Literally translated, bánh mì means bread in Vietnamese. Though more often than not it’s referring to a crispy and crumb-heavy baguette filled with all kinds of delights, from slices of chả lụa sausage, to spreads of rich pâté, to deep-fried vegetable spring rolls, to slices of giò thủ (glorious, anaemic-looking head cheese). From Dalston to Deptford, London has no shortage of great Vietnamese restaurants, and these are the ones you should be picking up your next bánh mì from.
For £5, Hai Café makes one of London’s finest bánh mìs. This little arm’s length-wide spot in Lower Clapton heftily fills its short baguettes with a combination of spiced pork belly and lemongrass chicken, an intriguing - and wholly delicious - crushed black sesame seed spread plus pickled bits, green chilli, a slice of head cheese, and, of course, crispy shallots. The pork belly in its classic sandwich (though there is a tofu and mushroom option) is bolshy: caramelised chunks that will undoubtedly fall onto your lap before being transferred deftly into your mouth.
Bread-watch: A little soft but with strong chew to crunch ratio, any javelin baguette that requires unsheathing is a very good javelin baguette.
Auntie Banh Mi is a Laotian family-focused bánh mì pop-up that you 100% want to know where it will next be. Their menu alternates, each one named after a family member, and the Auntie special feature cả lụa, spam, 24-hour roast pork and a smear of homemade pâté is probably the best all-pork bánh mì you can eat in London. The Brother In-Law, filled with fried chicken spring rolls is also excellent, and there’s always at least one vegetarian option. Whatever you do, don’t shy away from the family jeow, a sour and numbing Laotian chilli paste that takes these sandwiches to the next level.
Bread-watch: A bronzed and crispy baguette with excellent dough-to-crunch ratio. The kind of baguette you could go to war with, though we don’t endorse war, or going to war with a stick of bread.
If textures are what you’re after in your sandwiches, then Banh Mi Town has got you covered. This tiny spot in Fitzrovia has what we like to refer to as ‘the peanut button’. Press the peanut button and your pork special, filled with pâté, cả lụa, caramelised belly, and ham, will also get a sprinkling of peanuts on top of its pickled vegetables and chilli coriander. It’s kind of funky, we very much like it, and this is a really useful and cost-effective place to know about in central.
Bread-watch: Just look at that picture. Look at it. What does it say to you? Two hands is what it says. Two hands on this pale (but not uncrisp) and wide (but not totally doughy) baguette baby.
The Hackney Central favourite can be a cruel and frustrating mistress. Lose track of time and it’s more than likely closed - opening times are something like midday to 3pm, Wednesday to Friday, but also sometimes other days too, maybe - or worse, they’ve run out of baguettes. But that’s part of this place’s whole thing. The Hoi-An Special is the one to get: with char siu, belly, and Vietnamese caramel hunks, pâté, omelette, pickled carrots and cucumber, coriander, and some sriracha for good measure. It’s a go-to for us.
Bread-watch: Quite doughy, a little crispy, and 100% certain to happily take up space in your stomach. Your ‘quick lie down’ afterwards is also a 100% inevitability.
There’s no lack of brilliant Vietnamese options around Deptford and Greenwich, but it’s Viet Anh Pho’s bánh mìs that are the ones worth seeking out. The Special, which combines lemongrass-heavy pork wrapped in betel leaves, grilled pork slices, pâté and batons of pickled vegetables is up there with the best fillings around and what it lacks in size - this is a relatively small forearm of a sandwich compared to say, an oil tanker truck-sized thing - it makes up for in porky flavour.
Bread-watch: Crisp to the point of almost (but not quite) stale, prepare to make it rain (crumbs) all over yourself.
With three locations in Shoreditch, The City and Soho, Kêu is probably London’s most recognisable bánh mì mini-chain. Don’t let that make you think that its standards are iffy though. In actual fact, Kêu isn’t just reliable but consistently delicious. Their Hoi-An Deluxe combines ham, roast pork belly, sliced head cheese, chicken liver pâté and a gravy-ish sauce that’s heavy on pork and sweet onion flavour. Oh, and pork floss too. Because crisp and meaty candy floss should very much be a more regular sandwich inclusion.
Bread-watch: Another piece of bread you could go to war with only, this time, it would likely be in water. Bronzed, crunchy and very submarine-like. We salute you, always-lovely sandwich.
Good things and fun things tend to come out of the Snackbar kitchen and in the torpedo-shaped mortadella bánh mì, owner and chef Freddie Janssen has very much done it again. Mortadella’s involvement in anything is invariably an excellent thing and paired with a spread of chicken liver parfait, pickled carrots and cucumber, sriracha mayo and a never-not-necessary handful of crispy shallots, it makes for one of London’s highest grade bánh mìs.
Bread-watch: A big softy that you’ll just want to snuggle up with on the sofa before noisily stuffing in your mouth, this chewy baguette will leave you with many crumbs of good memories.