Finding the Perfect Banh Mi in Columbus
One writer’s pursuit of a perfect taste memory from childhood
My mom’s retirement plans are elaborate, and they involve banh mi. In her later years, she intends to open a banh mi cart near a college campus, where she will serve exactly three sandwiches and glasses of very strong, very sweet ca phe da (Vietnamese iced coffee). This is a plan I’ll definitely be investing in.
I grew up with cold-cut banh mi sandwiches instead of PB&J, fishing through the overcrowded pantry at my grandparents’ house for a can of ready-made pâté, then reaching into the fridge for a plate of thinly sliced sausages and a jar of pickled daikon and carrots. On road trips, my grandmother stacked her oversized purse with tidy, aluminum-wrapped sandwiches that released that very specific pickled-vegetable smell in the minivan.
And when we visited Saigon a decade or so ago, I found myself in a familiar routine of banh mi-chasing. At the first signs of life below our hotel, I slipped on my sandals, then beelined to my favorite banh mi cart, stopping only for a cold cup of ca phe before taking my bounty back to the room like a carb-obsessed troll.
I’m still chasing the most delicious banh mi I can find. It’s a craving so deep that sometimes I research flights to Vietnam, wondering how much is too much in pursuit of that old taste memory. Luckily, there are plenty of banh mi treasures to be found locally.
The magic of a truly good banh mi rests on balance. Does the homemade, yolk-rich mayo play well with the fresh herbs? Is the meat-to-bread ratio reasonable? (Nothing spoils a bite like a hunk of dry bread missing any redolence of meat or veggie.) How thick are the slices of meat?
I’ve tried many banh mi sandwiches in town, but I needed a refresher. I darted Downtown, up to Clintonville, then further along Morse Road, ending near my home in the northern suburbs. Along the way, I collected parchment-wrapped sandwiches, shoving bites into my husband’s mouth and grilling him about bread texture, mayonnaise density.
I finally found my banh mi match at Buckeye Pho, a Bethel Road eatery with four sandwiches on the menu, ranging from the classic, cold-cut dac biet (translated as “special”) to grilled pork, chicken or beef versions. For my research, I stuck to the cold-cut varieties for consistency. Buckeye Pho had a healthy weekday lunchtime crowd, a good sign. It also smelled familiar, like the cooking I’d grown up around, back when I would slink into the kitchen to filch something straight from the fryer.
Buckeye Pho’s sandwich is a study in balance. Its size is not so overwhelming that it scares young kids and not so paltry that I wonder if I need two for a full meal. The bread has a nice crust that gives way to a pillowy texture. The sweet-sourness of the pickled veggies cuts through the richness of the meats (three kinds, an ideal number). And the pâté is evenly spread, adding that indescribable, vaguely gamey flavor. When I finished the banh mi, I could only stare at the parchment left behind, streaked with just a bit of that good, yellow mayo. Some joys are too fleeting.
761 Bethel Road, Northwest Columbus, 614-451-2828
Honorable banh mi mentions: Mi Li Café and Lan Viet Market
This story is from the May 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.