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It all started innocently enough. We were all cookied and candied out from the holidays and thought a stop in Chinatown for a sumptious banh mi would be the perfect antidote to all that sweet fare. The sandwich, a miraculous blend of Vietnamese and French tastes, is food you can eat on the run for breakfast, lunch, snack, or supper.
The baguette, an important element of banh mi, is made with both rice and wheat flours. It looks like a sub roll, but the super crusty exterior leaves mountains of crumbs down your coat if you’re standing — and most banh mi places only have a few stand-up counter spots. The inside is exceptionally soft, the better to absorb mayonnaise, garlic hot sauce (like sriracha), and meat juices. Add to that lightly pickled carrots, daikon, cucumber sticks, fresh cilantro, and sliced jalapeno (seeds too), and there are plenty of tastes swirling around. The classic contains what are called “cold cuts,” sometimes a liverwurst-like spread, pressed ham, and sliced pork. Others are made with beef, all pork, chicken, meatballs, tofu, and all vegetables.
So a quick trip to Chinatown quickly turned into a banh mi crawl to six places. Many have a few spring rolls at the register, sitting in a very tempting way, and perhaps a meaty dish on rice. We discovered in our travels that the heat, juicy meat, crusty bread, crisp vegetables, creamy mayo, hot chilies, and spicy sauce are an addictive combination. We sampled the classic cold cut version and beef (barbecued or grilled). And since the most expensive sandwiches are less than $5, we had a grand, cheap time.
The most succulent, juicy, tasty banh mi is at New Saigon Sandwich in Chinatown. The place is a closet with space for two or three to stand and eat. Both the classic cold meat and and barbecued beef are incredibly moist umami bombs. Spring rolls are plump and wonderful. 696 Washington St. (near Kneeland Street), Chinatown, Boston, 617-542-6296. Open daily 8:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.
Nearby on Harrison Avenue is 163 Vietnamese Sandwiches & Bubble Tea, which has a few tables crammed next to stacks of dry goods. Both cold cut and barbecued beef are beautifully made with lots of jalapeno. Barbecued beef is exceptionally juicy. 66 Harrison Ave. (near Beach Street), Chinatown, Boston, 617-542-7903. Open daily 7:30 a.m.-8 p.m.
Under the scaffolding beside the Beach Street parking garage is Mei Sum bakery, where tables hold Chinatown residents drinking coffee. The warm baguette is the best we find, but fillings are lackluster. Beef is tough and flavorless, cold cuts unremarkable. A little salty bun on the counter, a kind of brioche rolled in scallions and sesame seeds, with crushed dried pork on the ends, is pretty wonderful. So are the counter ladies. 36 Beach St., Chinatown, 617-357-4050. Open daily 7 a.m.-7 p.m.
The newest member of downtown’s banh mi fest is Banh Mi House, in a little food court on Winter Street near the Common. Both classic cold cut and grilled beef are not juicy enough, beef is tough and dry. There are no seats in this court, but plenty across the street in the big food court where other Asian fast food establishments reign. 48 Winter St., Downtown Crossing, Boston, 617-396-7371. Open Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
Banh Mi Ba Le in Dorchester is a bakery/market with all kinds of prepared foods. Watch the women through the plexiglass shield make sandwiches and your head will spin at their speed. I’m not sure what dark juices they’re ladling on the baguette but the results are pretty terrific, beef deliciously moist with enough chilies to pack power. No tables or counter here. 1050 Dorchester Ave., Dorchester, 617-265-7171. Open daily 5 a.m.-8 p.m.
Farther down Dot Ave. is Nhu Lan, next to a favorite pho spot, Sunrise Restaurant. Nhu Lan’s sandwiches, while not as juicy and satisfying as Ba Le’s, are decent. Beef is moist if a little tough. 1155 Dorchester Ave., Dorchester, 617-474-1989. Open daily 5 a.m.-8 p.m.
Many banh mi spots have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Banh Mi Ngon in West Roxbury is eager to please. On one visit after a holiday, the bread isn’t fresh and we decide to return. A good idea, but though these sandwiches are packed with crisp, crunchy essentials, they’re not moist or hot enough. A spicy tofu is on its way to perfection. Finally a beef sandwich delivers the creaminess, pleasant chew, heat, and sweet caramelization. Shredded cabbage and carrots tossed with rice vinegar and a dusting of peanuts is an excellent accompaniment. 1759 Centre St., West Roxbury, 617-325-0946. Open Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-8 p.m.