There are many ways to judge a banh mi. In the prehistoric days of 2008, it was much easier to rank them. You could count the different banh mis on one hand. Now? It’s a visual overload of a dozen variations or more on the menu. Beef banh mi, rarely featured five years ago, is big now with many riffs on pastrami and corned beef. Lots of seafood, mostly shrimp banh mis as well, a homage to the Viet-Cajun movement. But the tried-and-true then remains the same today; Vietnamese delis make their living mostly on two types of banh mis:
The cold cut. Usually called the No. 1 or “Dac Biet” (special). It’s a trinity of pork; a Vietnamese version of mortadella, a headcheese or terrine of pig ear and snout, and the third meat is usually a ham, loin or barbecue pork. You want slices of those three meats layered together for a harmonious bite that should be gelatinous, fatty and hammy. You want to balance that porky-saltiness with a thatch of fresh and bright herbs and pickled veggies. Your medley of pickles should be more daikon than carrots, as the former add more depth and flavor. Carrots add sweetness and an earthy funk that, if not used sparingly, will overrun a sandwich. The creamy housemade mayo and pâté are what bind these cornucopia of flavors.
The grilled pork. This is the bestseller for most if not all Vietnamese delis, slivers of pork butt or shoulder marinated in garlic, lemon grass, and some combo of fish sauce, soy sauce and/or oyster sauce and yes, often, there’s also MSG. Your grilled meat should be smoky and slightly sweet (usually from honey or sugar), and the surface should be caramelized and the edges charred. Burnt ends are a bonus.
I tried those two staples at every Vietnamese deli I hit, though this roundup was not beholden to just those classics. I sampled a sardine version in New Holly. I had a shredded chicken one in Kent. And the best banh mi I had — out of the 100 banh mi shops I ate at — was a roast pork in White Center. My 12 favorites are below.
Huong Xua Deli
Closed Sundays. 9629 16th Ave S.W., Seattle; 206-766-8597; (website will be launched later this month) Huongxuadeli.com
The roast pork (heo quay) here is the best banh mi in Puget Sound, a heap of white meat layered in melty fat and crunchy shards of pork skin that will leave a sheen of fat on your lips. Essentially a porchetta sandwich ($5.25) seasoned with Chinese five-spice powder, this is easily the best sandwich in Seattle that you can get for five bucks. A dozen banh mi shops now offer a roast pork option, but Huong Xua’s is the standout. The pork belly isn’t drowning in soy sauce, fish sauce or sugar — just a clean, unctuous bite sprinkled with enough pickled daikon, watery spears of cucumber and jalapeño peppers to cut into the richness. For $1.50 more, you can double the meat and cracklings. Its cold cut special (Dac Biet) $4.75 is also exceptional. Every Tuesday, if you buy five banh mis, you get one free. If you haven’t been to Huong Xua in recent years, check it out. The couple Kevin Bui and Phuong Nguyen bought this deli last October and launched a new takeout menu. (Updated 9/4 at 3:45 p.m.: The wait is up to two hours for a roast pork banh mi. Give it another week if you want to avoid the long line.)
The rest (in no particular order)
Rise & Shine Bakery
Closed Mondays. 19920 Aurora Ave. N., Shoreline; 206-574-8330; on Facebook; (Order ahead by phone to avoid long line.)
Even after eating at 100 banh mi spots, I swear I can pick chef Mai Tran’s handiwork out of any sandwich lineup. It’s her attention to detail. Her banh mi is truncated because she chops off both ends. She wants your first bite to be layered with meat instead of the hard nub end. She uses a 2:1 ratio of daikon to carrot for a pickle tang that has more flavor. And she doesn’t trust anyone else’s bread, so she bakes her own.
19915 64th Ave. W., Lynnwood; 425-776-7213; yehyehs.com
The best grilled pork banh mi in the North End, this nicely charred meat ($5.95) caramelized in fish sauce has a smoky fragrance you would find at a food stall in Saigon. Yeh Yeh’s goes through 100 pounds of pork butt a day just for this one sandwich. This hidden-spot shop tucked in a back lot also offers several Americanized riffs, from pastrami to salmon banh mis, though its best contemporary take is its Philly cheesesteak ($8.25) with tender rib-eye steak in a guacca chili sauce.
Closed Sundays and Mondays. 9447 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle; 206-453-4319; on Facebook
The best grilled pork banh mi in Seattle, this soy-sauce-and-honey version ($6.95) with sautéed onions and fibrous specks of lemon grass is made to order, hot off the grill and topped with a foliage of fresh herbs and green onions. This Rainier Beach restaurant also makes the best beef banh mi, a riff on the French dip with a side bowl of pho broth to dunk your sub in ($8.95); the banh mi is layered with slices of grilled rib-eye and brisket. It tastes like a sandwich variation of pho.
Tony’s Bakery and Deli
6020 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S., Seattle; 206-722-8800
The best grilled pork banh mi for cheapskates, the $4.25 price tag here can’t be beat around Seattle. Most in this price range are just gristly meat or pork doctored with liquid smoke. This is the real deal, charred meat studded with sesame seeds and tucked into a warm baguette that’s made in-house. Just tell the sandwich maker to go easy on the pickled carrots.
15220 Ambaum Blvd. S.W., Burien; 206-244-1449; on Facebook
Many chicken banh mis are premade white meat that just sits in a vat, all shriveled dry. This Burien spot does poultry poetic justice ($4.49) — fatty strips of thigh meat, soaked in pineapple juice and a secret seasoning blend that tasted like oyster sauce, ginger and sesame — and grilled to order. The crinkle-cut pickled daikon and carrot complete this banh mi, providing a snappy, sweet-and-sour tang, like a pleasant pop you get from a lug-nut-sized bread and butter pickle.
22618 Aurora Ave. N., Unit 113, Edmonds; 425-776-1788
Around Seattle, you’re either Team Seattle Deli or Team Saigon Deli, rivals that sat across the street from one another in Little Saigon. I bleed Team Seattle Deli — RIP to this iconic banh mi shop that closed last year when the owner sold the building after three decades in Seattle. But did you know Seattle Deli has an outpost in Edmonds? Located in a Korean strip mall, this North End branch offers all of the deli’s greatest hits ($5 each), from its signature grilled pork to its cold cut special, three layers of hams and pork cut lengthwise to overlap with the oblong bread for a consistent, meaty bite. The banh mi is creamier than most thanks to a generous slab of pâté and housemade mayo.
9988 15th Ave. S.W., Suite I, Seattle; 206-403-1620; quan-dalat.business.site
Here is Exhibit A that texture and knife skills make a big difference. Its cold cut special ($5.50) consists of the usual fixings, yet this tastes different simply because the Vietnamese-style bologna and pork are cut into thicker slabs instead of deli slices, and the pickles and lettuce are julienne-thin. It’s a meatier construct. If you blindfolded me, I would have thought this was a pork loin sandwich with mayo. It’s delicious. Its grilled pork banh mi ($5.50) was also the best variation I had in the White Center-Burien-West Seattle area.
Sizzle & Crunch Vietnamese Grill
1313 N.E. 42nd St., Seattle; 206-547-2723; sizzleandcrunch.com; (Note, its South Lake Union branch will reopen sometime in September.)
The BB Special ($7.88) must have been conceived with the hungry college student in mind. This gut-buster gets loaded with grilled pork, pork belly and a fried egg. Unless you request a lot of pickles, this meaty banh mi lacks acidity, unapologetically so, a carnivores’ delight. University of Washington students love to drown this banh mi in the “green sauce” (jalapeño-cilantro aioli). But it’s the mo hanh, caramelized scallions and scallion-flavored oil, that make this banh mi sing. On the menu it’s just called “scallion.” You want your meat to be glistening in that allium-flavored oil.
Thanh Son Tofu and Bakery
Closed Tuesdays. 1248 S. King St., Seattle; 206-320-1316
The best banh mi in the Chinatown International District, this former tofu factory has found a second act, drawing large crowds on weekends for its cold cuts and grilled pork ($5.45 each). Some of the best Vietnamese charcuterie and the baguettes — thin, crackly crust and feathery, airy interior — hold up better than all the others as takeout.
10414 Holman Road N.W., Seattle; 206-257-4254; banhtown.com
What is a “Phap” special? I got my answer when I tried to take a bite and an ounce of butter dripped onto my jeans. The Phap (Vietnamese word for French) is a banh mi ($7.95) consisting of chicken strips braised in soy sauce and butter and finished with more butter, served with dulcet onions. You’re going to need every slice of jalapeño pepper and stems of cilantro to cut into this creamy richness. Of the handful of corned beef and pastrami variations I ate for this story, this was the best corned beef banh mi ($8.95) with a smear of pâté.
Closed Sundays and Mondays. 512 Auburn Way N., Auburn; 206-565-4430; urbanchops.net
People need to get over banh mis that cost north of $10. Even with a price tag of up to $13.50, this fusion sandwich spot gives you more bang for your buck, fat banh mis overstuffed with twice the amount of meat and other fillings. These are crunchy, salty banh mis that will taste even better if you’re high. There are fried, panko-crusted soft-shell crab banh mi ($13.50) and a chicken fingers and bacon variation. Urban Chops experiments with a lot of odd and funky combos; some shouldn’t work, but do. Its best banh mi: the pork and shrimp ($12.50) — shellfish coated in coconut and turmeric perched atop a bed of grilled pork and fried shallots.
Saigon Deli (Seattle), Q Bakery (Seattle), Lan Hue Sandwich & Bakery (Seattle), Taste ToGo Banh Mi (Kent)