I've never had a banh mi in the South Bay, but I hear they're great -- maybe even better than those you can find in our neck of the woods. But the South Bay isn't of concern today. Getting down the Peninsula isn't a great strategy when looking for a cheap, quick lunch. Instead, we're pitting two stalwarts of the San Francisco and Oakland Vietnamese sandwich game against one another: the Tenderloin's Saigon Sandwich and East Oakland's Banh Mi Ba Le.
We all likely look for different things when eating banh mi. I know people who swear by tofu or even chicken, but to me, the ultimate expression of the banh mi is found in the combination specials. A savory melange of assorted pork spreads and deli slices, the best of these combos exhibit balance between the meat, toppings, and crisp-fluffy bread. Which side of the bay serves the best?
Saigon Sandwich: Special combo banh mi (roast pork, paté, chả lụa pork roll) ($4.25)
Saigon Sandwich doesn't mess around. Its small, cramped deli on Larkin is filled mostly with sandwich-makers and an array of shrink-wrapped pastry curiosities; there's barely enough room for a menu board, much less anyone wanting to walk in and order a sandwich. Fortunately, the cashier is speedy, soliciting and filling orders within a matter of minutes. When they're crowded, you'll have to walk outside to eat your lunch. (This was somewhat of an adventure in the Tenderloin during the Pride festival.)
Their special combo is a rich affair. Each of the sandwiches on the short but thorough menu are generously sized, but the special combo has the most bang for your buck. Pickles, cucumber, and cilantro overflow over the top of the roll. Sweet mayonnaise gradually sneaks out the sides as you take a bite. Instead of offering an array of deli meats, roast pork and an abundance of paté anchor the sandwich. There are a few stray slices of chả lụa pork roll for texture, but these slivers get lost beneath the funky paté.
It is, above all, a mouthful. Each bite is enjoyable, especially because of the bread, which is at once crisp and airy, yeasty, and salty. But call me a wuss: I couldn't finish the whole thing. The size was more reminiscent of a bombastic American po'boy than a demure banh mi. Despite the abundance of toppings, they simply couldn't compete with the meat; the last few bites I managed to eat tasted more of a charcuterie platter than a well-balanced sandwich.
Banh Mi Ba Le: Special combo ham banh mi (ham, headcheese, paté, chả lụa pork roll) ($3)
Banh Mi Ba Le's combination special is a little harder to locate on its massive, detailed menu. Two walls of the East Oakland shop are decked out with colorful pictorial lists of each of its offerings, from sandwiches to noodles and beyond. The interior of the joint has recently been renovated: They've added a few tables and chairs, as well as a water-less fountain filled with Buddha statues. It's an improvement.
Unlike Saigon Sandwich's special, Ba Le's does feature deli meat. Chunky ham and curiously pink headcheese are the big stars of the show, bringing pleasant chewiness and unbeatable salty pork flavor. Here the pork roll doesn't get lost in the shuffle; its soft, airy texture complements the deli meats. Ba Le's paté isn't used as a dominant filling but as a spread, smeared in a thin layer on the bread opposite the mayonnaise. As such, it has a definite presence, but not a dominant one. Each bite tastes of all four meats in harmony. The toppings are as fresh and crisp as they are at Saigon Sandwich, but I wanted a bit more cilantro. Ba Le's bread was appropriately airy and crisp, and it carried the fillings well. Still, it lacked that distinguishing salty tang I tasted in San Francisco.
It's a close call this week, but only one banh mi can be crowned the winner.
Bread: Saigon Sandwich
Meats: Banh Mi Ba Le
Toppings: Saigon Sandwich
Composition: Banh Mi Ba Le
Value: Banh Mi Ba Le
The winner? Composition is the key to a great banh mi. Oakland takes it today.