We had no idea when we held our January bánh mì taste-off that this would become the most talked about sandwich in Seattle come February. While delicious and cheap, these nondescript Vietnamese sandwiches are so commonplace here that they don’t typically get a lot of attention. But after the New York Times’ piece two weeks ago covering their picks for best bánh mì in America, including two from Seattle, people started prodding me, “Hello? When are you going to post your taste-off results?”
As with all of our taste-offs, we don’t provide any particular criteria for the judging, yet when we discussed the results afterwards, we found we had pretty similar ideas of what makes a great bánh mì.
It turned out that a well-balanced bite of jalapeño often nudged a sandwich forward in an individual’s rankings. What we discovered, however, was that the “spiciest sandwich” varied wildly depending on which bite of each sandwich you took. The bánh mì that I found to have the most heat was deemed bland by another, who found that the spiciest sandwich in their ranking contained no jalapeño’s on someone else’s plate.
But a great bánh mì is clearly not just about the heat. Bread is key. A traditional bánh mì is served on a light crisp baguette, where the bread and exterior crunch are well-balanced with the filling inside.
In a good sandwich, that filling is often pork (our choice for this tasting) with a nice balance of acid from crunchy pickled carrots, daikon, and cucumber, along with some fresh sprigs of cilantro, and a swipe of mayo.
For those not familiar with our rating system, this was a blind taste-off, with an arbitrary letter assigned to each sandwich for identification. Each person independently stack ranked them, from their most to least favorite.
One point was given when a sandwich was the top of someone’s list, a second choice sandwich received two points, all the way on down the list. So with nine tasters for our five sandwiches, the best possible score is 9 (when everyone ranks it top on their list) and the worst possible score is 45 (all nine people rank it 5th on their list).
So without further ado, here are the results.
|5th place: The cheapest of our sandwiches was the $2.50 bánh mì from Seattle Deli. It ranked as high as 2nd on a couple of lists, but it also had the most last place rankings, garnering a score of 35. While it got points for tender meat, several had complaints about the bread: too much of it vs. the filling, and no crunch to the crust. And most of our test sandwiches were bland, without much mayo or pickling in the veggies.
|4th place: A gentrified interpretation of bánh mì, this $9 sandwich was from Madison Park Conservatory. We were curious how a high end version from a restaurant would rank against the more traditional deli sandwich, and it turned out to be difficult to stack rank since it’s not apples to apples. Several said that in a general sandwich ranking, it might have placed higher, but it was lacking the elements considered critical for a good bánh mì. Here, the bread was soft potato bread instead of a crunchy baguette, the veggies were soft and not very pickled, and there wasn’t enough overall heat. But the pork belly! This is what brought rankings as high as 2 on a couple people’s lists. Juicy, rich, and oh-so-porky, this is what the sandwich was all about. Score: 31.
|3rd place: Only one point ahead of Madison Park Conservatory, the Saigon Deli sandwich got the whole range of rankings, 1-5. This $2.75 bánh mì had the crunchiest roll, which several people liked, and the pork flavor was good. But the distribution of jalapeño was uneven, making this the spiciest on one list and the blandest on another. By far the biggest complaint was too much mayo, pulling it down to a score of 30.
|2nd place: A number of tasters gave big points to Yeh Yeh’s Sandwiches for the bread, which was crunchy and crackly outside and soft inside. The pickled veggies were tasty alongside the meat, but they weren’t very well-balanced, since whoever made the sandwich had a heavy hand with the pickles. This was the biggest factor pulling it out of a first place ranking, giving it a final score of 22. Price tag: $3.50.
|1st place: With two-thirds of us ranking this as their favorite, the bánh mì from Pho Cyclo Café sat clearly above the rest with a score of 15. It had a great pickled crunch with a nice amount of fresh cilantro, and the sweetest meat of all the sandwiches we tried. Most felt it had the best overall balance of flavor and just the right amount of heat, making it a huge value at $3.
And our conclusion? A second taste-off of pistachio gelato for dessert. We found a rare unanimous winner. Stay tuned…