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Posted on Thu, Jul 26, 2012 : 10:30 a.m.

Banh mi, the Vietnamese sandwich that took New York by storm, arrives in Ann Arbor

By Jessica Webster


The banh mi at The Lunch Room is prepared with tasty tofu and a tangy garlic mayonnaise.

Melanie Maxwell |

I’ve fallen in love with a sandwich. It started with a photograph, something I saw on one of those food porn sites I surf. I walked around showing the photo to my friends and coworkers.

“Where can I get one of these? I must have this sandwich!”

It was a banh mi — a Vietnamese sandwich, prepared on a crusty baguette and filled with a delicious mix of crunchy pickled vegetables, meats or tofu, cucumber and jalapeno slices and cilantro. It’s fresh, a little spicy and delicious. It's one of the most popular sandwiches in New York, but there wasn't one to be had anywhere near here.

And then, suddenly, there was a banh mi revolution.

The Lunch Room, a food cart in the Mark’s Carts courtyard (211 W. Washington) operated by Phillis Engelbert and Joel Panozzo, fired the first shot. The idea was Panozzo’s — he had tasted his first banh mi on a youthful backpacking trip through France.

“I said to myself: ‘What is this sandwich?’ I’ve been trying to replicate it ever since,” remembered Panozzo.

Panozzo and Engelbert spent the cart's off-season perfecting the recipe and debuted it once summer hit.

“Banh mi feels like a summer sandwich,” said Engelbert. “So we waited for the perfect weather to roll it out, once it was too hot for chili and some of our cooler-weather menu items.”

The Lunch Room’s banh mi is a delight. Tofu is marinated in a sesame ginger garlic marinade and roasted to a surprisingly (for this tofu-skeptic) palatable texture, and then layered on a Zingerman’s baguette with veggies and a tangy garlic vegan mayonnaise.

Shortly after The Lunch Room launched their sandwich, tofu banh mi sandwiches started popping up all over town. Seva was serving a seitan (a wheat-based meat substitute) version for a few weeks. Blue Tractor (207 East Washington) has a sandwich advertised as a smoked tofu hoagie — kind of a mustard barbecue version of the banh mi. And Sava's (216 South State) recently added one too.

“We were looking for a new vegetarian menu item,” said Sava's bar manager, Chene Pena. “I’m from Chicago, in a neighborhood with a lot of Vietnamese immigrants, and I’ve always loved the sandwich.”

Pena says the sandwich has done well since they started serving it.

“It’s quite popular with both vegetarians and carnivores.”


The chicken banh mi from San Street.

Melanie Maxwell |

Tofu banh mi is only one of several options available at San Street, a food cart at Mark’s Carts (211 W. Washington). With a specialty in Asian street food and a brisk business in steamed buns already going strong, adding a Vietnamese classic seemed like a no-brainer to San Street cofounder Ji Hye Kim.

“I actually always wanted to have banh mi on the menu,” explained Kim. “And the response has been very positive.”

The banh mi are offered with the same rotating selection of fillings as San Street’s steamed buns, including Berkshire pork belly, tofu, mushrooms, beef brisket and marinated chicken. All of the sandwiches are topped with quick-pickled (from scratch) vegetables and fresh, locally sourced herbs.

“For me, a banh mi is all about crunch and texture,” said Kim.

Diversifying the menu has had an unexpected added bonus for Kim.

“The steamed buns are all made from scratch, and making all those buns every day was kind of killing my back. It’s good to have some relief.”

Ypsi is rocking the banh mi these days too. Bona Sera, a former “underground supper club” that has now opened a delicious public restaurant at 200 W. Michigan Ave. in Ypsilanti, recently launched their menu with a selection of five banh mi sandwiches.

“We mess ours up a bit,” says cofounder Annette “Bad Fairy” Weathers. “We get a little fusiony.”

When putting together their menu, Weathers says that she and her cofounder (who is known only by her moniker: “Wonder Woman”) noticed that there weren’t any banh mi available in Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti. So they set out to rectify the situation.

“We put a twist on it, though,” says Weathers. “Ours aren’t served on a French crusty loaf. Instead, we have a kind of sweet steamed white bun specifically made for our sandwiches.”

A lot of thought went into building each of the banh mi choices on the menu. The porchetta banh mi is topped with an apple fennel slaw and cilantro fennel vinaigrette. The cheese banh mi has tomato and sriracha mayonnaise. Banh mi are also available with tofu, tom yum shrimp or chicken.

With all these choices springing up in just the past month, I no longer have to pine for the unattainable banh mi. In fact, you might say I’ve developed something akin to an addiction. But if loving banh mi is wrong, I don’t want to be right.


Jessica Webster leads the Food & Grocery section for You can reach her at


Dug Song

Fri, Jul 27, 2012 : 2:56 a.m.

For decades, Warren / Madison Heights, Windsor and Toronto, Chicago were the places to go (if you didn't make them yourself - and usually with the wrong bread). It's weird that even places like China Gate have ph?, but banh mi has been so scarce (then again, it only took a few decades of Korean restaurants here to get Korean fried chicken... awaiting Korean tacos)! The Vietnamese baguettes in any dedicated bánh mì shop uses rice flour for a much crispier and lighter bread, without crumbs. It's not the same, without the right bread. I wish someone would open a Lee's Sandwiches franchise here instead of all these Subways!


Fri, Jul 27, 2012 : 1:44 a.m.

I think this article perfectly delineates our great divide here in I wouldn't be caught dead eating anything like this...while others wouldn't be caught dead having lunch with me at Arby's... Its the perfect Ann Arbor microcosm all revealed in one article about a "sandwich"...

Russell Rein

Thu, Jul 26, 2012 : 11:36 p.m.

I like the traditional bahn mi with pate, roast pork and ham. The roast pork one at Que Hong in Madison Heights is pretty good. You can also get bahn me and pho in Toledo at this combo Vietnamese - soul food restaurant - Pho Viet Nam:


Thu, Jul 26, 2012 : 7:42 p.m.

Bona Sera in Downtown Ypsilanti folks. I just had their chicken banh mi plus an apple, fennel salad for lunch/dinner yesterday. Great menu, great folks, and food that doesn't disappoint.


Thu, Jul 26, 2012 : 7:25 p.m.

While I'm happy to hear that the banh mi sandwich is becoming more popular in the area, I wish the writer of this article did a bit more research before writing about it. This is definitely not a sandwich only popular in NYC. It's popular in any US city that has any sort of asian population. Coming from a Vietnamese ethnically-Chinese family, I grew up eating $2 banh mi sandwiches in LA. This is, by far, a new phenomenon. The sandwich has been here forever! To be honest, I am very pessimistic that a banh mi sandwich in Ann Arbor tastes anything like the real ones. My guess is that one of the most distinct ingredients of a banh mi -- pâté, won't be found in any sandwiches here! Especially not at the Lunch Room. Haha. Regardless, for banh mi virgins, perhaps a mild AA version will be a good way to prepare them for the real stuff elsewhere ;)


Thu, Jul 26, 2012 : 11:40 p.m.

Thank you sl1361 for correctly pointing out that a proper banh mi is made with baguette and pate. YUM!

Jessica Webster

Thu, Jul 26, 2012 : 8:07 p.m.

I love how passionate everyone is about their banh mi! I definitely did not intend to imply that it's only popular in NY; just that over the past 3-4 years it has become ubiquitous there. In a city where delis rule supreme, I found it remarkable that the banh mi was becoming one of the most popular sandwiches.


Thu, Jul 26, 2012 : 7:09 p.m.

Try venturing into metro Detroit - Troy, specifically - to a legit Vietnamese grocery store. They sell the authentic version, complete with pate and headcheese (yeah, not vegan/vegetarian). And I'm pretty sure it's not more than 2 dollars. In Vietnam, they have endless rows of banh mi street vendors making these sandwiches with a soft hoagie-type of bread, very unlike any American-French baguette. Additionally, this may be off-topic, but I noticed a lot of restaurants in town spelling it "bahn mi." Even if for phonetic reasons, it's still just plain wrong. And kind of bastardizes the Vietnamese language. IMO. - your local Vietnamese-American snob


Thu, Jul 26, 2012 : 7:02 p.m.

" It's one of the most popular sandwiches in New York, but there wasn't one to be had anywhere near here." I guess that depends on how you define anywhere near here. You can get a really good banh mi sandwich in Madison Heights. This restaurant isn't much in the way of decor, but they have really good food at cheap prices.

Jessica Webster

Thu, Jul 26, 2012 : 8:03 p.m.

I should have stuck with my original wording: "...but there wasn't one to be had within 40 miles of Ann Arbor." Clunkier, but more accurate. Thanks for keeping me on my toes!

Ryan J. Stanton

Thu, Jul 26, 2012 : 5:50 p.m.

I can vouch for the banh mi at The Lunch Room. It's absolutely delicious.

Atticus F.

Thu, Jul 26, 2012 : 4:48 p.m.

Headline: Tourist Food Makes it to Ann Arbor!

Jessica Webster

Thu, Jul 26, 2012 : 8:08 p.m.

Mmmmm...delicious tourist food!


Thu, Jul 26, 2012 : 4:38 p.m.

We learned to make these from a Korean friend. We love them!


Thu, Jul 26, 2012 : 4:26 p.m.

Zanzibar had a fabulous--if I may say so--banh mi sandwich on its lunch menu for a few years. It predated the current trend by several years, so to get people to order the sandwich despite an unrecognizable name, it wasn't called banh mi, but it was the real deal. Revive has had a simplified cold version on its menu since it opened.


Thu, Jul 26, 2012 : 8:55 p.m.

Randomly, I miss Zanzibar soo much!

Jessica Webster

Thu, Jul 26, 2012 : 8:09 p.m.

Thanks for the info, mlc! I will have to try out the banh mi at Revive.


Thu, Jul 26, 2012 : 3:22 p.m.

So in Ann Arbror we get the Portlandia Colin the chicken version! actually Bahn Mi is so easy to make. you make a shredded carrot & daikon salad - I use soy sauce, fish sauce, vinegar salt & sugar. add a baguette (a tip-Jimmy Johns sells day old bread for only .50), mayo, cilantro, jalepeno pepper & choice of protein & sriracha - you have a cheap delicious masterpiece! I believe Revive on East U has a chicken sub on the menu that is really a Bahn Mi & they've been selling them for a few years.


Thu, Jul 26, 2012 : 3:15 p.m.

Sava's has had a Banh Mi sandwich before, fwiw.

Jessica Webster

Thu, Jul 26, 2012 : 8:02 p.m.

Thanks for the info! When I spoke to the bar manager, it sounded like a new item.

Chrysta Cherrie

Thu, Jul 26, 2012 : 2:34 p.m.

Banh mi is probably my desert island food item, so to finally have them in town (previously the closest I knew of them was in Madison Heights) and in so many interpretations is a huge treat. Thank you for this roundup that gives some detail about the various local versions! Millermaple, you're definitely right about the price difference, but my guess is the spots in other cities use more basic ingredients and sell a lot more sandwiches.


Thu, Jul 26, 2012 : 1:25 p.m.

But we don't get the NYC or SF, Seattle, or Orange County, CA price of $1.00- $2.00 dollars a sandwich!


Thu, Jul 26, 2012 : 6:14 p.m.

Yep - and tastes much better!