The signature Houston version of banh mi, at least for non-Vietnamese locals, has been the one featuring char-grilled pork, the banh mi thit noung. A nominal but sufficient amount of tender, somewhat thin slices of hopefully crispy, warm pork are nestled in an airy, short Vietnamese-style baguette that should be properly crusty and fresh. The pork is joined by a light smear of rich-tasting house-made mayonnaise, shredded pickled carrots and daikon radish, slices of horizontally cut crisp cucumber, cilantro leaves with its stems, and fresh jalapeño usually cut into prominent wedges with seeds and membrane. The result is an enticing contrast of textures and very enjoyable flavors – predominantly the moist and savory pork and the fiery jalapeño – that is satiating while remaining vibrant, and not at all heavy, somewhat unique among sandwiches. Usually even better with a few dashes of vinegar from the shop and plentiful squirts of the estimable and thankfully ubiquitous Huy Fong brand Sriracha, it can be tough to eat just one of these if you are very hungry.
Using the same sandwich base, other commonly found fillings include the same char-grilled pork along with pâté, char-grilled chicken, shredded pork, steamed pork, pork meatballs (xiu mai), pâté solo, tofu, a fried egg, and the strangely brightly colored Vietnamese-style ham.
Roostar – Now with a trio of locations in various parts of town, this Banh Mi 2.0 operation is both slicker and better, overall, than its predecessors. What began as Vietnam Poblano in Spring Branch, an area with much higher Hispanic and Korean populations than Vietnamese, this has adapted to a growing clientele with a menu and preparations that are broadly popular. Jalapeños, shredded pickled carrots, cucumbers, cilantro with stems, soy sauce and garlic aioli help provide the sandwich platform along with rolls from excellent Slow Dough Bakery that are maybe more traditionally French than is found at other banh mi spots. Not just the bread, but the proteins are generally better quality than elsewhere, too. These are certainly worth a trip, which is now a little easier. Spring Branch, Galleria area, East End
Some of the Best
Baguette and Tea – A tiny place in a small strip center with wretched parking on West Alabama across the street from the Ice House, it can also be quite slow to get an order fulfilled here, but the sandwiches, which all come with a light smear of chicken pâté, are so good and such a fine value that it is worth any possible hassle. Reflective of a large part of its clientele, who might have never ventured to Bellaire Boulevard, you might even be asked if you want jalapeño on your sandwich. Montrose
Don Café – This modest stand-alone structure along Bellaire Boulevard has served up some of the very best banh mi in Houston for about a couple of decades now, and it remains one of the top values with the sandwiches; still costing just $3.50 or so. Don Café serves all of the requisite Vietnamese sandwiches plus the somewhat unique versions with char-grilled beef (banh mi thit bo nuong). In addition to the sandwiches, there are about two dozen items on the menu and a few brightly colored packaged items near the counter. Though take-away is very popular, you can actually linger here – not that it is that comfortable nor charming – as many of the polyglot patrons do. Chinatown
Thien An – A Midtown stalwart, this casual unassuming place opened from mid-morning to early evening is seemingly always bustling during the weekday lunch hours with downtown office workers and a heavy Vietnamese contingent, more so after Sunday Mass. Closed on Saturdays. Its banh mi thit nuong is one of the very best around, as the restaurant is more generous than most with the pork, which is nicely cooked, tender and richly flavorful. Midtown
Yelo – It’s Banh Mi 2.0 here. Anchored by excellent, fresh and crusty loafs, the smaller-than-usual sandwiches step a little beyond the locally typical banh mi creations. Assembled to order, slowly, and a bit more expensively, this friendly, attractive contemporary little spot in a Katy Chinatown strip center offers easily enjoyable flavors and still-welcome values from a focused menu that still has a number of enticing options. Jalapeños, shredded pickled carrots, cucumbers, cilantro, papaya slaw, garlic aioli along with a smidgen of pâté provide a solid and expected-tasting base for the sandwiches. Katy
Nguyen Ngo – Along with Khang, possibly the least atmospheric of any sandwich shop, banh mi or otherwise, in all of Houston, nonetheless, this humble spot in a humble shopping center serves up tasty and terrific-value banh mi inside of crusty, noticeably high quality rolls. This might be the only local banh mi place that has one with saucisson, a French-style salami, or Vietnamese-style French salami, it is justifiably well-regarded for its chicken and xiu mai versions. They also sell large jars of its tasty house-made mayonnaise to go. Cash only. Chinatown
Khang – Also set in a trash-strewn strip shopping center on Bellaire Boulevard, this tiny place has a tiny menu, just banh mi and drinks, but the made-to-order banh mi are worth a stop – for take-away –featuring properly crusty bread, a light touch with the mayo and quality meats like the char-grilled pork and beef. Chinatown
Worth an Visit
Les Ba’Get – Called baguettes here, that fanciness extends to the prices, a staggering, for banh mi, $10 and up. It just seems very expensive when banh mi elsewhere that are tastier are half or a third of the price. With a name that’s different, the banh mi are also just a little different, with scallions and red jalapeño, too, and presented differently, cut in half, a more contemporary take on the banh mi that with a taste still resonating with its predecessors, and being suitably appealing sandwiches, regardless. Garden Oaks
Cali – A dumpy little place with tables often not bussed and trash on the floor, this has nevertheless long been a popular table-service stop for well-done, inexpensive Vietnamese fare, rice plates, pho, vermicelli dishes, smoothies in addition to its long-creditable and wallet-friendly banh mi. Midtown
Lee’s Sandwiches – Serving a northern Californian version of the banh mi, this 10,000-square-foot outpost of an out-of-state chain has been a fixture on Bellaire Boulevard near the heart of Chinatown for well over fifteen years now. Mouth-watering aroma of freshly baked bread that fills the interior, and Lee’s northern Californian-Vietnamese sandwiches are quite tasty and certainly recognizable, but slightly different than what is common here. It starts with the longer 10-inch French-style baguette that is a little unlike what the local Vietnamese bakeries produce. That is filled with a broadly similar choice of fillings – albeit from a much longer list from which to choose – all with a house-made mayonnaise, pickled daikon, pickled julienned carrot that is more thickly cut, jalapeños, cilantro, salt, pepper, and somewhat uncommonly for here, soy sauce and sliced onions. Chinatown
Parisian Bakery – Though the banh mi are bit more crudely put together here than at other places, the Parisian Bakery has long produced the bread for other sandwich shops, which is why it merits inclusion. That, and it might be the only banh mi place that still offers the once-common buy-five-get-one-free sandwiches. Chinatown
A banh mi sandwich from Roostar