This week brings a road trip of sorts. I visited seventeen places east of the Willamette to begin a two-part journey and ask a question whose answer should be worth considerable bragging rights: Who makes the best banh mi in Portland? Sure, it's a subjective issue, but before long it's clear that some are points of pride, and some are just made to keep 82nd Avenue dreamers glued to the video poker machines.
The banh mi is a simple, fairly standardized, and inexpensive Vietnamese sandwich, where a couple key ingredients need to shine. The baguette should be light and airy, with a thin, crisp, shattering crust—the outside like a saltine, the inside like cotton candy. The meat shouldn't taste like it was sliced from a basement-ripened grandmother. If used, the pâté should enhance the richness like fish sauce in a nuoc cham, and not be overly distinctive. Pickled carrots and daikon, jalapeño, occasional Kewpie mayonnaise, and cilantro—always cilantro—are the rest.
After quality of ingredients, they're distinguished by balance. The most common shortcoming is too much bread to filling, or a smothering of vegetables.
There are also restaurants and counters that create relatively gourmet versions that spare no expense, in fundamental contrast to the cheap street-food nature of the original. It's unfair to compare the $10 sandwich to the $3 one—though they can technically share the same name and ingredient list. These are typically set apart by the meats: delicious roast spiced duck (Double Dragon), liver-enriched seared crepinettes (Smallwares), and top-notch housemade charcuterie (Tails & Trotters). Therefore, these go in a separate judging category.
Who was the best on the east side? Top honors go to @Pho.com (7901 SE Powell), a bright, clean, and slightly upscale restaurant whose name seems to be missing only a hashtag and an interrobang. At $5.95 and slightly oversized, this barely fit into the "traditional" category, but strictly traditional ingredients and value for size kept it there. A thin, tender, marinated and char-grilled escalope of pork was irresistibly fragrant, and in perfect balance with the cool, refreshing vegetables. The subtle pâté blended seamlessly with the mayonnaise for a rich and binding sauce. It was the only sandwich I couldn't help but finish after trying that day's field of nine, if that says anything.
Next week brings a full tour of west side banh mi, with a more detailed master chart, addresses, and, for perspective, a few local experts' favorites.