Foodosophy of Banh Mi (in Vancouver)

There are three names that usually come up when Vancouverites talk about their favourite banh mi: Au Petit Cafe, Ba Le, and Tung Hing . I needed to grab a quick lunch from my kids and their friends one day after school. I was going to drive right past these three restaurants so I thought I would take this opportunity to do a side-by-side photo-essay.

I ordered the “Special” at each place to set a base-line comparison. Having ordered the Specials at all three spots over the years, I know how consistent they all are with their production – in other words, what you see here is what you would typically get.

From the left to right: Au Petit Cafe, Ba Le (Kingsway), Tung Hing.

As you can see, Tung Hing’s banh mi is at least 2″ longer than the other two – 10″ vs 8″. Au Petit Cafe has their bread specially made by La Baguette et L’echalotte which has a storefront on Granville Island. Ba Le currently sources from Empress Bakery (I incorrectly attributed their source as Paris Bakery in my earlier post here), but are about to embark on their own baking operation in-house with the installation of some new ovens at the Kingsway location.

The above photo also nicely illustrates the differences in the crust. Au Petit Cafe’s crust is somewhat soft – where most of the crispiness has been displaced by a leathery suppleness (note the creasing in the crust itself). This softness is not necessarily a bad thing. I recognize it now as a stylistic difference. Some people prefer their banh mi crust on the soft side. I prefer the sharp, crispy, egg-shell like crust of the other two.

One thing for sure – a “real” French baguette with its thick crust and chewy and slightly sour crumb is not ideal for this application. Vietnamese buns need to be lighter to complement the filling. Vietnamese baguettes have a airier crumb and a thinner crust achieved through the use of low-gluten wheat flour, short leavening times and the addition of rice flour in its preparation.

Vietnamese baguettes  become stale rather quickly since its preparation does not use much (if any) oil and sugar – ingredients that prolong the perception of freshness (oil adds a gloss to the crumb, and sugar – a hydrophillic ingredient – helps to retain moisture). This propensity to go stale is why I seek high-volume operations that can guarantee me a fresh bun. When it comes to banh mi, I’m a bun man.

Cross sections. Again – from the left to right: Au Petit Cafe, Ba Le (Kingsway), Tung Hing. This shot and the following shots illustrate the differences in the filling styles.

Au Petit Cafe

Bread: La Baguette et L’echallote Vietnamese baguette; 8″ in length
Meats: Housemade Cha Lua, Char Sui, and Ground Pork Terrine
Vegetables: Carrot and Daikon Pickle, Cucumber, Cilantro
Dressing: Margarine, Mayo, no Maggi drizzle.
Price: $4.50

Au Petit Cafe makes their own meats. The Special has cha lua (pork loaf), char sui, and their own chunky terrine/pate. I detect very little (if any) liver in the pate – it is mainly comprised of ground pork. Not having liver pate as an ingredient (or having an imperceptible amount) could be another key to its popularity in this city (strong flavoured pork liver is not everyone’s favourite sandwich filling). The sandwich has the highest meat to bread ratio of the others.

Note that the vegetable pickle is sliced thicker using a mandoline (instead of a food-processor shredder attachment which tends to create thin shreds). This provides the sandwich with more crunch from the pickle. The pickle is also quite sweet compared to the others. I did not taste any Maggi seasoning (a common ingredient that is swished into the filling).

Ba Le (Kingsway location)

Bread: Empress Bakery Vietnamese baguette (soon to be replaced by their own in-house baked baguette), 8″ in length
Meats: Housemade Cha Lua, Vietnamese Ham, and Liver Pate
Vegetables: Carrot and Daikon Pickle, Green Pepper, Cilantro
Dressing: Margarine, Mayo, Maggi and Soy-based Dressing
Price: $3.25

Ba Le  has an extensive Vietnamese charcuterie operation and are the usual meat source for much of the other banh mi operations in town. They sell and serve a number of meats that are uncommon in the banh mi scene in this city. One in particular (my favourite) is their porchetta-like rolled “bacon.”

The Special has three kinds of meat: cha lua (pork loaf), Vietnamese Ham, and Pork Liver Pate. They set the slicer quite thin and while not exactly generous with the meat, it is in keeping with the typical meat to bread ratio of banh mi you can get in Vietnam. The vegetable filling is comprised of shedded pickled carrot & daikon, a slice of green pepper, and cilantro.

Ba Le has just installed a brand new bread oven at their Kingsway location, but have not yet started production. Look out for their own fresh bread some time next year.

Tung Hing

Bread: in House-baked Vietnamese baguette; 10″-11″ in length
Meats: Housemade Cha Lua, Vietnamese Ham, and Liver Pate
Vegetables: Carrot and Daikon Pickle, Green Pepper, Cilantro
Dressing: Margarine, Mayo, Maggi and Soy-based Dressing
Price: $3.00

Tung Hing  makes some of their charcuterie, but their forte is in their very good bread. They are  primarily a bakery that just happens to run a banh mi operation (in contrast with Ba Le – who are primarily a charcuterie operation). They are the source for buns for many Vietnamese cafes in the area. Here, you are almost guaranteed a fresh baguette each time you go (they bake bread all day long). Since it could be mere minutes out of the oven, the bread always has a crisp crust and a pillowy crumb. The crust isn’t as eggshell thin as the bread baked by Empress Bakery.

Tung Hing has the highest vegetable-to-meat ratio of the three. It also has the highest pickle ratio which makes it the most refreshing to eat. Note the way they thick slice their cucumber lengthwise adding a substantial watery crunch.

Tung Hing is also the fastest of the three places discussed here. You can be in and out of there in less than a minute. In contrast, it took Au Petit Cafe nearly ten minutes to prepare my Banh Mi despite being the only person in the restaurant at a relatively early 11am.

In Conclusion….

Well it will sound like a cop-out. All three places serve good banh mi. It really comes down to stylistic differences and preferences. You don’t like sharp, crispy crust? Go to Au Petit Cafe. You would like a variety of meats? Go to Ba Le. You like your banh mi with a lot of pickle? Tung Hing. You get the idea. Or…if you are a real geek like me, you will drive to all three places, pick up sandwiches at each of them, then take photos of all the sandwiches prior to serving them to your kids. (It’s all in the name of science.)

Au Petit Cafe on Urbanspoon

Ba Le Deli & Bakery on Urbanspoon

Tung Hing Bakery on Urbanspoon

19 thoughts on “Foodosophy of Banh Mi (in Vancouver)

  1. Awesome breakdown. I think my own personal conclusion is, based on any given day, you could crave any one of the three! Price makes a big impact too, since APC is 50% more expensive than Tung Hing.

  2. Great post! I really like how you did the side by side comparison of these. Everything in the name of science and good food! 🙂 I like your conclusion, as most of us have different “likes” and “dislikes” – you just put the facts and let everybody decide. As for myself, which one is closer, hehehehe. Now, will there be such side by side comparison for burgers (too many shops?) or pho (too many as well???)?

    On an unrelated note, if you look at the stand alone post entry (where you can do the commenting), some of the pictures are not linked correctly and, hence, not displaying. From the front page it shows up fine, though.

    • Such a list exists for pho….look for Knightafter’s pho ratings list. I’d love to see one on burgers and pizza.

      • Gastro – could you even pick 3 places to do a side by side for pizza, or burgers? Or do you mean a more comprehensive list?

        • I’m working on the pizza list now ;-). Pizza and burgers should easy. There are only a handful of worthy spots in town.

          • For pizza, will Terry (Ah-Beetz) be in that head-to-head (or slice-to-slice) competition? Considering it is in Abbotsford…

            Not sure about burgers. Everybody has their own favs, including some perennial ones like Moderne Burger, Splitz or Vera’s and the “celebrity” Cactus Club burger. And then there are your partially overpriced burgers from DB Bistro. In my case, please include Burger Heaven!

            • Ah-Beetz will represent.

              Burgers will be more involved for sure and it will be more difficult to negate any biases I might have.

  3. Not sure what head to head competition you guys are talking about but I would have to say that we have actually improved our pizza lately. I’ve started blending Caputo 00 pizza flour from Italy with our regular bread flour and it has improved our crust. I’ve also started using organic tomatoes from Sardinia(Italy) and and excellent Extra Virgin Olive oil from Sicily. Thought you guys might be interested. See you soon, Terry

    • Hey Terry!

      I guess it is impossible to do a head to head comparison here since the pickin’s are slim. Maybe more of a “survey” than a “competition.”

      Looking forward to your new crust and your new toppings (including your own house-made mozza).

  4. Hi there,

    Great post, but I just wanted to let you know it’s actually spelled “banh mi” (minus accents) not “bahn mi”, as in not a German superhighway. Vietnamese doesn’t have variable spelling since it uses the roman alphabet. Reference: I’m Vietnamese!


  5. A quick update: Ba Le’s new baking operation at the Kingsway location is now up and running as of yesterday. The bread is very good. Ba Le is now my on the top of my list with this new development.

    • I ordered 3 cold cut sandwiches from Ba Le on Kingsway, and it came with their own baked bread. The bread is cut into sections from longer loaves, but the sandwich was still delicious. For $2.75 for the cold cut, the price can’t be beat.

  6. Pingback: Bánh mì meets pita meets vegan chorizo | I don't know the word for this.

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