Pho Thai Hoa – Vancouver, BC


Pho Thai Hoa
1625 Kingsway
Vancouver, BC
(604) 873-2348

Pho Thai Hoa is one of the best and most well known Vietnamese restaurants in Vancouver. It has a lot of competition along Kingsway – Vancouver’s version of little Saigon. Pho Thai Hoa differentiates itself from most of the other Vietnamese restaurants in the area with its clean premises, extensive (and nicely photographed) menu, and generally good food. It is known for its good pho and other Vietnamese classics. Now it is doing something new for this town: a hot banh mi with grilled meats.

Now, I am perhaps presumptuous in my pronouncement that hot banh mi is a recent phenomenon here in Vancouver. After all, I have certainly not eaten at all the Vietnamese places in town. However, in my explorations along Kingsway, known to be on a cutting edge of authentic Vietnamese food, this is the first I have seen this. More recent second-hand reports from others indicate that there are a few places that serve a grilled meat banh mi – but none seem to be attempting it to this scale. Is it perhaps grilled fillings are really only possible in a full kitchen – something a typical banh mi joint does not usually have? Also it is somewhat unusual for the pho-centric restaurant to be serving banh mi.

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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.

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Au Petit Cafe – Vancouver, BC


Au Petit Cafe
4851 Main Street
Vancouver, BC V5V 3R9
(604) 873-3328

The Vietnamese subs (Banh Mi) of my youth were all fairly consistent – crunchy, mouth sawing bread, nuoc cham, mystery meat, cilantro, pickled carrots, onion, cucumber, and hot peppers. And they were cheap. Dirt cheap.

Phase 2 came about with the Americanization of the Banh Mi – Sate Beef and Chicken, Curry Chicken, things like this. The extra sauce made the bread a little soggy, but made it less painful to put down. I liked the new flavors, but the original sub was still  my favorite.

Then a trip to Vietnam redefined what a great Banh Mi could be. Great fresh bread, wonderfully flavoured house made meat, different sauces, pate, butter(!!), fresh veg. These deli sandwiches were so much better than what you could get on the street, which were, in turn, so much better than the Banh Mi of my youth.

Enter Au Petit Cafe – Vancouver’s best known Vietnamese Sub restaurant. Already extensively covered by other bloggers (like our friend’s at Chow Times, Vancouver Slop, and Sherman’s Food Adventures), I will try not to duplicate everything they’ve said. But as they’ve pointed out, the location is in a tiny space on Main.

They have some fairly sparse seating for inside – so most people get their Vietnamese subs to go. If there’s space, the owners always encourage you to stay. I suggest calling ahead – they are often sold out (they run out of bread).

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Tung Hing – Vancouver, BC


Tung Hing Bakery
1196 Kingsway
Vancouver, BC V5V 3C8
(604) 875-3394

Tung Hing Bakery on Urbanspoon

I had mentioned in an earlier post that Banh Mi provides (for me) the best value in a lunch time meal. Where else can you get a filling, fresh and healthy lunch for under $3? It makes a great “recession” meal. Look at this monster below…a full 12 inches worth of goodness….all for a paltry $2.75.

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Tung Hing is located on an unassuming stripmall on Kingsway that is occupied by an insurance company and yet another Banh Mi joint and bakery. This downtrodden part of Kingsway is strewn with Vietnamese businesses of all kinds. There may be over a dozen Pho joints within a stone’s throw of each other. There are also quite a number of Ca Phe (Vietnamese coffee houses) and Delis that also serve these sandwiches. None of these places have offerings that can compare to Tung Hing’s.
outside_tung_hing_1

Upon entering the bakery, you are greeted with an golden array of Chinese-style pastries in a glass display case. These pastries lead me to believe that the operators are Vietnamese of Chinese descent. The pastries they sell there are also very good and very fresh. You can get all the favourites here (coconut or cocktail bun, custard bun, egg tarts, and so forth).
pastry_tung_hing_1

I can smell the aroma of freshly baking bread…a indication that a fresh batch has just come out of the oven. This busy bakery seems to supply Vietnamese baguettes to other Banh Mi joints in the surrounding area…I have seen deliveries of bags and boxes full of this stuff going out the door on occasion. You can see the baker manning the small deck ovens in the back of the store in the picture below.
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The sandwich bar is on the right side of the store. I like this arrangement  –  the bar  is visible behind a glass divider and in front of the ovens. This gives me the opportunity to watch the Banh Mi as they are made from start to finish – the bread leaves the oven, it goes on cooling rack, it is deftly slit open and filled.
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Today, I was promptly greeted by the friendly sandwich ladies. I most often order the the Dac Biet (“Special”)…in this case a sandwich with Cha Lua (Vietnamese white “ham”) , Char Siu (Chinese-style BBQ Pork unusually sliced lengthwise and is much more tender and moist than the Chinese rendition), and liver pate. Fresh-tasting daikon and carrot pickle, cucumber, some onions, herbs, pepper, and finally a dash of soya or the soya-like Maggi seasoning to round it out. The sandwich is then traditionally wrapped in wax paper and strapped with a small elastic band.

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A good Banh Mi like this has achieved a balance…a perfect equilateral triangle really: the Bread (a light and airy crumb and crispy crust); the Meats – (not too much since we aren’t trying to make a Reuben here); and the Vegetables (a good daikon and carrot pickle, some crisp cucumbers and so forth). Since Tung Hing makes their own bread (an excellent rendition of a “French” baguette), you are almost guaranteed freshness in this department. The bread is often still warm from the oven when you get it.

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One thing Tung Hing has over the other Banh Mi joints in the area: I have never seen them run out of Banh Mi as often happens at other purveyors (this  actually means they have run out of baguettes).

I dare not say that this is the “best” Banh Mi in town since food is such a subjective topic. I can safely say it is my favourite Banh Mi joint. It certainly rivals the favourites such as Au Petit Cafe on Main St. It’s worth heading eastward on Kingsway just for this.

Tung Hing Bakery on Urbanspoon

Ba Le – Vancouver, BC


Ba Le French Sandwiches
701 Kingsway
Vancouver, BC V5T 3K6
(604) 875-6322

Ba Le French Sandwiches on Urbanspoon

inside_ba_le1

I have not yet found a lunch meal with a bigger bang for the buck than a Vietnamese sandwich. Bahn Mi, for me, is the ultimate in fast foods. You can walk in to a Bahn Mi joint and walk out within a couple of minutes with a fresh, (relatively) healthy and incredibly satisfying meal..all for less than $3 CAD.

outside_ba_le

I have two “go-to” Bahn Mi joints in Vancouver: Tung Hing on Kingsway (which is my favorite, if you must know – I will post on Tung Hing soon)  and the subject of this posting – Ba Le – also on Kingsway….right at “The Triangle” formed by the intersection with Fraser St.

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I judge Bahn Mi joints by the quality and freshness of their bread. Tung Hing, for example, bakes their bread on premises…and you can get a sandwich prepared with beautifully crusty bread pulled out of the oven just a couple of minutes prior.

Though Ba Le does not have a bakery on-site – their bread is still quite fresh (the crispy crust explodes with crumbs and the interior crumb is soft and fluffy.)

bread_ba_le

What they lack in baking facilities, they more than make up for in their filling: Ba Le makes their own charcuterie. Their specialty is their Vietnamese “bacon” – the rolled pork belly you see below. They have other fillings as well Cha Lua (the ubiquitous Vietnamese “ham” or “spam”, Char Siu Chinese BBQ pork, Liver paste and a number of others. Their pickled carrot and daikon (which is traditionally part of Bahn Mi) is very fresh tasting.

bacon_ba_le

Kingsway (which has quickly become Vancouver’s “Little Saigon” ) is dotted with very good budget Vietnamese restaurants and there are a quite a number of worthy destinations on this street. Ba Le is certainly worth the stop if you just happen to be in the area.

Ba Le French Sandwiches on Urbanspoon