Debating the proper pronunciation of the Vietnamese soup known as phō has occupied great gouts of American bandwidth. The increasing popularity of Vietnamese bánh mi sandwiches will surely consume even more.
Does the "mi" rhyme with "tee" or "thai"? Should one pause briefly between the "B" and the "anh"? The answers depend on how much you want to piss off your dining companions, who want you to shut up already and eat.
The ingredients are no picnic to pin down either. Generally the sandwich consists of a pork pâté, pickled carrots and daikon, cucumbers, cilantro and sliced chiles on a crusty baguette smeared with mayonnaise or butter. Gut Check, who once went on such a massive bánh mi bender that it became necessary to learn to prepare them at home, likes to squirt on some fish sauce, then wake up in the middle of the night parched, craving water (and more bánh mi).
The sandwiches have grown in global popularity -- to the point where they now have their own Facebook page, which has clocked more than 10,000 fans to date. And now, finally, the Oxford English Dictionary, arbiter of all that is true and right in written English, has added "banh mi" (without the accent over the a) to its latest online edition. At least the spelling is now official (aside from that pesky accent).
Banh Mi So #1 - Saigon Gourmet (4071 South Grand Boulevard; 314-353-0545) Bánh mi is their name, for crying out loud. This South Grand spot, owned by husband and wife Thomas and Lynne Truong, is one of St. Louis' most popular Vietnamese restaurants.
Phuc Loi (3723 Gravois Avenue; 314-772-7742) RFT restaurant critic and bánh mi aficionado Ian Froeb waxed lovingly about Phuc Loi's bánh mi dac biet in his inaugural 100 Favorite St. Louis Dishes countdown, writing that "you get thin slices of ham and head cheese, sizable chunks of grilled pork and, what puts it over the top, a whole fried egg. The luscious yolk gives the sandwich an extra hit of savoriness that's the perfect counter to handfuls of brightly flavored cilantro and fiery raw jalapeños. Priced at $3.50, the bánh mi dac biet rivals taqueria tacos as one of the best values in town."
Truc Lam (3737 Gravois Avenue; 314-776-1299) Just across Spring Street from Phuc Loi; another worthy south St. Louis stalwart.
Mai Lee (8396 Musick Memorial Dr., Brentwood; 314-993-3754) The area's first Vietnamese restaurant and still one of its most popular, Mai Lee moved not too long ago from Delmar and I-170 to Brentwood, where it sits quietly in the shadow of the Eager Road Best Buy/Sports Authority industrial complex. You might not go to this new, gussied-up Mai Lee merely to satisfy a bánh mi jones, but if you do, they've got your back.
Oh, and with this latest round of OED additions, you can now officially state "OMG! I ♥ banh mi!!!!"
(Smiley emoticons still don't make the cut.)
If your go-to bánh mi joint isn't on this list, by all means add it to the comments thread.