I was 10 years old when I had my first bánh mi. My mom has a very good lady friend who is Vietnamese and always had us for dinner. Growing up, Sunday afternoons were spent visiting them all the way in Jonesboro, having dinner, and staying til past our bedtime. She made the best pho and bo kho (beef stew) from scratch, and of course, bánh mis. They also have a son. (To R, hope you are doing well wherever you are. Thank you for taking me to all those Vietnamese concert-dances when I was 14. Those were so much fun and the best Vietnamese party food we’ve ever eaten. Love, C.)
Trust me, I have a point and I’m getting to it.
When Dinho grocery first opened in the late 80s, they had a sandwich shop next to it (it’s been replaced by what is now Dinho Bakery). It was the first place in Atlanta to sell bánh mi and early childhood memories always include them. All they sold were bánh mis (slathered in butter instead of mayo) at $1.00 apiece, and these phenomenal Vietnamese cakes with the most amazing buttercream icing. The cakes were made by hand by the Vietnamese proprietress who would only make them when she felt like it, or if you happen to be good friends with her. We got a cake every month and my mom would always get bánh mis regularly for us. Our favorite was the homemade cold cuts-luncheon meat combo. Nowadays, the bánh mi is as staple as the Big Mac. Buford Highway (and a little bit beyond) is literally peppered with bánh mi places so I thought it would be nice to showcase some of them. Call it your Bánh Mi Guide. Here goes.
Coming in at number one and the undisputed bánh mi king of Atlanta is none other than Quoc Huong. Did you know? The grilled/roast pork (Bánh Mi Thit Nuong) here is stellar, unrivaled, and tastes exactly the same since they’ve been open (early 90s). Seriously, don’t get anything else. The super flavorful, salty-sweet, smoky red pork is well-marinated, roasted, then grilled. Both texture and taste are phenomenal. They are the only place that uses a sweetish mayo dressing (think milder thousand island) and the perfectly-balanced sweet-tart pickled daikon/carrots are delicious additions. Sliced cucumbers and cilantro all add flavor and crunch. I love that they use a good ratio of meat to veggies that keeps the flavor of the grilled meat to stand out. The baguettes they use have a crisp, flaky crust and a chewy inside, thanks to a super secret French bakery they employ because as Mr. Quoc Hong (as I’ve known him) would always tell my mom: “Bánh Mis are only as good as the baguettes. No other bakers can make the best other than the French. Vietnamese-baked baguettes can never compare.” By the way, their bánh mis heat up really well so take some home and pop them in the oven or toaster oven for a couple of minutes. P.S. Get your bánh mis with jalapeños for punch.
A good contender and the one that takes the number two spot in Atlanta is none other than Pho Viet. The bread, baked in-house, is crisp and flaky outside, and smooth and soft inside. They use the traditional butter-mayo spread that tastes buttery rather than oily. They make the best combination bánh mi in town (Bánh Mi Dac Biet) consisting of liver paté, ham, pork roll (they call it meatball), and head cheese. Each piece of deli meat is made in-house and sold in the store. They are fresh-tasting, not salty, and sliced thick. Head cheese is quite tricky because most places that don’t prepare it right cause the cold-cut to have an off-putting taste and smell. Such is not the case here. I highly suggest you try their version. It’s the best.
The grilled pork bánh mi is just as good, with the pork tasting wonderfully savory yet sweetish. The pickled daikon/carrots has the right amount of sweet-tart flavors. The good-sized baguettes plus the generous filling of meat make their bánh mis quite filling.
Pho Bac’s grilled pork bánh mi is fantastic. The grilled pork has the perfect salty-sweet taste. They use mayo very sparingly and they don’t skimp on the meat which is nice. Go past the chewy, uncrusty baguette they use and they still take the number 3 position.
4. No. 1 Hong Kong Bakery
5494 Jimmy Carter Blvd
Norcross, GA 30093
The combination bánh mi (Bánh Mi Dac Biet) here is quite amazing. Reminds me of the ones we got at Dinho when we were young. The meat slices are thick and plenty. Homemade cold cuts include pork, turkey, ham, and head cheese. The pickled daikon/carrots are sliced thick and chunky to provide great crunch and offset the soft meats. The grilled pork bánh mi is just as good. The pork is seasoned well and goes well with the other toppings. The baguettes that are baked in-house are so flaky. Add plenty of cilantro and these are one of the best bánh mis $3 can buy.
Viet Tofu offers ready-made, cooked-on-premises dishes such as fried rice (Com Chien), rice cakes, pastries, noodles, snacks, sticky rice, wraps, rolls, tofu, and, of course, bánh mi. Don’t bother coming in to sit down, this is a take-out only place. They offer two types of bánh mi pork here: the red roasted-then-grilled pork and a regular grilled pork. Although, the grilled pork they use isn’t quite as good as the others, they are the next best thing. The regular grilled pork is very tender and juicy. Both are grilled on-premises and very flavorful. The bánh mis here are humongous — about three inches longer and fatter than anywhere else. They use regular mayo but the chunky pickled daikon/carrots are more tart than their counterparts so they balance well. Other notable choices include the chicken and the meatloaf. In any case, all are equally good.
Did you know? My favorite here at Lee’s is their chocolate croissants. I order them in batches of 25 every so often. But let’s talk about their bánh mis. I’m sad to say that I’ve never been a fan of Lee’s bánh mis. I find theirs the most inferior in the company of other places. The grilled pork they use here border on the sweeter side and the texture is just off. It seems like they grill the pork early in the day and reheat as needed. The result is wet, grilled meat with a boiled meat texture. The flavor is not as good as the other places in town. And they really skimp on the meat in their sandwiches.
The deli meats in their combination bánh mi is so thinly sliced, you can hardly taste them. Most times, the amount of pickled daikon/carrots is just so much that it makes me feel like I’m eating a salad bánh mi with specks of meat. It’s also worth noting that their pickled daikon/carrots border on the salty side, thanks to the heavy use of nước chấm (fish sauce). The baguettes, made in-premises, however, are quite good. No matter, it’s a good place to get a very inexpensive bánh mi fix especially if you opt for their daily special: half bánh mi with a bowl of pho all for $6.50. Can’t beat that.
There you have it, folks. Although I’ve been eating bánh mis regularly since I was 10, I ate so many bánh mis in a period of two weeks this past summer that I’m laying off them for a while. Hope this guide helps you out. I had so much fun doing it.