While banh mi shops abound in the East Bay, they are not all created equal. Here are the seven spots we love best, some classic and some new discoveries. Feel free to add your favorites in the comments.
There are two popular banh mi joints in the East Bay with the name “Ba Le,” one on Oakland’s International Blvd. and one in El Cerrito, owned by the niece of the Oakland shop’s owner. It is the former that most locals talk about as a destination, and rightly so, as it has the most diverse menu (including vegetarian options) and almost always strikes the right ratio of protein of choice to pickles and raw veggies. Both the egg (fried over-easy) and the tofu (cut into small cubes and pan-seared) are solid choices for vegetarians, while the more traditional options, like grilled chicken and pork (the latter infused with lemongrass), are less sweet than many versions, and that’s a good thing in my book.
This friendly spot always seems to have a fast-moving line, with just one person taking orders while making the previous order simultaneously. We tried the meatball and the grilled pork banh mi, and while the meat is on the light side, the bread is especially toasty—something I overheard several customers complain about, but a quality I appreciate. If you fall into the “lightly toasted” camp, your request will be happily honored. There’s also a nice selection of Thai and Vietnamese snacks, including dried, unsalted banana chips. This place tends to use more raw cucumber than average, and fewer pickles.
Of the traditional banh mi stops I tried, Cam Huong and the Ba Le in Oakland continue to duke it out for top honors. At the former, the bread is crusty, the pickles ample, and the meat, as everyone says on Yelp, is rather scant—but not too scant for me. In fact, when I returned to order one with “double meat,” which intuitively sounded like a mistake, I received a sandwich with torpedo-like heft. (But if you must, the extra meat will only cost you a dollar.) Two good choices here are the grilled chicken—small pieces of perfectly cooked dark meat— and pork with “anchovies,” meaning fish sauce—a fatty, salty combination that is just right. “With everything” includes carrot and daikon pickles, jalapenos, and cilantro.
Thank goodness I was tipped off by a friend about Nomad Café as a banh mi destination as I’d never even been in, even for coffee. So, I had no idea that the Vietnamese owners serve four made-to-order banh mi daily: chicken, pork, tofu, and meatball. On my first pass, I tried the chicken, and was immediately impressed by the bread. Flatter than most and uniformly crisp on the outside, Nomad’s roll holds together the many ingredients better than the vertical competition. The chicken was very tender and slightly sweet, a nice ballast for the fiery jalapeno on top. The pickles here are solo carrots, paired up with raw (unpickled) cucumber. And the kitchen is not shy with the cilantro, a tendency I applaud. And because I have a vegetarian son, I tried the tofu version for fun; while I wouldn’t personally gravitate towards this, it is a respectable choice for a more principled person than me with a hankering for banh mi.
While I’d driven by Mint Leaf many times on my way to and from Berkeley Bowl West, I had never stopped in, and when I finally did, I was surprised to find a banh mi on the large menu of salads, juices, and other light fare. So, I skeptically ordered the grilled chicken and was delighted by how packed it was with vegetables, both pickled and raw. And the meat, in much larger chunks than the norm, was more savory than sweet and perfectly cooked. It’s a real plus to be able to enjoy a banh mi with fresh-squeezed juices, such as carrot, orange, and ginger. I also couldn’t resist ordering the rare beef salad, another winner, seared tableside with hot oil.
By far the strangest place I visited on my banh mi expeditions, Saigon Sandwich Deli is a delightful enigma. Part Vietnamese sandwich counter, part taqueria, the place is packed every day with people enjoying a banh mi with a side of carne al pastor taco, or vice versa. While I’ll be back to try the full range of Mexican offerings, the focus this time was the sandwiches. If you appreciate paté, head cheese, and other forcemeat-style banh mi, this is your place. The combo has a schmear of pork pate, several thin slices of head cheese, and a thicker layer of pressed pork. The simpler barbecued chicken is sweet and tender; both are piled high with fat length-wise slices of jalapeno, fresh cucumber, and the requisite pickles.
Another under-the-radar banh mi spot is Victory Burger, locally famous for its Five Dot Ranch burgers and fries cooked up in rice bran oil. It would be a big mistake to miss out on the chicken banh mi on an Acme bun with homemade chicken-skin mayo. The pickles are also homemade, piled on in lieu of raw, unpickled vegetables, a good call. It’s not that the Straus vanilla milkshakes are particularly good with this sandwich, but they’re certainly a must for dessert.
1099 Alcatraz Ave., Oakland [map]
Ph: (510) 653-8322
Hours: Mon-Fri, 11:30am-3pm; Fri, 5-9pm; Sat-Sun, noon-9pm
Price Range: $ (Under $11)
Facebook: Victory Burger
Price Range: $ (Under $11)