Photo credit: flickr user tedeytan
I’m a total sucker for Southeast Asian cuisine, especially banh mi–Vietnam’s ingenious interpretation of a sub that combines its French colonial history with indigenous Vietnamese flavors and ingredients. Encased in an unbelievably crispy, porous baguette made from rice flour, banh mi usually features various meats and offal (like pate and head cheese) as fillings, topped with slices of pickled carrots and cucumber for sweetness, and cilantro and jalepenos for heat. The combination is beguiling, with each bite revealing different flavors and textures. Best of all, banh mi definitely qualifies as a cheap eat; I’ve seen it as cheap at $2.50 in some places, but never more than $6. In short, it may be the best sandwich ever invented.
So imagine my delight in finding out that two new restaurants, specializing in banh mi, recently opened in DC: ShopHouse in Dupont Circle and BonMi in downtown. Prior to these restaurants’ arrivals, banh mi fans like myself would have to travel all the way to the Eden Center to get a authentic version. I set out to try both, in hopes that I would finally get a decent banh mi fix in the District and save myself the pain of 30+ minute WMATA ride to Virginia.
ShopHouse got a lot of buzz prior to opening, as the first new concept from Chipotle owner Steve Ells. Media and bloggers descended on ShopHouse as soon as it opened, and greeted it with mixed reviews. The set-up is very similar to Chipotle, with its signature quick assembly line filled with Southeast Asian ingredients such as long beans and eggplant with Thai basil, rather than guacamole and corn salsa. Diners start by choosing a noodle bowl, rice bowl (brown or white available), or banh mi, and then continue down the line choosing their toppings and sauces.
My boyfriend and I shared a steak noodle bowl with spicy red curry sauce ($7.50) and a grilled chicken satay banh mi ($6.59). First, I must say that I was particularly impressed with the quality of ingredients: everything looked very fresh, with toppings on the assembly line constantly being replaced with fresh-made batches. The dishes themselves, however, disappointed a little.
The steak noodle bowl was intensely flavorful, in a not-so-pleasant way. There was no balance to the dish; everything from the charred (albeit chewy) steak, to the pickled veggies, to the salted peanuts, to the fiery red curry sauce, seemed to compete with, rather than complement, each other. My bowl was also doused in the red curry sauce, which even for a spice fiend like myself, was just too much–I ended up drinking about a quart of water throughout the rest of the day.
We liked the grilled chicken satay banh mi better than the steak bowl, but it still wasn’t great. The chicken, pickled veggies, and herbs on top were all tasty, but the main problem was the bread–a limp and lifeless loaf of white monotony. Fans of banh mi know that the baguette can make or break the dish; it needs to be crispy, airy, and golden. ShopHouse’s version was none of these things and proved to be the downfall of an otherwise passable banh mi.
DC foodies, as well as office workers tired of the usual ho-hum delis in downtown, greeted BONMi with open arms when it arrived in Farragut Square. Touted as a “Vietnamese inspired fast casual restaurant,” BONMi was started by the JBH Advisory Group, a restaurant consulting firm in NYC. The restaurant definitely seems geared toward the global-minded downtown DC elite, as evidenced by its proximity to the World Bank, commitment to sustainability, and clean sleek interior.
In addition, BONMi’s appeal extends to foodies as well. Traditional meat fillings are updated with interesting spices (think five spice chicken and garlic black pepper pork) and prepared sous vide–the Top Chef/Wiley Dufresne-approved cooking technique of the moment. BONMi did not leave out vegetarians either, offering chile garlic tofu or butternut squash dipped in a coconut curry sauce as well.
On my visit, I ordered a lemongrass chicken banh mi and Vietnamese iced coffee ($8.75 total). The Vietnamese iced coffee was bottled, which I have not seen before, and tasted more like milk than coffee.
Whereas I faulted ShopHouse for their bread, BONMi definitely hit the mark spot-on with its crackly, airy baguette. Each bite left tons of crumbs all over the table–a mark of a good banh mi. BONMi put a lot of effort into sourcing its bread, working directly with Lyon Bakery in Virginia to find the right batch.
The other ingredients, however, missed the mark for me. Like ShopHouse, BONMi also has an assembly line-style ordering system, but none of the meats looked very appealing or fresh. I had my heart set on the five spice chicken, but the murky greasy-looking juices the chicken had been sitting in scared me a little, and I decided to go with the lemongrass chicken instead. While the lemongrass chicken was tasty, it had a rubbery texture. And whatever lemongrass flavor the chicken had was drowned out by the bright orange-spicy mayo slathered on top of it. That said, I still enjoyed BONMi and judging from the sizeable crowd even at 1:30 in the afternoon, others feel the same way.
The Verdict: Though not the best or most authentic (or cheapest) banh mi’s I’ve ever had, both ShopHouse and BONMi do the trick if you’re in serious need of a banh mi fix but don’t feel like metro-ing all the way out to NoVA. However, if you’re looking for a traditional, top-notch version, you’ll probably still have to travel outside the District to find it, since both restaurants must adapt and appeal to more mainstream American palates and prices.