed and topped with a dollop of spicy-sweet sambal sauce.
* And so that French influence resurfaces!
Here, the space is polished and the front-of-house staff are young and trendy — nothing like the grandmother-manned, ramshackle delis of my past. While I won’t be so quick to let go of such establishments, their early closing hours don’t always mesh with my schedule. When the sun’s down and a nostalgic craving hits, Cafe Bunn Mi makes a superb alternative. The place adds Americane fusion to an already French-and-Vietnamese fused cuisine, and it works.
Cafe Bunn Mi
417 Clement St
San Francisco, CA 94118